DIEGO DELLA VALLE:
THE KING OF
HE STARTED OUT MAKING THE HUMBLE DRIVING SHOE. NOW HIS LUXURY LABEL TOD'S IS SO SUCCESSFUL HE CAN AFFOD TO RESTORE THE CLOSSEUM.
Tod's headquarters in the Le Marche region of central Italy looks more like the campus of a Silicon Valley tech company than a shoe factory. A sleek, white two-storey building surrounded by green space, it is flooded with light and decorated - even in the less public areas - with striking works of art. There's also a polished-steel central staircase by Ron Arad and the red Ferrari driven by Michael Schumacher in 1997, given to Tod's chairman, Diego Della Valle, by his counterpart at Ferrari, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo.
It all speaks of money and success, and of a company that values its staff and their skills: as well as the factory where Tod's shoes are made, and the warehouse stacked with thousands of high-quality leathers, there's a staff restaurant serving simple, fresh food, a free nursery and a gym. 'To produce consistently high-quality goods,' says Della Valle, 'you start by offering the artisans who make them a good quality of life.'
Della Valle himself is a relaxed, genial 57-year-old, and wears a well-cut navy suit, as you'd expect of a wealthy entrepreneur, and flamboyant leather bracelets, which you probably wouldn't. His father, Dorino, a shoe manufacturer who supplied smart American stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, started taking Della Valle on work trips to New York when he was 16, so that his son could learn the language and see how business worked there. He learnt only a little of the language, he jokes in basic but perfectly clear English, but a lot about marketing. 'Maybe I was more interested in marketing!'
When he was still in his teens he had an idea that was to make him one of the richest men in Italy. His grandfather was a cobbler, and his father had grown the family business. But it was Della Valle who spotted the emerging trend for casual clothing that would turn the family's expertise in leather into a fortune.
'In Italy people still tried to be elegant at the weekend: a suit, tie and white shirt, especially on Sunday. In America it was completely different. The weekend was like a religion there, and people tried to be very, very relaxed. Sometimes it was not very good taste! But my idea was, why not make more relaxed shoes that are also elegant and chic?'
At first he wanted to launch his own collection of shoes and bags rather than join the family business, but he was too young to be taken seriously: 'Nobody would listen to a young guy without a driving licence!' Instead he went to study law in Bologna, and then, when he dropped out at the age of 24, his father agreed to back him. Della Valle called his company J P Tod's, a name he is often said to have lifted from an American phone book, but he dismisses this as folklore. 'I don't know who said that!' he says. 'The idea was a name that is short, charming and easy to read and pronounce in the same way worldwide.'
This kind of global thinking is commonplace now, but in 1978 it showed huge ambition. 'It was a dream,' he says, with a shrug. 'When you are young you have many movies in your mind.'
The first Tod's product was a hand-made casual loafer in the softest leather, based on a badly made driving shoe Della Valle had found in New York. 'Before, shoes were very stiff, without any comfort, and we tried to change that completely. We tried to consider shoes like a pair of gloves. We think all the time about light, soft, comfortable, useful - something you can wear all day.'
Named after the 133 rubber pebbles - gommini - embedded into the sole, the Gommino loafer is astonishingly comfortable, quietly stylish and one of the company's best-sellers. (Although the label now reads simply Tod's: the initials were dropped when customers began to think J P was a real person.) With the marketing savvy he had picked up on his travels, Della Valle used images of old Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in his advertising to make it seem as if Tod's had been around forever, and encouraged sales at home by giving shoes to Italian celebrities.
Tod's has grown steadily ever since, and is a major player in the luxury market. Della Valle now owns a sports line, Hogan, and the ready-to-wear clothing label Fay. He is the biggest investor in Saks Fifth Avenue, the store his father once supplied, and has shares in other Italian companies, from Ferrari to the scooter maker Piaggio. He also sits on the board of LVMH, the vast luxury conglomerate owned by his friend Bernard Arnault, though he has no plans to expand his own group of companies further, saying he'd rather concentrate on Tod's.
The company has continued to grow during the recession, he says, because people with money want to spend it better. They want luxury, but they also want products that are practical for everyday use and that will last longer than one season. And once a new classic is established in the Tod's range it tends to stay, so it doesn't date as many fashion buys do. Princess Diana was a big fan of the D Bag, for instance, and now her son's wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, looks equally chic carrying the same bag. 'When we make a product we take our time,' explains Della Valle. 'We want to do products that remain in our story forever.'
We have met to discuss the new Signature line, which sees the debut of a Tod's monogram - a raised pattern stamped into the leather and based, of course, on the distinctive gommino studs. It's taken five years to get right, he says, but now they have something that is instantly recognisable but also subtle without the kind of ostentatious logos that Tod's customers would find vulgar.
The Signature bags are designed to be fashion-forward - the patent-leather versions are particularly striking - but also strong, light and roomy enough to use as an overnight bag, or to carry a laptop. 'Our customers are very busy, they travel a lot,' says Della Valle. 'They want to have the best, but also to be able to use it in their daily life.'
In recent years Tod's has moved away from celebrities, instead photographing stylish Italians in their homes to help sell the idea of Italian style. But to launch the Signature line they've chosen to work with the actress Anne Hathaway, who plays Catwoman in the next Batman film. 'She is a perfect ambassador for the modern taste and lifestyle,' explains Della Valle. 'She's elegant, a star, but also very human.'
For all its gloss, Tod's remains a family firm. Della Valle's grandfather's tools are still displayed outside the design workshop, and Barbara Pistilli, the architect who designed the factory and oversaw the restoration of the 11-bedroom former monastery that is Della Valle's main home, also happens to be Diego's wife. His brother Andrea is vice-chairman of the company. On the day I visit, their father also drops by, a dapper figure in shorts and loafers who still tests every new shoe design for comfort and quality before approving it for production. Della Valle's oldest son, Emanuele, is also in the office, and chats with me for a while about the recent funeral of his close friend, Dennis Hopper, attended by a priest, an Indian shaman and Hell's Angels. He also praises Anne Hathaway: 'She's a really great girl. She's in fantastic shape at the moment, to play Catwoman.' Through his own creative agency, he oversees all of Tod's advertising, including a short film by Hopper a couple of years ago, and the Hathaway ads.
The company has never strayed far from what Della Valle calls its DNA: high-quality leather goods, expertly made in Italy. He feels that, in recent years, the country's reputation has been tarnished, and he's been outspoken in its defence. He has publicly criticised Silvio Berlusconi at times, and when Giorgio Armani recently criticised Prada for its public share offering, Della Valle - who is not a Prada shareholder - was the first to speak out, implying that Armani was out of touch. 'I suggested to him that we are Italian, and we need to be very close,' he says now, more diplomatically. 'It's important that we give a strong, successful image of our country.'
Putting his money where his mouth is, last year Della Valle committed €25 million (£21.5 million) to restore the Colosseum in Rome, Italy's most popular tourist attraction, though some critics suggested he had bought it to cover with company advertising.
Italians love controversy, he says, but now the full details have emerged, most people seem happy. 'We're not asking for anything in return. We want no sponsorship, no advertising, zero.' He's simply proud to be able to preserve a part of Italy's history, and hopes that others will do the same for other important sites, such as Pompeii. 'I think for entrepreneurs like me, with strong and lucky global companies, now is the moment to give something back.'
In 2002 Della Valle and his brother bought the ailing Fiorentino football club, with a view to reviving its fortunes. 'It's a hobby,' he says, adding that they want to build a team with soul whose players will be good role models for young fans. He doesn't get to see them play as often as he'd like. Weekends are often spent travelling, particularly if he's flying to Asia, where Tod's is expanding rapidly. And when he is at home he has another, more important team to follow. His youngest son, 14-year-old Filipo, plays for their village team, and Della Valle likes to get on the bus with the other parents to cheer them on. 'Football opens many doors between parents and children,' he says. 'It's very good for him.' It's why he has chosen to raise Filippo in the village where he himself grew up: 'I want him to have a simple life, a normal life.'
It is odd, I say, for a man with homes in Capri, Paris, New York, Miami and Milan, plus his own helicopter and jet, to talk about the simple life. These things are fun, he replies, but not important. 'A lot of it is for my work. I have business around the world, so if I want to live in this village sometimes I have to take the helicopter to the airport, take the jet and maybe go directly to Tokyo. But that's a very pressured life.'
He loves Japanese food and American junk food, but says nothing beats a plate of pasta with home-grown tomatoes, followed by roast chicken, with his family. He envies his father, working when he wants and going to the beach whenever he likes. After our meeting, Della Valle heads to Milan, then to Capri for the weekend. His yacht is moored there - The Marlin, once owned by his hero, JFK.
'I want to have a week in one place, doing nothing,' he says wistfully. 'Real luxury isn't flying by private jet. It is not needing the jet at all.'