FLORENCE, ITALY — One sunny afternoon in 2013, when I was 11 and my mother was traveling abroad, a very tiny lady with her hair in a bun and her secretary came unannounced to my mother’s atelier. She had read a New York Times story about "the hidden gems" of Florence, smaller Italian brands with exclusive and unique handmade items, in which my mother’s fashion company, Paola Quadretti, was mentioned.
My nonna quickly called me to please come to help translate, as she barely spoke any English. The size-4 lady told us about her passion for Italy, Tuscany in particular, and how fortunate I was to be surrounded by such cultural beauty, to have the honor of living in the city of the Renaissance. She fell in love with a long black jersey dress with French lace on the dècolletè and silver squared plaques that featured smaller Swarovski crystals. "It’s perfect for Puccini’s opera!" she said.
That night, I received a phone call from my mother. "Francesca, do you know who that lady you just met is? Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Supreme Court justices!"
I was so amazed to learn that the woman who shared my passion for fashion and all things Italian was a Supreme Court justice. And that is how it all started: Since that day, when my mother and I would travel to the United States, Justice Ginsburg would meet with us as she had fallen in love with the artisanal touch of my mother’s clothes. Over time, she also became an inspiration, mentor and close friend to my family and me.
In 2015, when I was 13, I went to Washington with my mother to show RBG the winter collection. I remember being anxious to meet an icon and have the privilege to exchange a few words. My heart was beating so fast as we were ushered into her chambers, her desk filled with paper piles. Around her were framed pictures of her family and friends, as well as homages from fans around the world, her well-known collection of lace collars, miniature dolls of herself, and other fun elements that I did not expect a U.S. Supreme Court justice to own.
In fashion as in life, she was precise about what she wanted. After all, she also was recognized for her style, and she chose garments already knowing which ones she would wear to which event and when. The clothes were made exclusively for her tiny frame, colors that ranged from black to navy and gray, but also fun flower patterns and bright oranges and reds. She and my mother actually created her staple jacket, with a grosgrain trim around the neck and sleeves completed by pearlescent buttons for the subtle shine she always wanted in her clothes. (Now her jacket will be in every collection and be called Ruth. )
During one of our visits to Washington, while we took her measurements in chambers, she asked about me and learned that I had a passion for writing. When I was 14, she gave me the amazing opportunity to interview her for my school’s newspaper, The Tuskan Times. Although she had a petite stature, I could always feel her immense power through her words and her actions. To me, she was a giant. Justice Ginsburg taught me that human rights are the basis of a great country and democracy, because all voices must be heard and represented. It is fundamental to be yourself and be independent, she would say to me, "Don’t just go with the crowd because that’s what the matter is." She always asked me about school, and my hopes and dreams for the future, and that is when she offered to write a university recommendation letter on my behalf. She suggested the University of Chicago. I felt so honored and grateful to have such a person believe in my capabilities.
She always encouraged me to believe in my passions, to publish the novel I had written when I was 15, "Quindici" (Fifteen). When I sent her a copy of the book, she thanked me with a handwritten note, and since that day, every time she would publish a book, she would send a note. I will always remember her kindness, her generosity, her calm — a petite woman against a big, big world. Nothing scared her.
In our interview in 2016, I asked her what else she would have liked to achieve, after all she had already done. She said, "To have the possibility to stay in this court for four more years."
What lessons she taught me.
Francesca Cetta is a student majoring in history at King’s College in London.