Until a few years ago Giovanna Stefanel-Stoffel was enmeshed in the fashion world as the art director of her father's famous Venice-based Stefanel fashion designer company. After marrying a Bavarian, things have changed.
Stefanel and Stoffel know how to make the most of their differences
Today in Berlin, she's caught up in the world of real estate, as the wife and business partner of multi-millionaire Bavarian property developer Ludwig Maximilian Stoffel, 61, who along with his brother Manfred runs the German family's Stoffel Holding company.
"My husband has been active in the property development branch for 30 years," said the vivacious 53-year-old Italian. "When we first met I was deeply involved in the fashion industry. We decided we'd like to do something very special together. We fused our names, married three years ago, and created Stofanel Investment.
"We wanted to develop our own very special kind of art work. Planning started two years ago and now we're developing four big and very different-styled projects in the German capital."
Italy meets Bavaria
Projects, incidentally, that demand a 300-million-euro ($435-million) investment commitment on their part. "Italian Dolce Vita and Bavarian quality workmanship united in Prussia -- Giovanna Stefanel-Stoffel and Ludwig Maximilian Stoffel" -- proclaims a company press handout.
Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin has become a hot spot for investors
Last week, the cornerstone for the first Stofanel project was laid. Titled Marthashof Urban Village, it is to combine a mix of family-oriented town and garden-style houses, penthouses built around courtyards, as well as flats suitable for singles.
In all, 133 residential units will be built on a 12,380 square-meter (133,000 square-foot) site in Berlin's trendy Prenzlauer Berg district by 2010. "Forty percent of the accommodation has already been sold, which is better than we expected," said Giovanna.
Berlin site was once a women's home
The Marthashof site is a story in itself. In the 1850s a Christian-run hostel for maidservants was founded there after a number of young girls contracted syphilis after being lured to work in Berlin under false pretenses.
The "fallen" girls found refuge in the hostel and were given clean accommodations and medical help. Later, Marthashof became an officially recognized evangelical school for future maidservants, supported from 1903 onwards by wealthy Berliners.
By 1917 it had 450 pupils. But after Hitler rose to power, the school came under Nazi party rule, and ultimately closed. In 1943 it suffered a direct hit during an air raid and was destroyed, killing numerous women workers. Today a memorial remembers the former Marthashof on the city's Schwedter Strasse.
Germans look to Italy for good taste
Ludwig Maximilian Stoffel's eyes twinkle when he compares Italian and German characteristics. "Why do Germans go to Italy, wear Italian clothes, drink Italian wine? Because they're not sure of taste," he said. "The Germans usually don't know what is really trendy, what is fashionable. The Italians are so sure: from clothes to glasses, from decoration to cars -- they made Ferrari.
"However, a Mercedes is also nice because you have no problems with it. If you buy from a reliable German estate company that has experience, that has a name and tradition, you can be sure you have something with quality," he added, noting his family's business in Straubing has "100 years of tradition."
Of her role in the Stofanel Investment company, Giovanna said: "I'm a shareholder and am on the supervisory board. As the art director I'm responsible for everything to do with aesthetics, lifestyle, coordination and integration.
After all, the Italians did invent the Ferrari...
"I watch the development of the undertaking very closely. After meeting my husband I realized I could bring my ideals into the property market business," she told the DPA news agency.
Her husband is impressed with the changes taking place in Berlin, which became reunited Germany's capital in 1990.
Recent change in new capital
"For investors in the 1990s, the biggest risk was the delay in deciding where the nation's capital was going to be -- Bonn or Berlin, but once that was decided things started falling into place.
"Big companies opened offices here, hotels were built, artists arrived, galleries opened and tourists flocked to the city again. But only in the past two years have the changes really become evident," he said.
His wife said she agreed. "What one can have in Berlin, one cannot get elsewhere. In Italy, many people want to buy small apartments in Prenzlauer Berg and other parts of this city because the prices are so reasonable.
"Berlin has sex appeal, offers a lot and is a relatively price worthy city. But the city does need entrepreneurs," she said.
Stoffel Holding has completed a multitude of buildings in various parts of Germany in the past 20 years, in addition to realizing projects at top addresses in Berlin.
Stofanel Investment employs some 25 architects, planners, and finance experts at its Berlin headquarters.
The couple, who have a house in Tyrol they escape to when in need of a break, are renowned for their warmth and generosity in Berlin. For several years now they have been acting as "parents" to 30 Nepalese orphans, paying for their education at an English private school in Katmandu, while offering supportive family environments.
Giovanna Stefanel-Stoffel, who has no children of her own, said she is grateful to her husband for creating the foundation that funds their Nepal activity. "Three times a year we travel to Kathmandu to see the children.
"We'll be going there again in October," she said. "Being with the youngsters, aged between five and 17, has become such an important part of our lives."