IN AGNELLI’S SHADOW
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.