A Woman’s Place, Fashion Designer Marta Ferri

In her new book, writer and photographer Robyn Lea takes us into the modern Milanese home of the Italian creative.

Article by Robyn Lea

Marta Ferri’s living room, with a deep-olive Paul sofa suite, designed by Vincent Van Deusen, and tangerine Gio Ponti armchairs. Photography by Robyn Lea.

Milan-based fashion designer Marta Ferri not only embodies modern Milanese style herself but offers her clients made-to-measure dresses, coats, pants and gowns that marry old-world style with a future-forward attitude.

Her creations are known for their unique patterns and colours, though her own childhood wardrobe was surprisingly devoid of both. Her mother, Barbara Frua De Angeli, a respected rug and interior designer who possesses the understated personal style typical of many Milanese women, enforced a preference for monochromatic or muted tones with few patterns.

When Ferri was four, a new annual rhythm was established where she would spend school terms with her mother in Milan and holiday periods with her father, Fabrizio Ferri, a globally renowned photographer who is also a composer, author, set designer and film director, either in New York or roaming the world. When she was with her father, different rules applied: “With him I was free to choose whatever I wanted to wear, so it was like a bomb of colour. I remember going to the mall and choosing brightly coloured towels and bathers, then travelling around the desert with him in a motor home where he was shooting on location, wearing bright colours and sunglasses and drinking Coca-Cola through a straw. I felt like I was in paradise.”

The designer’s office and desk. Photography by Robyn Lea.
Silverware design drawings hang in the games room at her home, not far from the atelier. Photography by Robyn Lea.

After finishing high school, Ferri worked in a Milanese fabric boutique for a year, before relocating to New York where she was offered a job at her father’s business, Industria, a full- service studio facility that attracted photographers such as Annie Leibovitz and Peter Lindbergh, and clients including Gucci and Louis Vuitton.

During her time in the United States, Ferri started dating her future husband, Carlo Borromeo, who was studying in San Francisco at the time. Despite their budding romance, however, Ferri applied for a job at Prada and at the age of 24 began travelling the world as part of its visual merchandising team.

After 18 months on the road, Ferri was ready to explore her long-held dream of working for herself. She planned to become a jewellery designer, and having had some wonderful experiences with Borromeo in Argentina, where his family had a home, they decided to start there, each quitting their jobs. However, it wasn’t to be. With the encouragement of her future mother-in-law, Paola Marzotto, Ferri had been designing her own clothes to wear at events and women had begun inquiring about her designs. Ferri convinced Borromeo they should stay in Milan after all, so she could establish her own fashion label.

In 2009, Ferri opened her first atelier in a small apartment space adjacent to the home she shared with Borromeo in Milan’s historic centre. After painting the interior like a circus tent in pink and grey stripes and installing furniture, including a sewing table, she was soon receiving clients by appointment. She began ordering sumptuous fabrics from around Europe and sourcing historic and vintage textiles that were no longer in production, and a specialist tailor was employed to sew each garment to her specifications.

Marta Ferri in the Palazzo Borromeo courtyard, wearing a dress of her own design. Photography by Robyn Lea.

Ferri brings an instinctive and decisive approach to her bespoke pieces. During the first client meeting, measurements are taken and requisite details are noted, including the format of the event and the client’s favourite colours. Ferri intuitively gleans other information, such as the client’s personal traits. Then she begins with the most vital ingredient — the fabric: “Once a client falls in love with a fabric, the design is born from that material.” Silhouettes are discussed, designs are drawn up and the first fitting takes place within days.

Ferri enjoys creating pieces for women of all shapes and ages, and urges them to forget about what other people think. She says, “While it is important to wear something appropriate for your age and for the event, in the end I encourage them to do whatever they feel like. I ask, ‘Do you feel comfortable in it? Do you feel beautiful in it?’ and if they answer yes, then that’s what is essential.”

Ferri followed the same “Do whatever makes you feel good” philosophy in decorating the three-storey home she shares with Borromeo and their two children. Located a short walk from her atelier, the heritage-listed house features a mix of contemporary and antique objects. Entering at street level, you are greeted by a leafy courtyard. Upstairs, the immense first-floor living room is bathed in natural light thanks to its corner location and large windows. Furnishings include heirloom pieces from her grandmother’s home in Liguria and twin wicker chaises longues from the Borromeo family’s Sardinian estate. Teak boards salvaged from a former school in India line the floor.

Ferri has had several important role models in her life, including her mother and mother-in-law, who both encouraged her early interest in fashion. The breadth of Ferri’s informal training, coupled with an instinct for design and innate personal style, have earned her the title of a world-class designer.

This is an edited excerpt from “A Room of Her Own: Inside the Homes and Lives of Creative Women” by Robyn Lea, (Thames & Hudson, $65; available now).