Laura Lusuardi, the Queen of Coats, reigns not from a big, bustling city kingdom, but from a humble slice of Italian countryside with low-key green hills and no fashion avenues. Here in Reggio-Emilia, the local population is hard-working, modest and obsessed with churning out three things in a wizardly, impeccable way: balsamic vinegar that is as thick as honey, wagon-wheel-sized hunks of award-winning parmesan cheese, and the most plush camel-hair coats you’ve ever laid your hands on.
As Fashion Director of Max Mara, the legendary outerwear company founded in 1951, Lusuardi commands the coat corner of town. She has worked in the company for a record 51 years, starting at age 18 as a small-fry coffee fetcher, fresh out of high school.
“I was a baby,” Lusuardi recalls with a gentle laugh. “I didn’t know anything.”
But she had the talent and the smarts to woo Max Mara’s roster of international and famous designers (from Karl Lagerfeld and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac to Anne Marie Beretta and Narciso Rodriguez) many of whom still get called in for consultancies. She quickly became the top dog of the entire group, and now oversees not just Max Mara but also the sister labels Sportmax, Marella, Marina Rinaldi, IBlues, Max Mara Weekend, Max & Co, Persona and Pennyblack.
But Lusuardi rules her roost in a way that is as understated as Max Mara’s clothes. Though the brand is a key player during Milan fashion week, it is not a label that screams from the top of the nutty fashion Ferris wheel. The company, quietly owned by the Maramotti family, keeps its nose down in the business at hand: creating high quality, real clothes for real women, a full wardrobe of timeless pieces in addition to the gigantic selection of its famous, coveted coats. “We always thought about a woman, not a runway,” Lusuardi says.
Soft spoken, always dressed in a uniform of black or navy blue, Lusuardi may cruise under the radar but she is actually a wild frequent flier. She spends several months a year zipping around the globe on research trips, visiting contemporary art galleries and pillaging vintage stores and markets from New York to Northern Europe to Asia. Many things end up in Max Mara’s enormous, well-organized archive, a former hosiery factory that now boasts 20,000 pieces of company clothing, 600 boxes of fabric samples and 8,000 pieces of vintage clothing. “I’ve bought most of it on my travels throughout the world,” she remarks of the richly stocked archive.
The rest of the booty fills the walls of her home, which is just a few hundred yards away from the company’s HQ, and submerged in a tranquil forest of leafy trees and green gardens where she plucks hydrangea and daisies for her dining room table.
“There’s really no precise style here,” she remarks of the happy chaos inside her modern, two-story home. “It’s just a mix of stuff I’ve found and liked.” Japanese Matsuri cabinets, English wardrobes, Venetian bureaus, and Chesterfield leather couches from Poltrona Frau dance around African textiles, Guatemalen carpets and a collection of nudes bought at vintage markets around the world. “I never want to spend more than 100 euros on them,” she remarks of the paintings. “It’s a challenge I love. I usually get them for 30 euros, which is such satisfaction!”
Lusuardi also collects statement necklaces (one of which she wears every day) and Delft ceramics. The ethnic necklaces, including black coral from China, ebony from Africa, antique amber from Tibet, and colorful stones from India, all feature enormous glass or stone beads and pile up on her table tops like art. In the kitchen, a 200-piece blue and white ceramic carafe collection has been carefully and cheerfully amassed from her travels to Paris, Moscow, China, Guatemala and London’s Portobello Road.
“Every culture does a blue and white vase; I need to find one where ever I go,” Lusuardi says of her carafe habit. “If I don’t find one, I get upset.”
Lusuardi met her husband Giuseppe Cabassi while working in the company; the couple had two children late in life. “He allowed me to do everything I wanted to do,” she says of her heavy work and travel load. “I had two children but they never held me back. I had Federica (her daughter who now works inside the company) at age 40 and I would come back home to quickly breast feed and then return to the office.”
That may be a normal part of the working mother lexicon today, but 30 years ago in Italy, it was an eyebrow-raising anomaly. Lusuardi’s hard work has paid off. Last year, she was honored with a huge party to fete her 50 years of working inside the company.
“It’s been a lot of years, but honestly I didn’t even realize it,” she laughs. “Work is my life. But I do a job I love with people I like and I’ve grown up with. My life is here.”