Like a princess in a fairy tale, Laura Biagiotti lives in a castle. Hers happens to be a 14th-century pile on the outskirts of Rome. But the chatelaine of the Castle Marco Simone isn’t a lady of leisure. She is one of Italy’s foremost designers, a professional who is known throughout the fashion world as the queen of cashmere.
It’s a title she deserves. Biagiotti’s elegant cashmeres and signature white-linen frocks have drawn widespread praise. “Her cashmere sweaters are the most luxurious in the world,” says veteran fashion writer Bernadine Morris. “I’d rather have them than jewels.” Those sentiments are endorsed by some of the world’s most glamorous personalities. Sophia Loren favors Laura’s oversize off-white pullover. Joan Collins has been sighted on Dynasty in a Biagiotti sweater with a three-tier turtleneck collar. While carrying the future Prince William, Di sported one of Biagiotti’s cashmere maternity dresses. Diana Vreeland, Grace Jones and Claudia Cardinale are all fans. And Pope John Paul II relaxes in his Vatican apartments in Laura’s snow-white cardigan.
Biagiotti, 40, has almost single-handedly woven glamour into the once stodgy cashmere market. Until she came along and made it chic, cashmere had been relegated largely to the fashion limbo of men’s coats and women’s sweater sets. But no longer. Every year Laura’s factory near Pisa uses some 45,000 pounds of the finest Chinese cashmere. (The soft wool fiber comes from the undercoat of a rare Himalayan goat.) “It’s such a noble fabric,” declares Biagiotti. “Once you have worn it, it becomes a vice. You cannot possibly tolerate anything else next to your skin.”
If you can afford it, that is. Laura’s dresses and sweaters range from $400 to $700. Biagiotti expects to gross $10 million this year, 15 percent of which will come from 40 outlets in the U.S., including a classy new boutique in Manhattan’s Trump Tower.
Biagiotti did not set out to be a designer. In 1960 she was studying archaeology at the University of Rome. Her mother, Delia, who ran a dressmaking business, fell ill and asked her daughter to help out. Biagiotti agreed. (She had only three exams left to complete her degree.) “I guess fashion was in my blood,” she says.
A dutiful daughter, Laura pursued a fashion career and during the ’60s produced ready-to-wear designs for several major Italian houses. But those clothes, she says, “were made only for rich, beautiful ladies. Since I was neither rich nor beautiful, I wanted to do something that I could also afford myself.” Together with her business partner, Gianni Cigna, a wealthy dentist, she founded Biagiotti Exports. Her first collection, a sailor-inspired line presented at Florence’s Pitti Palace in 1972, was an instant hit. Two years later she and Cigna bought the cashmere factory near Pisa.
The most important step in the building of the Biagiotti empire came four years ago when Laura, who still yearned to be an archaeologist, decided to buy the castle. Put up for sale by a destitute prince, the 10-acre property was littered with abandoned cars and the buildings were collapsing. Biagiotti quickly rolled up her sleeves and conducted an archaeological dig on the grounds, unearthing pieces of Roman columns and sarcophagi. She and Cigna, whose partnership is personal as well as professional, also uncovered 14th-and 15th-century frescoes behind the whitewashed walls.
The restoration of the 67-room mansion has cost nearly $1 million to date. The showroom is in the old stables, the offices are over the former chapel and a modern factory building is just down the hill.
These days the designer, who cannot draw, cut or sew, is spending more and more time on trips to the U.S. and Japan, promoting her clothes and a perfume bearing her name that she launched last spring. The bottle is a replica of the castle, complete with four small turrets. For her fragance ($75 a half-ounce), Biagiotti chose more than 50 white flowers. It is no coincidence that she dresses only in white. “White,” says Laura, “gives me strength.”
In addition to Biagiotti and her 5-year-old daughter, Lavinia, the Castle Marco Simone is home to Laura’s parents and friend Cigna, 46. He is the father of Lavinia, whom Laura once described as “my refuge.” Biagiotti had the child in defiance of doctors who advised against a pregnancy because of her weak heart. That was not the only risk Biagiotti took. She has chosen not to marry Cigna, at least not for now. “Sure, people criticize me because I did something that is unacceptable in society,” she says. “But everyone must make her choice. I am happy the way I am.”