Roberta Manganelli, founder and head of Stella Models talks about Vienna’s 70s flair, the art/fashion balance and how being Italian in Austria helped her get ahead
Her son was born in Vienna and calls himself an Italian Viennese (“Ein italienischer Wiener”). But Roberta Manganelli feels her roots every day of her life and is therefore “a Viennese Italian.” There’s no arguing with a woman who has made being Italian part of her identity, both in the fashion world and in her work as integration ambassador. Her accent is inflected with melody, and the lilt of e-vowels at the end of the occasional word.
In her home city of Siena, just south of Florence, art is everywhere. Born in 1964, her family struggled to make ends meet. Often working odd jobs, her father “always wore a tailor-made suit, rode his Vespa, and shined his shoes.” He’d rather do without food than not look his best. Her mother knew good craftsmanship. “Even today, I’ll take her to designer stores and she turns the clothes inside out to look at the workmanship.” Manganelli developed a special reverence for the power of clothing, of beauty, and read every issue of Vogue. By the 1980s, Manganelli had become a marketing consultant and settled in Florence.
But she wanted to go farther afield. In 1990, she headed to Vienna to learn German, arriving full of enthusiasm. “As an Italian, Viennese German was phonetically easier,” she smiled. But there was also a vibe that made her stay. “In Italy there were the various fashion groups, the punks, mods, Paninari [rich kids in a uniform of Polo shirts and Timberland boots] and conservatives. Vienna still had this freestyle 70s touch.”
Luckily, Manganelli found a job quickly and through friends, was introduced to the head of Wilhelmina Models, where she found a better one. That’s when her “expat experience” really began.
At the Fremdenpolizei “it was Kafkaesque,” she remembered. “I walk in, in my Max Mara and Prada, in line behind a woman in a hijab who has four kids.” The woman spoke no German, but knew plenty of English. Manganelli watched appalled as the Beamter (official) ignored the mother, who eventually gave up. Manganelli didn’t speak German either. Now what?
“So I walk up to the counter and hand over my Italian passport. ‘What can I do for you?’ he said in perfect English. And I thought, ‘Kiss my Ass.’” Manganelli was stunned. “That’s when I realized there are Series A foreigners, then there’s a big gap, a big gap…and then come the immigrants.”
As an Italian, people trusted her judgment in both fashion and art. She loves that, in Vienna, she can be part of both worlds. She tries to counteract some of the Italian stereotypes: She is always on time, even early. And she is vehement about the diversity of Italian cooking. “People think we eat spaghetti all day; that’s just an insult!”
After founding Stella Models in 1993, it became clear that being Italian was an asset. “Austrians have a great love for all things Italian – aesthetics, design, Italian products, lifestyle, food. That’s what defines Italy.” In Vienna, she is the Italian among Austrians. She works with the Italian Cultural Institute and the embassy and supports Italian cinema. But she doesn’t always identify with Italians: “I’m still puzzled about why they come to Vienna for the Christmas markets, and want to freeze here over New Year’s.”
Still some things really matter – like being noticed. While in Italy women’s looks are celebrated in a barrage of compliments, catcalls, whistles, even applause, in Austria, this is almost unheard of.
“It was a shock. You can really walk around here and nobody cares!” Of course that also has its good sides…But she feels that women deserve to be recognized and praised. “I mean, we get up each morning, and it’s hard work.” But she also says there is no appropriate setting to strut your stuff in Vienna. “There is no corso. It has to be a place where you can sit and just watch. They have that in every Italian city, it’s just part of the culture.”
She’s made more Italian friends in Vienna now and doesn’t shy away from her heritage. Sure, Italians can seem superficial when they flirt. But Roberta Manganelli, Vienna’s own contessa, knows what’s behind it. “It’s not about criticizing, it’s about enjoying.”
Where to Find Roberta Manganelli in November
For breakfast, Manganelli loves to visit this enoteca in the 3rd district. She recommends the delicious coffee and the Cornetti, which come directly from Foggia and can be filled with honey or raspberry jam. The tables are made from natural wood and the walls display Italian wines and products.
3., Ungargasse 53, marcoserra.at
Lunchtime is a leisure activity, but for Manganelli, it has to meet the same standards as a dinner venue. For a lunch – both business and pleasure – she chooses Procacci in a little side street off Kärtner strasse. She suggests ordering the octopus salad and a cool glass of pinot grigio.
1., Göttweihergasse 2, procacci-vienna.at
For dinner, especially if you’re looking to impress a fan of Italian cuisine, Cantinetta Antinori is a classic. Manganelli says she likes it best because it has never tried to be anything it’s not and, despite the proximity to Stephansplatz, it’s managed to keep a steady local clientele.
1., Jasomirgottstrasse 3-5, cantinetta-antinori.com
Raphael at the Albertina
The recently opened exhibit displays the work of one of the Italiana favorite renaissance artists. “The chromatic elegance and clarity, the sketches can be compared to those of da Vinci or Michaelangelo. Also his work has so much to do with fashion, which is why we can draw parallels with modern representation.” The show will be running through January.
1., Albertinaplatz 1, albertina.at