The Ital­ian touch

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

One of the most pow­er­ful fig­ures in fash­ion, Tod’s founder Diego Della Valle, has a pas­sion for la dolce vita

fash­ion, diego della valle has a pas­sion for la dolce vita. Melissa Twigg meets the en­tre­pre­neur who built the tod’s brand and dis­cov­ers the source of his mi­das touch

he head­quar­ters of tod’s are as sleek as they come. The all-white of­fice block and fac­tory gleam among the rolling hills of cen­tral Italy, more rem­i­nis­cent of a suc­cess­ful Sil­i­con Val­ley start-up than a Euro­pean lux­ury leather goods la­bel. In­side the Le Marche-based build­ing, bright sun­shine floods through glass walls and a vast, royal-blue oil paint­ing of the fa­mous Gom­mino shoe is the only flash of colour in an oth­er­wise uni­formly white in­te­rior. Beau­ti­ful men and women in crisp shirts, jeans and loafers (Tod’s, of course) chat and flirt by the Ron Arad-de­signed stain­less steel stair­case. The com­plex ra­di­ates a sense of money and power—and that elu­sive Ital­ian glam­our the rest of us try so hard to recre­ate.

At the cen­tre of all this mod­ern Euro­pean chic­ness is Diego Della Valle. The shrewd 61-year-old bil­lion­aire was born into a fam­ily of cob­blers in Casette d’ete, a small town a few kilo­me­tres away. His fa­ther, Dorino Della Valle, made shoes there, many of which were shipped to Saks Fifth Av­enue. When Diego turned 16, he ac­com­pa­nied his fa­ther on a busi­ness trip to the US. “As soon as I got to New York, I no­ticed the Amer­i­cans had a very dif­fer­ent ap­proach to cloth­ing,” says Diego Della Valle in his thick Ital­ian ac­cent. “In Italy in those days, men and women dressed up on the week­end—es­pe­cially on Sun­days, when we were hot and un­com­fort­able in jack­ets and ties and lace-up shoes. But in Amer­ica, they were so re­laxed, although sadly their week­end clothes were not so nice to look at. So I thought, ‘Let’s make shoes for them that are ca­sual, but also well made and stylish.’”

At 16, Della Valle was too young to be taken se­ri­ously, so he went to Bologna to study law. By the time he was 22, he had per­suaded his fa­ther to join him in launch­ing JP Tod’s, a name he plucked from thin air for sound­ing Amer­i­can and be­ing easy to pro­nounce. His con­cept was sim­ple: the Gom­mino (named for the 133 peb­bles, gom­mini in Ital­ian, on the sole), a driv­ing shoe crafted for com­fort as well as style and of­fered in a range of colours. Della Valle then used vintage im­ages of Cary Grant and Au­drey Hep­burn in his ad­ver­tise­ments to im­ply the brand had been around for decades.

“Be­fore, shoes were very stiff, so then we thought to make them more like gloves— light, soft, com­fort­able and use­ful but still lovely to look at,” he says. “Some­thing you wear all day and there is no pain.” Within a year, Gom­mino loafers were selling well in the US, Italy, France and Eng­land, and the Ital­ian lux­ury goods in­dus­try had a hot new com­peti­tor on the block.

Set­ting your­self up as an en­tre­pre­neur is some­what com­mon­place to­day, but in the Italy of 1978, it showed an as­ton­ish­ing

amount of am­bi­tion. Nearly 40 years later, Diego Della Valle is still a fas­ci­nat­ing—and rather ec­cen­tric—man. His quirk­i­ness is on full view the day I meet him, thanks to an arm­ful of brightly coloured bracelets un­der the sleeve of his im­mac­u­late blue suit. “They all have a story,” he says, push­ing the sleeve up for my ben­e­fit. “One is the colours of Italy, the other is a present from my son, another was bought in Africa. My board would prob­a­bly like me to take them off, but I don’t want to be a bor­ing old man.”

Bor­ing is a char­ac­ter­is­tic the Tod’s pres­i­dent and CEO is not in dan­ger of dis­play­ing any time soon. In Casette d’ete, Della Valle lives in an 11-bed­room for­mer monastery. Fol­low­ing the theme, his villa on Capri, Torre Ma­terita, is a castle and tower erected in the 1500s by Carthu­sian monks. He also has homes in Rome, Mi­lan, Paris, New York and Mi­ami; his yacht, The Mar­lin, is a 15-me­tre beauty that be­longed to John F Kennedy and was bought by Della Valle in 1998 while stay­ing with Ralph Lau­ren. “Maybe it was fate, be­cause Ralph lived just near where the yacht was,” says Della Valle, smil­ing at the mem­ory. “So I went over, made an of­fer and came back to have lunch. Dur­ing

dessert, the tele­phone rings. Ralph comes back to the ta­ble and says, ‘I don’t un­der­stand. When did you have time to buy a boat?’”

That anec­dote alone il­lus­trates just how per­fectly Della Valle em­bod­ies the Amer­i­can Dream—but de­spite his love of the US, he re­mains the most pa­tri­otic Ital­ian I have ever met. He res­cued Italy’s Fiorentina soc­cer team from bank­ruptcy; he spent ¤25 mil­lion restor­ing the Colos­seum; he’s an in­vestor in the Rome film stu­dio Cinecittà; he’s a mem­ber of the La Scala Foun­da­tion, which sup­ports Mi­lan’s opera house; and he’s work­ing on a new high-speed train to run be­tween Mi­lan and Rome. “Italy is a very spe­cial coun­try and I think I can say that with­out bias,” he says. “There are a lot of prob­lems here, true, but it’s also the most unique and most won­der­ful place on Earth. If you look at the history, the cul­ture, the food, the wine, the coun­try­side and the ar­chi­tec­ture here, you soon re­alise there is nowhere else like it. And I’ve been say­ing it for years—ital­ian art and cul­ture are the most im­por­tant re­sources we have to re­launch our econ­omy. So peo­ple like me, peo­ple with some money, we have a duty to pre­serve them.”

The badge “Made in Italy” is cen­tral to the Tod’s im­age. To en­sure ev­ery shoe, bag and item of cloth­ing is of the high­est pos­si­ble qual­ity, Della Valle in­sists they are man­u­fac­tured in this gleam­ing white em­po­rium over­look­ing the Adri­atic Sea. As we wan­der through the rows of bustling work­ers, I can see that the shoes are still hand-stitched by smil­ing Ital­ian women, who cover their fin­gers in thick ban­dages and gos­sip with one another as they work. The brightly coloured pieces of suede are then passed to the men, who nail the soles in place and iron them into shape.

Later that af­ter­noon I meet Toni Ri­pani, an award-win­ning cob­bler in his mid-60s who has worked at Tod’s for more than 30 years. He has known Della Valle all his life and lights up at mem­o­ries of his friend arm in arm with the pret­ti­est girls in the 1960s. “Diego al­ways had lots of girl­friends, al­ways tak­ing them for walks by the river,” he says with a laugh. “He also had fire in his eyes. In those days no­body trav­elled much, but Diego went to Amer­ica and he stud­ied in Bologna and he raised money in Mi­lan. He was never go­ing to set­tle for an or­di­nary life. And thanks to him, none of us have or­di­nary lives. He’s trans­formed this re­gion. I owe ev­ery­thing to Diego.”

Ri­pani looks al­most misty-eyed. It’s clear that in his home­town, Della Valle is a god-like fig­ure. Most peo­ple in Casette d’ete work di­rectly or in­di­rectly with Tod’s, and Della Valle has en­sured they have ac­cess to ameni­ties

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dressed for suc­cess Clock­wise from top left: Diego Della Valle and Ital­ian Touch, which he pub­lished in 2009; Della Valle on the fac­tory floor; an ar­ti­san works on a bag; Della Valle's wife, ar­chi­tect Bar­bara Pis­tilli, de­signed the head­quar­ters

tal­ent fac­tory Clock­wise from top left: Cob­bler Toni Ri­pani checks a cowhide for flaws; skilled craftswomen work on bags; Della Valle in his stylish Mi­lan bou­tique; a worker packs up a newly com­pleted D bag in the Le Marche fac­tory

tools of the trade From top: Tod’s leather back­pack, the Wave bag, the Gom­mino, leather sneak­ers. Be­low, third and fourth from left: Studs are ap­plied to the sole of a Gom­mino loafer; the tools of Della Valle's cob­bler grand­fa­ther are on show at the work­shop

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