February 13, 1978 12:00 PM

Guccis, watch out. Here come the Fendis, all five of them. With innovations and showmanship, the miracle sisters from Italy—Paola, Anna, Franca, Carla and Alda—have turned the international fur and luggage market upside down.

The small family shop that mother Adele and Uncle Alessandro started on the Via del Plebiscito in Rome in 1918 has grown into a $5 million-a-year global business, with chic outposts in stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman-Marcus and I. Magnin.

“A Gucci handbag took up half your suitcase when you traveled,” explains Anna. “We felt women were ready for something different, more practical.” The Fendis’ answer was soft, packable and virtually hardware-free.

With furs, too, they changed the rules and for 15 years have worked closely with Paris’ high-style designer Karl Lagerfeld. Furs should be lightweight and casual, the sisters decreed; they could be dyed unusual colors and did not need linings. The Fendis also raised backyard pelts like ferret, weasel, squirrel and the slightly loftier civet cat to startling elegance—for as little as $2,000. “The day of the big, expensive fur coat had passed,” explains Carla. “Like women’s hats, they were becoming extinct.”

Today Fendi clients include Jackie Onassis (white Mongolian lamb), Bar-bra Streisand (squirrel), Diana Ross (civet cat) and the Empress of Iran, who bought a $15,000 mink topped with a $75,000 lynx slipcover. (Empresses don’t yet understand that the day of the big, expensive fur coat has passed.) Sister Carla adds proudly, “When Countess Consuelo Crespi wore our trenchcoat with beaver vest in New York, three different people stopped her on the street to ask if she was wearing a Fendi coat.”

One reason for the Fendi success is intense teamwork. “We are very united, very close,” say the sisters. “None of us could have done it alone. Mama had members of her family who destroyed entire businesses through jealousy. She raised us so we always had to defend each other. If a smaller sister broke something, she punished us all, saying, ‘You bigger girls should have stopped her. You are responsible.’ This is what has unified us.”

The five Fendis, all married and with 11 children among them, have divided their empire into five parts. Paola, 46, the chief furrier, buys pelts at European auctions. “Paola,” says Fendi associate Count Rudi Crespi, “is the backbone—the inventor and the launcher.”

Anna, 44, widowed last year and whose daughter Maria Teresa worked for 10 months at Bergdorf’s Fendi boutique, designs the accessories, clothes, bags and luggage. Franca, 42, runs the large Fendi leather goods shop in the most fashionable shopping district of Rome. “She had the best sense of humor of all of us,” say her sisters. “But then life changed her.” Franca snaps back: “Four kids are enough to change anyone!”

Crew-cut Carla, 40, whose father, anxious for a son (“Carlo”), dressed her like a boy when she was young, is overall supervisor and troubleshooter. “Sometimes,” she admits, “I have a hard time being tough.” The youngest and prettiest Fendi, Alda, 37, works in the fur salon. It’s Alda who coaxes self-important clients away from mink and into unlined mole and weasel.

The sisters agree they have had problems in male-chauvinistic Italy. But sisterhood is power. “Definitely, if we had been men it would have been easier,” they say. “But we were five. And we had Mama behind us. So we just wore them down.”

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