The dashing Prince Federico Pignatelli Della Leonessa’s cavernous Manhattan photography studio, Pier 59, just turned 20. George Wayne checks it out.
BY GEORGE WAYNE
Prince Federico Pignatelli della Leonessa was once described by Diane von Furstenberg as “a very seductive, charming Italian aristocrat.” And in the opinion of GW, that is most certainly an understatement. The Prince is that and much more: a true visionary and the mastermind behind the first and, twenty years later, still foremost fashion photo studio production facility in North America.
Two decades ago, not even Prince Frederico could have imagined that on a decrepit NYC waterfront, a long abandoned Chelsea warehouse and shipping terminal where the survivors of the Titanic disaster first set foot on American soil would be transformed into a fashion mecca, a glittery powerhouse for photographers, editors and artists to this day.
With more than 100,000 square feet and 11 varied studio spaces, a 6,000-square-foot soundstage and the world’s best talent personnel on hand, if need be, 24/7, the eponymous Pier 59 Studios continues to have no peer, no rival, no equal. As the studio’s 20th anniversary approaches, its unparalleled leader, the Italian Prince, pauses to reminisce with GW.
GEORGE WAYNE: You know, sir, whenever I meet anyone with truly exquisite taste and style, I tend to attribute it to good breeding, and in this instance, GW could not be more right.
FEDERICO PIGNATELLI: Yes, it’s a fact that my Italian family is quite old and dates back more than 1,100 years. It’s a family that has its roots in the southern part of Italy—Naples and Sicily—and it’s a family very much connected to the Vatican throughout its history. We fought several wars defending the Vatican, and one of my ancestors became Pope Innocent XII in 1691. We’ve also had four cardinals in our family. So, yes, ours is a rich history connected to the Catholic Church.
How did a descendant of a Pope end up ruling the world of fashion?
Well, I cannot say that I’m ruling anything, but I try to do the best I can in being a part of this beautiful world of fashion and creativity in photography. I came to New York City to first pursue a career in investment banking and I left that to develop Pier 59, which today remains the largest photo studio complex in the world.
In GW’s estimation, I consider you, Prince Federico Pignatelli della Leonessa, “the Agnelli of fashion.” By that I mean your style and rakish charm.
Well, in fact, I knew Gianni Agnelli a.k.a. “L’Avvocato,” who was a very charismatic and wonderful person with an incredible sense of humor, and who was indeed extremely Italian and elegant, so that is very much a compliment—thank you.
Think of it: Before you had the vision to develop this part of New York City, before there was a chic Meatpacking District, before there was any Chelsea Arts District, this was nothing but a run-down, abandoned part of town. You came in and resurrected an entire neighborhood.
It’s all about having a vision, and sometimes that vision may be nothing more than intuition and instinct. I knew this building, this whole complex, had a lot of history. This was the passenger cruise ship terminal, in the early days, for famous cruise liners crossing the Atlantic. So in 1992, I decided to revive this complex and reinvent it for a new century.
You mentioned the words “intuition” and “instinct,” which are gifts of any true visionary. Here we are, 20 years later, and Pier 59 Studios is still considered the premier destination for the world’s leading photographers, fashion editors, videographers and models. I was here recently having lunch with you and was mesmerized that seemingly every current supermodel in the world was parading back and forth. For Pier 59 to continue to have that sustainability and longevity is an incredible achievement.
Well, I feel honored that the important folks of fashion still continue to share in this passion of mine. I have put all my heart and devotion into creating a place where photographers and artists of all types can continue to express themselves. Fashion reaches up to four billion people on Earth today, and I’d like to believe that Pier 59 has been an indispensable part of
As we speak, on the iconic Stage C here at Pier 59, Carine Roitfeld, the most forward-thinking editrix in the business today, is staging one of her latest fashion moments. This place is sheer magic. It’s the Cinecittà of fashion!
I’m having breakfast with Carine tomorrow. You’re right; she’s a wonderful talent and human being, as is Anna Wintour. It’s such a pleasure to have them all here creating and challenging themselves in an environment that I created.
You’re publishing a book of your own photographs called The Great Beauty. Tell us about your excursion to Rome with a gaggle of some 20 models to help create it.
I was actually traveling with my girlfriend and went to La Posta Vecchia Hotel, the former villa of J. Paul Getty, a place I’ve always loved very much. While there, I had the inspiration. “This is so beautiful,” I thought, “that I should have this piece of Italy be part of the celebration for our 20th year. I decided out of my passion for photography to do something that was different and challenging by creating a book called The Great Beauty, along with a video to celebrate this occasion. By the way, we didn’t take 20 models, we only took 11. But we took an entire crew of 35 people and spent six days there, with the view of creating something special. The book is all about my celebration of beauty, architecture, art and fashion.
Anyone who is anyone in the world of fashion has experienced a Pier 59 moment, and you’ve probably witnessed most of them. Tell GW about some of the more memorable moments you’ve seen here.
There have been so many! I can remember the volcano being built for a Britney Spears album cover shoot, and the perfect replica of the Oval Office of the White House for another shoot and Peter Beard shooting with an elephant on another occasion. We have had many scenarios–models with tigers, too, and all that.
Is it true that the Pier 59 brand is about to go global with a satellite studio in, of all places, Batumi, the chic coastal resort and capital of Adjara, an autonomous republic in southwest Georgia?
We get many offers all the time with regard to expansion and all that, and we’re considering that offer—it’s a very interesting opportunity and there’s a beautiful facility that’s already built. But I’ve always resisted offers because New York City is the capital and will always be the capital of photography. This is the place to be, and so before I decide to export my brand globally, I’m going to be very careful.
There’s only one New York City! I consider the commissary at Pier 59 just the very best. Not even Condé Nast or Goldman Sachs has a chicer, more exclusive commissary than the one here. Your chef makes the most delicious al dente pasta. I’ve considered inviting Donatella Versace here for lunch, but she may want to poach your exquisite executive chef, Giovanni Aroli.
We take pride in everything here, including the food.
When you think about it, Federico, Karl Lagerfeld is the same age as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and he’s also just seven years younger than Queen Elizabeth II! Age really is a state of mind, isn’t it?
Oh, absolutely. I feel like I’m a kid! To be young is to be young at heart and young at mind. You can be old when you’re young, and you can be young when you’re old. It’s how you choose to live your life and the passion and the energy with which you do things.
In this business of ours, being a master of the zeitgeist is imperative. You have that passion for fashion and beauty and, as far as I’m concerned, you have no rival in that capacity.
You’re too kind, George!
Photography: Judith Carrion (Pignatelli)