The accessories industry has been a buzz about Italian designer Leonello Borghi for years now, and it’s about time for the common folk to catch up. In addition to being honored with the Rising Star Award for Accessory Design in 2004 by the Fashion Group International after launching one of the most successful accessory lines around, Borghi has also designed for Ralph Lauren and collaborated with Armani to help him launch his first accessories line. His bold experimentation with exotic materials and unorthodox design techniques puts him in a league of his own. We had a chance to speak to the designer about his collaborations (and clashes) with Giorgio Armani, secret codes, and New York as inspiration.
How did your love affair with accessories begin? It was thanks to Gino Feruzi. Once I got into his factory and I started to touch leathers, cut patterns, and see from the inside out, it was something that never left me.
You worked for Prada in Paris for three years. What did you learn there? That job was for Prada’s Japanese market, so it meant understanding how to identify the needs and the taste of a specific market. This was in the pre-Tom Ford era, before everything became very homogenized and all the stores in the world looked alike, so the Asian market was very specific at that time. The bags were smaller, and they used to love very sweet colors, all the pinks and pastels. In Europe there was just no way an Italian or French woman would go for those colors, so I really learned how to study a market, the way they shop, and then design accordingly.
You finally moved to New York in 1999 and collaborated with Giorgio Armani on his first accessories line. Yes, I was put in contact with Mr. Armani, and it was kind of like love at first sight, meaning we understood each other very well from the beginning. I don’t know if it was the fact that we were both Italian, but I went into the interview slightly scared because he has a reputation for being very authoritarian, very rigid, but in reality he turned out to be really a great teacher for me. I spent almost four years with him.
When you’re working for someone like Giorgio Armani, how much of your personal design aesthetic is involved? It’s really a collaboration. He’s very involved in every aspect of everything, so for me the challenge was to show him that we could have bags that made sense in the marketplace, but still had a very Giorgio Armani essence. I believe he’s a master of ready-to-wear, but I don’t think he is somebody that really understands accessories — they are very different worlds. Some decisions were against my will, but I knew that at the end of the day, inside the bag it was his label, not mine, so I had to please him first and foremost. I believe that one of the reasons why I remained there for a long time is because I’ve always given him very honest, straightforward answers. He was surrounded by many people who would “yes” him to death, and I never did that.
When did you leave Armani? I left in 2002, because Wathne Group took me away to be their VP of design and to oversee all Polo licenses.
Part of your job there was designing for Ralph Lauren, which is really classic American style, while your style is edgier — was that a big challenge? It was challenging because it’s a very successful company, and they have a very specific idea of how they see themselves in accessories. So it was a little bit of challenge to move away from the classic Americana that often can be a bit tiring, but little by little, we were able to change a few details to make it a bit more modern and updated and more appealing to today’s woman.
What was it like to finally launch your own accessories line in 2001? It was actually during my time at Armani that I decided to launch it. It was very challenging, because everybody told me that the moment you mentioned it, Armani would fire you on the spot. But when I told him, he said that as long as you promise me that it’s not something that would compete with me, you can do it.
Why did you start the line with a men’s collection? I really thought that I could bring something different. In the men’s arena, I thought there was a major lack of interesting accessories. Even though I work for big labels, I don’t like to walk around with logos. I want to make sure that the accessory doesn’t overwhelm me. Sometimes when I see people in the streets, I feel that they are just walking advertisements, and I want to make sure that I dominate the bag or the accessory, not vice versa.
What does the 2009 Fall/Winter collection look like? It’s a very personal collection because it has a little bit of the Knights Templar in it — one of my inspirations. The Knights Templar are always with me because I’m very fascinated by religions, the philosophies, secrets and knowing how to identify codes. Often, in my bags, to the regular eye, people won’t see the secrets and codes, but if you really analyze them you will find many different codes. It could be the color of the stitch inside, a little number inserted somewhere, or a little message.
Is New York City a big inspiration for your work? Yes! I was born and raised in Florence, so I grew up with a very specific aesthetic, where everything was coming from the Renaissance period. It was a very different kind of beauty, but after a while, you almost become numb because wherever you go you’re surrounded by this 600-year-old beauty. So coming from there, you have something really innate in you, and then when you get to a place like New York and there is an energy you can’t really touch, but it’s there and vibrates through your body. It stimulates your mind and your senses. I love traveling, but no other city gives me these vibrations. What are your favorite places to dine out in New York? The places I love most are Indochine and Bottino. I love their menus and the relaxed, casual atmosphere.