IN AGNELLI’S SHADOW

VOGUE Hommes International (English) - - CONTENTS TRENDS - IN­TER­VIEW BY Olivier Nick­laus PHO­TO­GRAPHS Andy Warhol

For thirty years, Stuart Thorn­ton kept a close eye on the leg­endary boss of Fiat, so much so that he knew ev­ery­thing about this charis­matic fig­ure of el­e­gance’s style ob­ses­sions.

VOGUE HOMMES How did you end up work­ing for Gianni Agnelli? STUART THORN­TON

I was born in the north–east of Eng­land, in New­big­gin– by–the–Sea, a small but quite up­mar­ket sea­side re­sort. My fa­ther and mother worked as ma­jor­domo and gov­erness for the Duke and Duchess of Northum­ber­land. That’s where I learnt my pro­fes­sion. I then worked for Karim Aga Khan. And in 1974, the Aga Khan in­vited Mr Gianni Agnelli to Saint–Moritz for the week­end. I must have made a good im­pres­sion on him, as he im­me­di­ately sug­gested I go and work for him. I was tempted, but also a lit­tle both­ered about leav­ing the Aga Khan like that. For­tu­nately, the two men were close friends, so they sorted it out be­tween them­selves.

VOGUE HOMMES What tempted you about Mr Agnelli’s pro­posal? STUART THORN­TON

Mr Agnelli’s life! Eleven enor­mous houses all over the world, boats, and the prom­ise of end­less travel. It was hard to re­sist.

VOGUE HOMMES And was it as ex­cit­ing as you had imag­ined? STUART THORN­TON

Be­ing Mr Agnell’s ma­jor­domo wasn’t re­ally re­lax­ing. You had to get up at 4.30 in the morn­ing to be ready when he got up at 5. There was lot of or­gan­is­ing to do. Ev­ery­thing had to run smoothly for him; you had to an­tic­i­pate the tini­est prob­lem. You could find your­self driv­ing or sim­ply lay­ing the ta­ble … In fact, you’re fill­ing in the gaps de­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances. I fol­lowed him all over the world, and round the clock. The daily rou­tine would be to have break­fast in Venice, lunch in Paris and din­ner in New York — at the time there was still the Con­corde! I loved it: I had the im­pres­sion of al­ways be­ing on hol­i­day … As he had a se­ri­ous car ac­ci­dent in 1952, in which he al­most lost a leg, he would lose his bal­ance when he walked, so I had to be with him all the time. That said, be­ing his shadow en­abled me to experience so many un­for­get­table mo­ments. —›

For thirty years, he kept a close eye on Gianni Agnelli’s wardrobe, nav­i­gat­ing among his master’s eleven abodes and adapt­ing con­stantly to his whims. Stuart Thorn­ton was the ma­jor­domo in the shadow of the charis­matic head of Fiat. He looks back.

“Mr Agnelli didn’t spend his days think­ing about what he was go­ing to wear. To my mind, that’s true el­e­gance, not think­ing about it.”

VOGUE HOMMES All that trav­el­ling around meant pack­ing suit­cases all the time, didn’t it? STUART THORN­TON

Yes, but you know, when you can af­ford to own eleven houses, you can also af­ford to own eleven wardrobes. So we didn’t need all that many cases. Just two black–and–blue striped Amer­i­can aluminium cases, and an Her­mès bag. That’s all.

VOGUE HOMMES How would you de­scribe Gianni Agnelli’s style? STUART THORN­TON

Con­trary to what many people think, Mr Agnelli didn’t spend his days think­ing about what he was go­ing to wear. To my mind, that’s true el­e­gance, not think­ing about it. Ad­mit­tedly, he didn’t wear just any old thing and he did buy his clothes — shirts and suits — from the best tai­lors, but once they were in his wardrobe, he didn’t spend hours choos­ing his clothes for the day. He paid a lit­tle more at­ten­tion to his ties, which he be­lieved were, for a man, the way of set­ting the tone for the day. Or the evening.

VOGUE HOMMES And yet, he cre­ated a num­ber of last­ing styles, such as wear­ing his watch over his shirt sleeve. STUART THORN­TON

But that wasn’t cal­cu­lated, as people seem to be­lieve. Be­fore I worked for him, he wore clas­sic shirts with a French col­lar and bev­elled cuffs, but his tai­lor at the time made the sleeves so pre­cisely to mea­sure that there was no room to wear the watch un­der the shirt cuffs. That’s how it started, for a very prac­ti­cal rea­son: he never wore the same watch. And his ideas about shirts evolved, too. He be­gan to wear but­ton– down col­lars, but would undo the but­tons, which also be­came a sign of el­e­gance, copied by many. He thought only about be­ing com­fort­able. That was his watch­word in terms of el­e­gance. Amer­i­can Brooks Broth­ers’ shirts were his favourite but­ton–downs, which just goes to show that he was a man of sim­ple tastes. He could have had them made by Ital­ian tai­lors. He was just care­ful that they were al­most al­ways white or pale blue. But he was much bolder than people think. He dared to wear a roll–neck sweater un­der his shirt, for ex­am­ple, or a tie over a sweater. Sim­i­larly, the myth of wear­ing his tie–knot crooked was less a sign of be­ing a dandy than proof of his ca­su­al­ness. In fact, be­fore my time, he of­ten wore tai­lor–made grey flan­nel suits. And then, dur­ing the 1970s, his style changed to be­come less for­mal: lots of fit­ted jeans at first, then they be­came bag­gier ( Levi’s 501s ), sports shoes with suits, for ex­am­ple.

VOGUE HOMMES What fra­grance did he wear? STUART THORN­TON

None! For him, and for me, a man shouldn’t wear per­fume. The only fra­grance he could bear was a men­thol af­ter–shave. Noth­ing else.

VOGUE HOMMES Was your job ever bor­ing? STUART THORN­TON

Never. No doubt also be­cause Mr Agnelli had a great sense of hu­mour, and was easy­go­ing. I re­mem­ber that when we were in Cor­sica, he would be quite happy sit­ting on a bench chat­ting to age­ing Cor­si­cans. He was equally at ease in all cir­cum­stances. And, you know, be­ing with him per­ma­nently was like trav­el­ling with the Ital­ian am­bas­sador. Politi­cians from all over the world con­sulted him. He had very as­tute ideas. It was al­ways great fun, so much so that I never felt as though I was work­ing. That’s what I say to my grand­chil­dren now: try and find a job where you don’t feel like you’re at work.

VOGUE HOMMES But how can you have a fam­ily life when you’re the ma­jor­domo of a man of such cal­i­bre as Gianni Agnelli? STUART THORN­TON

There’s an anec­dote that sums it all up. In 1982, my wife com­plained that she never saw me at Porto Cervo, in Sar­dinia, where we had made our home. So, I pre­tended to leave Mr Agnelli. He thought I could work six months for him in Turin and six months for the Aga Khan in Porto Cervo. That just about sums up the type of man he was: gen­er­ous and in­ge­nious.

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