What Would Marella Agnelli Do?

·4 min read
Photo credit: Getty/Max Mara/Michael Stillwell
Photo credit: Getty/Max Mara/Michael Stillwell

"The true beauty is made, not born,” Richard Avedon once wrote in T&C to accompany a portfolio of his portraits of international high society’s singular swans. “The really beautiful woman suggests something we had not imagined before—in a glance or the turn of her head.” Among those the legendary photographer deemed worthy of such a description were Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness (and her daughter Dolores), Gloria Vanderbilt, and Jacqueline de Ribes, indomitable still at 92. Then there was Marella Agnelli, whom Avedon described as “the prototype of a thousand years of Italian beauty. Born a Caracciolo, she evokes the Renaissance by a look.”

Photo credit: Richard Avedon
Photo credit: Richard Avedon

More than half a century later, the same can be said for Agnelli’s granddaughter, the 42-year-old Ginevra Elkann, a filmmaker and producer whose poise and Botticelli curls may place her in a long line of patrician Florentines but whose flair for eccentricity makes her a punk principessa all her own.

“She’s really the first person who pushed me to work hard and be independent,” says Elkann, paying tribute to her grandmother.

Despite being a descendant of one of the most stylish women in modern history (Marella died in 2019 at the age of 91), it wasn’t until this year that Elkann’s two worlds, cinema and fashion, finally came together, when the venerable Italian label Max Mara came to her to bring to life its Resort 2022 collection of sumptuous cashmere and silk caftans.

Photo credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto - Getty Images
Photo credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto - Getty Images

“I was petrified,” Elkann tells me. But really, there was no one else for the job. Set against the terra-cotta façade of the new Mezzatorre Hotel in Ischia, the lineup by Max Mara creative director Ian Griffiths is an ode to Truman Capote, who, long before In Cold Blood turned him into the toast of Manhattan society and the confidant of the swans, had sought refuge, and a quiet place to write, on this idyllic volcanic island off the coast of Naples.

Photo credit: Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos
Photo credit: Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos

Elkann, who hadn’t been to Ischia since 1998, when she was a video assistant on the set of The Talented Mr. Ripley, channeled memories of her grandmother for the commission, digging up old family pictures, and the newly au courant work of Slim Aarons, who better than anyone chronicled the jetset scene favored by the Agnellis. Then Elkann took a leap of imagination: What would Marella do if she were a young woman today? It’s not just a rhetorical exercise for the filmmaker; her daughter, now 7, is named after her grandmother.

Photo credit: Max Mara
Photo credit: Max Mara

“The swans were something of the ’50s—they were beautiful, elegant, led fabulous lives, and did a lot of entertaining. But the world has changed,” Elkann says. “That woman today would be working, she would take care of her family, be much more hands-on. And she is going on holiday with her girlfriends. That’s luxury.”

In 2014, when T&C last featured Elkann on its cover, the scion of the formidable dynasty behind Fiat—one that has often been described as an Italian version of the Kennedys, with its own fair share of glamour, scandal, and tragedy—was juggling a budding film career, including stints working for the late cinematic maestro Bernardo Bertolucci and producing acclaimed features. She was also the president of the family art museum, the Pinacoteca Agnelli, in Turin, and raising three children with husband Giovanni Gaetani dell’Aquila d’Aragona. In 2019, Elkann’s résumé expanded again when she marked her debut as a writer-director with Magari (If Only), a comedic tale of family dysfunction loosely based on her own upbringing.

Photo credit: Max Vadukul
Photo credit: Max Vadukul

The delicate balance of it all was one of the enduring lessons handed down by her grandmother, in the inimitable way she mastered the harmony between splendor and comfort (see: her well-documented love of wicker).

Elkann faithfully adheres to Marella’s example in matters of fashion, interior design, and gardens, which she perfected at her homes Villar Perosa and Villa Frescot. But she has also forged her own independent path, taking risks on passion projects in independent film and even on the red carpet. Once, at the Met Gala, she topped off her Valentino couture with a mischievous streak of blue-dyed hair.

“The most important thing, for me, is to just dress in a way that makes you feel good about yourself, that represents you, that gives you a sense of freedom,” she says. “That’s what counts—doing it for yourself. And not in a vulgar way, but I love when people just go for it.”

This story appears in the November 2021 issue of Town & Country.
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