ICON GIANNI AGNELLI
Twelve years after Gianni Agnelli’s death, his achievements as a business leader are not necessarily the topic when people discuss his legacy, instead it is his sense of style. Plaza Uomo profiles the man who embodied modern Italy.
of 1962. A black-and-white photograph. This is considered to be one of the most famous pictures of Giovanni Agnelli. You can almost hear the industry tycoon’s leather loafers clattering against the baking hot beach promenade. Jacqueline Kennedy is walking next to him. They’re in Ravello, the gem of the Mediterranean, in southern Italy. It is here on the Amalfi coast, one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, that Giovanni Agnelli accompanies Jackie who’s taking a beach holiday, without her husband John F. Kennedy. Afterwards steamy rumours about “Gianni” and Jackie having had an affair appear in gossip magazines and newspapers. However, the reason for the photo becoming so widely circulated is partly due to Agnelli’s ”popover” sweater with its open collar. Something of a holy grail in today’s menswear fashion.
There is something quite brazen about Agnelli’s expression in the photo. This is his moment. A fashionable patriarch in holiday chinos who is part of shaping – and re-shaping – his beloved Italy. The New York Times obituary, published in 2003 after the 81-year-old passed away with complications arising from prostate cancer, includes a sentence that could have been the perfect caption for the famous photograph, “Giovanni Agnelli became a symbol of Italy’s postwar renaissance.”
Few Italians have been as influential, trendsetting and imitated as Giovanni Agnelli. Gianni had everything: power, money, status and style. When the Italian newspaper Il Mondo conducted a survey at the beginning of the 1980s which focused on who held the most power in Italy, Agnelli came second. Only the Pope was considered to have more power. Despite Giovanni Agnelli’s immeasurable significance and renown, the man himself appears to be an enigma. Perhaps because of his many roles. Who was the real Agnelli? A forceful industrialist? Extravagant playboy and jet-setter?
Football fanatic? Aristocrat and billionaire with a sense of fashion? It is clear that the most prominent part of his legacy – with slightly more than a decade pass-
“He was special, charismatic. Wh en he came into the house you could feel the atmosphere
ing since his death – is predominantly not about his strategic business achievements (such as Agnelli transforming Fiat into a global industry giant). His legacy is often boiled down to – that’s right – his well-tailored wardrobe. A quick search on Google will guide you to recent articles with headlines such as “The Godfather of Style” (The Wall Street Journal), “Agnelli’s 10 Best Style Moves” (Esquire), “The Well-Dressed Symbol of a Modern Italy” (Swedish public broadcaster, Sveriges Radio). Even after his death, Gianni has continued to headline Best Dressed lists all over the world. His grandchild Ginevra Elkann, who runs a gallery centred around the family’s art collection in Turin, sums up her grandfather’s particular magnetism in The Wall Street Journal in 2013.
“He was special, charismatic. When he came into the house you could feel the atmosphere change. There was excitement. When he was around, you knew something special was going to happen.”a.
Giovanni Ag nelli was born
in 1921 on the outskirts of Turin with a weighty silver spoon in his mouth. Inherited power. The Agnelli family’s unique status and fortune was based on the dynasty’s crown jewel, Fiat, which was founded by Gianni’s grandfather (also named Giovanni Agnelli) in Turin in 1899. His grandson studied to be a lawyer at the University of Turin and graduated in 1943 and was given the nickname that would follow him for the rest of his life, l’Avvocato (the Lawyer). During the Second World War Gianni served in the Italian cavalry. He was wounded twice on the Russian front and yet again in North Africa (where he drove a Fiat-made military vehicle). Legend has it that the third gunshot wound did not happen on the battlefield but in a drinksodden, smoky bar in Libya. The background: a fight over a woman. A German officer is said to have put an end to it by shooting Agnelli in the arm. It wasn’t the first or last time Gianni would be drawn into a stormy love affair; during his lifetime he is claimed to have had affairs with women such as Pamela Churchill Harriman, Elle MacPherson and Anita Ekberg. After the war he returned to Turin and became the vice president of the Fiat board.
“I started at the top,” Agnelli used to quip about the start of his career. From 1966 onwards he ruled the family business. Agnelli’s employees created the slogan, “Agnelli is Fiat; Fiat is Turin and Turin is Italy.”
It is difficult to
fully grasp the extent of the cultural and political influence Agnelli wielded in his home country. At the beginning of the 1990s every other car on the Italian roads was a Fiat. Under Gianni’s management the auto company grew into a gigantic industry conglomerate with tentacles reaching in all directions: wine production, newspapers, aircraft, energy technology and telecommunications. During Agnelli’s 30 year reign as head of Fiat, auto-makers Lancia, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Ferrari were brought under Fiat’s umbrella. For a time the Fiat empire was described as “a state within the state”. The family also owned the football club Juventus at which Gianni was the honorary president from 1947 to 1954 (every morning at six, wherever he was in the world, he’d call the club to get the latest news about the team).
“Italian governments come and go, but Mr Agnelli is a permanent establishment in the country,” the U.S Secretary of State (under Richard Nixon) and Agnelli’s friend, Henry Kissinger, once commented.
When Italy’s silver-haired
doyen went to his grave in 2003 he was valued at $2 billion. With such a powerful precedent to live up to, there is little wonder that his succession became problematic. Agnelli’s only son, Edoardo, had committed suicide three years previously. The other natural heir, nephew Giovanni, passed away in 1997 as a result of cancer. Gianni’s nephews John and Lapo Elkann took over the helm of the family empire instead. John, the oldest brother, is now the Chairman of Fiat, while notorious younger brother Lapo Elkann has shouldered the public image. Apart from relaunching the city car, Fiat 500, during his time as the company’s marketing director, Lapo also inherited Gianni Agnelli’s wardrobe which
has contributed to making him one of the most well-known style icons of our time (see Plaza Uomo issue 4/2014).
The visionary Agnelli is gone, but his well-dressed spirit remains. It is quite possible that there hasn’t been one single day since his grandiose funeral in Turin in 2003 that fashion magazines around the world have not mentioned his glamorous lifestyle and style-influencing look. With suits from Italian tailoring house Caraceni and the British label Huntsman – frequently teamed with hand-crafted loafers from Italian shoemaker Car Shoe – he embodied modern Italy. His urbane yet relaxed elegance worked just as well in the office as for a dry-Martini lunch on a yacht. Gianni’s most imitated style move? Wearing a wristwatch – often an Omega or a Patek Philippe – on the outside of a starched cuff. Gianni did not have time, he said, to pull up his shirt sleeve. Today this is a common sight among Italy’s business leaders and fashion designers such as Maurizio Corneliani. Other style trends kick-started by Gianni include letting the shorter part of the tie dangle free; leaving the button-down buttons open on a shirt and wearing boots or loafers with a business suit. The author and journalist Taki Theodoracopulos – who was member of Angelli’s inner circle – told The Wall Street Journal in 2013:
“Gianni was elegant and wore clothes beautifully. He would have been a great dancer as he was built like a boy, with narrow shoulders. The way clothes hung on him, it was just as the designers imagine it.”
Agnelli was the master
of sprezzatura, which means someone who has mastered the rules but chooses to break them with a certain finesse. Taki Theodoracopulos again:
“When he wasn’t perfectly dressed, it was deliberate. The tie askew, the unbuttoned shirt – nothing was an accident. Or, to put it another way, it was meant to be an accident, which made it even more stylish.”
Looking at photos of l’Avvocato, something else becomes clear: he represents an incomparable and timeless aesthetic. It doesn’t matter if the photos are from the 1960s, 70s, 80s or 90s; his suits would have worked just as well today.
On the day following the announcement of Gianni’s death, Italian newspapers declared, “Italy’s last king is dead.” The nation still mourns numero uno. Together with the entire fashion world
Few Italians have been as influential, trendsetting and imitated during the 20th century as Gianni Agnelli, here photographed in Trieste in February 1967.
Gianni Agnelli whizzing down the slopes at Swiss ski resort St. Moritz on 24 December 1976.
February 1972. Agnelli shows-off a model of Fiat Tower, to be constructed at La Défense in Paris.
Agnelli in conversation with racing driver Mario Andretti during the Monaco Grand Prix in 1975.