When Fendi Conquered the Great Wall of China

Few people knew at the time — not even Karl Lagerfeld and Silvia Venturini Fendi — but Fendi did not officially have permission to stage its fashion show on the Great Wall of China back in 2007.

“There is no procedure to do a show on the Great Wall. There is no single entity that controls the wall. We had to deal with 47 different entities and not a single one of them could approve anyone else’s,” Michael Burke, the-then chief executive officer at the Roman fashion house, revealed in an interview. “And you’d never get approvals. All you’d ever get is non-rejections.”

Thankfully, there were non-rejections right up to the moment when the models — 44 of them Chinese, 44 of Western origins — planted their heels on that 2,000-year-old stone wonder, creating some of the most astonishing runway footage of all time.

The audacious spectacle, which luxury titan Bernard Arnault trumpeted as “the first fashion show visible from the moon,” ignited the trend to event marketing and itinerant fashion shows, and was one of the earliest signals of China’s importance for luxury consumption. It positioned Fendi as a global brand, and made a powerful statement about cultural appreciation and exchange.

The sunset parade on a picturesque section of the Juyongguan Pass northwest of Beijing is also a potent reminder of the emotional charge of physical fashion events. To this day, Fendi clients in China still talk about that chilly October night, according to Venturini Fendi.

“Those kinds of experiences can really create bonds with the culture that hosts you,” she said. “I think it was really key to growing in that market.”

While Kate Bosworth eagerly snapped photos with her smartphone, the show took place years before Instagram. It was a made-for-TV event, with camera crews from all over the world, including from ABC, Rai 2, TF1 and “Good Morning America,” training their lenses on the wall — and the giant double-F logos projected on to neighboring mountains.

Video was the medium, and “if it were today, you would say it was a digital event,” Burke said. “It was all visual.”

Having a big fashion event recorded by a vast swath of the Western press gave the Chinese government something of a “dry run” ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games, “which was going to be the first moment where press could come unfettered into China and roam the streets without being shadowed every second,” Burke said. “It was a global media reach. I think it was probably the biggest media reach ever in the history of fashion. It’s the first time you had East and West.”

Mounting big fashion shows in China seems commonplace now, but not in 2007, when most European heritage brands were still operating small boutiques in luxury hotels, and China had yet to demonstrate its potential for luxury.

According to consultancy Bain & Co., Chinese consumers accounted for only 2 percent of global consumption of personal luxury goods in 2006, just ahead of the Fendi event. (Bain now projects that Chinese consumers will account for 50 percent of all luxury purchases by 2025.)

“China had not yet had its coming-out as an economic power,” Burke said in an interview in Paris ahead of a cocktail event for Louis Vuitton, where he has been ceo since 2012. “We wanted to do something when the city was still in its transformative state, when it’s like a moth turning into a butterfly. And the interesting time is the year before the Olympics.”

More than a publicity stunt to fan sales of fragrances or licensed goods, the Fendi event showcased an expanded spring-summer collection that would be produced in Italy and sold in China, including Baguettes with dangling silk tassels, lacquer-red dresses, and other clothes based on a circle motif that is a Chinese symbol of happiness. The 88 models negotiated a sloping runway 88 meters long — the esteemed number eight connoting prosperity in China.

Fendi conscripted the same Japanese production firm that had organized the house’s event at Tokyo’s National Stadium the year prior. According to Burke, that firm had “underground connections” to the right Chinese officials and billed the Great Wall show as a cultural moment.

“It was positioned as the two great civilizations of antiquity, China and Rome, reconnecting,” Burke said. “We said, ‘We’re gonna re-create the Silk Road by turning the wall, which has no more military function, into a road that leads to exchange between Europe and Asia.’ They loved the idea. For them it had cultural and historic relevance.”

According to Burke, prior to the Great Wall show, Lagerfeld had a fraught relationship with China, having once been denied access to visit.

And when he and Silvia Fendi initially heard of Burke’s ambitions for the China showing, they laughed at him — repeatedly. “‘There he goes again with this crazy idea,’” Burke said, imitating their incredulity. “They never believed I was going to pull it off, never.”

In fact, Burke disclosed that the event, originally scheduled for May 20, 2007, during what would become the month for itinerant resort shows, had to be postponed due to the high probability of sandstorms.

“They told us, ‘You know, there’s a 90 percent chance of having a sandstorm on May 20,’” he said. “And May the 20th came around and sure enough, there was an amazing sandstorm. Thankfully, we had pulled out two months prior.”

Despite Lagerfeld’s initial reticence, he flew to Beijing about 10 days before the show to finalize the casting and styling — and to take photographs. “He loved the architecture and went to all the Olympic job sites since all the best architects in the world were having buildings erected,” Burke said, referring to the likes of the Water Cube and the bird’s nest-like stadium by Herzog & de Meuron. “He also went to clubs, and got to know the real China.”

“Imagine that it was the first time for Karl and me to go to China. We were very excited about discovering a new country, a new culture,” Venturini Fendi recalled. “After we met China, we came back richer.”

In fact, one morning, Lagerfeld proposed they meet in the lobby of the hotel at 5 a.m. to go on an excursion. “I think you know Karl was always late. I thought, ‘He will arrive at 8.’ So I took my time and I got downstairs around 6:30 and he was already there waiting. I think it was the first time he arrived before the others because he was so excited.”

But she confirmed that she and Lagerfeld were enormously skeptical that the Great Wall show would ever come to pass.

“We never believed for a moment it would happen,” she said. “China was not as open then as it is today…Until the day we took the plane, we were in doubt. Michael took a big risk.”

According to Burke, the event is a potent reminder of the need to dare — and it was a big risk for Fendi, then still a relatively small player and precarious financially.

“What it really required was the ability to take an incommensurate amount of risk up until the last minute because the show could have been pulled,” Burke said. “You can’t just be petrified by short-term obstacles, even if they seem insurmountable. You have to believe that things will be better tomorrow.”

According to Burke, it isn’t rock-solid companies that should entertain such gambles.

“Most people believe that things have to go well before they can start considering doing these once-in-a-lifetime events, whereas it’s the opposite,” he said. “It’s when you’re in the trenches and things are exploding around you that’s when you come up with daring ideas.”

In fact, the Roman fashion house can also thank Sam’s Club, a division of Walmart, which paid it a confidential amount to settle a dispute over counterfeit handbags and leather goods, thereby helping to fund the lavish show. Fendi had charged the retailer with selling “significant quantities” of counterfeit items valued “in the millions of dollars.”

Venturini Fendi said Burke’s achievement reminded her of a Fendi family motto — “nothing is impossible” — cited often in the fur ateliers.

“The idea of doing something challenging was always in the DNA of Fendi,” she said, mentioning a 1999 fashion show at the Bolshoi in Moscow at the invitation of the Italian government and the Italian-Russian Chamber of Commerce, and a film in lieu of a runway show as far back as 1977.

In her estimation, the Beijing show is a reminder to never “take the easy way out,” Venturini Fendi said. “The idea of having a dream is still what drives our daily life. Dreams can help people to achieve something, and to fight for it.”

In Venturini Fendi’s view, the Great Wall was a symbol of division and isolation that Fendi transformed into a “celebration of unity, the encounter of different cultures. It was really about friendship, solidarity.

“I think those kind of shows express a lot about the openness you have towards things,” she continued. “Giving emotion is something that is and will be valued more than ever.”

On the night of the show, Lagerfeld crystallized the moment in a few snappy phrases. “Fashion is a kind of show business, too,” he said. “We live in a global word. Fashion isn’t local.”

At the time of the Beijing show, China ranked only third among Asian markets for Fendi, after Hong Kong and South Korea.

“For the great majority of the press that came, it was their first trip. It really opened a lot of eyes on China, and people started understanding China, and seeing the potential,” Burke said. “So what we’re witnessing today is just the normalization of China’s position in the world. And that was not clear at all to anybody before the show. I think after the show, people got it — that China’s gonna be back. That it’s going to occupy its rightful position, and we got that at LVMH. Fendi to this day is benefiting from it. Vuitton was one of the first companies to believe in that. And you know, we’re seeing the benefits of it today. The strength of Vuitton today has a lot to do with visualizing China in that way.”

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