DIEGO DELLA VALLE / MR. TOD'S

DIEGO DELLA VALLE / MR. TOD'S

CAPTAIN ITALIA

Diego Della Valle steered a humble family business until it became a global empire. He continues to chart his own course — in a boat that belonged to John F. Kennedy — with the tradition of Italian craftsmanship as his guide.


The boat docked in Capri harbor says "Marlin Hyannisport." And you wouldn't be wrong to wonder if the vessel is a souvenir from the golden days of the Italian isle, when Jackie Kennedy strolled its cobble stone streets in oversize sunglasses, a silk head scarf, white jeans, and Canfora sandals. The Marlin, a 52-foot cruiser that belonged to President Kennedy, was, in fact, bought by Diego Della Valle, CEO of Tod's, at a Christie's auction in 1998. The story goes that he got the call his bid had been accepted while he was having lunch with Ralph Lauren.

The boat may evoke the khaki-clad Kennedy dynasty, but Della Valle is a proud son of Italy, born in the central Marche region into a family of cobblers. His villa on Capri, Torre Materita, which is finished with traditional Italian ceramics, was once a castle, with a tower erected in the 1500s by Carthusian monks. "Put a compass to paper and trace a circle. Then tell me which other country has such a concentration of places like Amalfi, Naples, Ischia, Procida, Sorrento, Positano, Pompeii, and Capri," Della Valle says, without waiting for an answer. He rescued Italy's Fiorentina soccer team from bankruptcy in 2002; he's an investor in Cinecittà, the Roman film studio; he’s a member of the La Scala Foundation, which supports Milan’s opera house; and he’s launching a new highspeed train service, Italo, which will rival the government-operated Ferrovie dello Stato.

DIEGO DELLA VALLE ON BOARD OF THE MARLIN

DIEGO DELLA VALLE ON BOARD OF THE MARLIN

But Della Valle also seems keenly in tune with the iconography of American upper-crust ease. For many years he let it circulate that he chose the name J.P. Tod’s from a Boston phone book. Lee Radziwill is a frequent guest at Tod's events, and the company recently sponsored a book of photos of Jackie O in Capri. The signature Gommino driving shoe made its debut in the 1970s after Della Valle spotted a poorly made version on a trip to New York.

Artisans at the Tod's factory in Italy still glue, stitch, and polish each Gommino by hand, a process that uses 35 pieces of leather and requires more than 100 steps. "It's difficult for companies that continue to rely on artisanal experience, because there's a dearth of craftsmen, but luckily we’re okay here for the next decade," says Della Valle, who is in the midst of expanding the factory in Casette d’Ete, in his native region.

Sitting in the ornate Tod's offices in Milan on a sweltering August morning, a relaxed Della Valle thumbs through Italian Portraits, a book published by Skira and filled with pictures of handsome male personalities at their countryside estates, in spacious flats brimming with memorabilia and antiques, on horseback, or in one case driving a vintage convertible Mercedes. "These men," Della Valle says, "they felt at ease being photographed, because there’s nothing posed. They enjoyed it, and it shows." Young or old, these assorted industrialists, artists, students, and wine producers are all wearing Tod's, both from current collections and their own personal archives. The book, he says, is "a way to show a northern Chinese customer, for example, who we are through portraits of our culture, our DNA, our style. Together with art, food, and great places that are also very Italian."

Unlike some compatriots who are lured by all things foreign, Della Valle has never stopped voicing his patriotic sentiments. He is not letting the Eurozone crisis shatter this Italian dream. He is, however, well aware that the country needs an industrial plan to counteract its red tape–burdened bureaucracy, not to mention a check on its sometimes less than stellar customer service. He likes to tell a story about disguising himself as an Indian gentleman and knocking on the door of Tod's stores right before closing time to test the industriousness of his staff. Still, Della Valle is convinced that "people love Italy and they want to come here, because the Uffizi is in Florence and you can’t bring it to Shanghai, because Pompeii is here and you can't transport it to Russia."

And the Colosseum is in Rome. Della Valle has shelled out $30 million to fund its restoration — with the condition that Tod's be the sole sponsor. It's his way of putting his beliefs into practice, and he has called on fellow Italian companies to do the same to restore the country's glory. Corriere della Sera views "the restoration of the Colosseum as the symbol of an Italy that doesn't surrender to the crisis but rediscovers its pride through its roots." (Full disclosure: Della Valle, naturally, owns a stake in the paper.)

In his hometown Della Valle is something of a superhero. He recently renovated a primary school in Casette d'Ete, and he's mulling building a hotel, nursing home, and sports center. In 1988 he set the company's headquarters there, in a sleek building peppered with artworks, including two Jacob Hashimoto kite installations, the shell of a Ferrari Formula One racing car, and a specially commissioned stainless steel staircase designed by Ron Arad.

At the top of the stairs a shrinelike showcase holds the tools of Filippo, Della Valle's grandfather, a reminder of the family's cobbler origins. Diego's younger son, Filippo, now 15, attended the nursery school in the pale marble and glass building, which was designed by Della Valle's wife Barbara, an architect. His older son, Emanuele, 37, is based in New York and is the head of a digital media company. "I would say he is the kind of father that gave you quite a lot of freedom but not one bit more," Emanuele says of Della Valle. "In life he has always taught me that if you do well then you have to do good. In work he taught me to always look for the next great idea, never rest on success."

Diego's father Dorino died last March, at 87. He was a familiar face in the Tod's offices, riding his bike through the factory daily to check out production. He was the one who made manufacturing deals with Calvin Klein, Azzedine Alaïa, and Neiman Marcus, a business his son turned into a $1.23 billion powerhouse. "My father taught me respect for quality as well as a sense of dignity - great values as we face a world going in a different direction. I try to teach my children to stay close to the real things," Della Valle says. The words "Dignity, Duty, Fun" are inscribed on his private jet.

Given the scope of his projects, the motto is lived on a grand, if hectic, scale. There are additional homes in Milan, Paris, Ancona, and New York, a helicopter, a floating residence called the Altair, and several Ferraris. "My free time is very virtual," he says. "But when I can, even for just one day, I go to Capri with bundles of papers that I never even look at. Sooner or later I’ll learn to leave them behind."


Sitting in the ornate Tod's offices in Milan on a sweltering August morning, a relaxed Della Valle thumbs through Italian Portraits, a book published by Skira and filled with pictures of handsome male personali­ ties at their countryside estates, in spacious flats brimming with memorabilia and antiques, on horseback, or in one case driving a vintage convertible Mercedes. "These men," Della Valle says, "they felt at ease being photographed, because there’s nothing posed. They enjoyed it, and it shows." Young or old, these assorted industrialists, artists, students, and wine producers are all wearing Tod's, both from current collections and their own personal archives. The book, he says, is "a way to show a northern Chinese customer, for example, who we are through portraits of our culture, our DNA, our style. Together with art, food, and beauti­ful places that are also very Italian."

Unlike some compatriots who are lured by all things foreign, Della Valle has never stopped voicing his patriotic sentiments. He is not letting the Eurozone crisis shatter this Italian dream. He is, however, well aware that the country needs an industrial plan to counteract its red tape–burdened bureaucracy, not to mention a check on its sometimes less than stellar customer service. He likes to tell a story about disguising himself as an Indian gentleman and knocking on the door of Tod's stores right before closing time to test the industriousness of his staff. Still, Della Valle is convinced that "people love Italy and they want to come here, because the Uffizi is in Florence and you can’t bring it to Shanghai, because Pompeii is here and you can't transport it to Russia."

And the Colosseum is in Rome. Della Valle has shelled out $30 million to fund its restoration — with the condition that Tod's be the sole sponsor. It's his way of putting his beliefs into practice, and he has called on fellow Italian companies to do the same to restore the country's glory. Corriere della Sera views "the restoration of the Colosseum as the symbol of an Italy that doesn't surrender to the crisis but rediscovers its pride through its roots." (Full disclosure: Della Valle, naturally, owns a stake in the paper.)

In his hometown Della Valle is something of a superhero. He recently renovated a primary school in Casette d'Ete, and he's mulling building a hotel, nursing home, and sports center. In 1988 he set the company's headquarters there, in a sleek building peppered with artworks, including two Jacob Hashimoto kite installations, the shell of a Ferrari Formula One racing car, and a specially commissioned stainless steel staircase designed by Ron Arad.

At the top of the stairs a shrinelike showcase holds the tools of Filippo, Della Valle's grandfather, a reminder of the family's cobbler origins. Diego's younger son, Filippo, now 15, attended the nursery school in the pale marble and glass building, which was designed by Della Valle's wife Barbara, an architect. His older son, Emanuele, 37, is based in New York and is the head of a digital media company. "I would say he is the kind of father that gave you quite a lot of freedom but not one bit more," Emanuele says of Della Valle. "In life he has always taught me that if you do well then you have to do good. In work he taught me to always look for the next great idea, never rest on success."

Diego's father Dorino died last March, at 87. He was a familiar face in the Tod's offices, riding his bike through the factory daily to check out production. He was the one who made manufacturing deals with Calvin Klein, Azzedine Alaïa, and Neiman Marcus, a business his son turned into a $1.23 billion powerhouse. "My father taught me respect for quality as well as a sense of dignity - great values as we face a world going in a different direction. I try to teach my children to stay close to the real things," Della Valle says. The words "Dignity, Duty, Fun" are inscribed on his private jet.

Given the scope of his projects, the motto is lived on a grand, if hectic, scale. There are additional homes in Milan, Paris, Ancona, and New York, a helicopter, a floating residence called the Altair, and several Ferraris. "My free time is very virtual," he says. "But when I can, even for just one day, I go to Capri with bundles of papers that I never even look at. Sooner or later I’ll learn to leave them behind."

JOHN F. & JACKIE KENNEDY ABORAD THE MARLIN, 1960. THE MARLIN IS WHERE JFK FIRST HEARD THE NEWS ABOUT THE BERLIN WALL.

JOHN F. & JACKIE KENNEDY ABORAD THE MARLIN, 1960. THE MARLIN IS WHERE JFK FIRST HEARD THE NEWS ABOUT THE BERLIN WALL.


DIEGO DELLA VALLE


A Brief History of Time before Tod’s

Filippo Della Valle at the beginning of the last century, launched a small cobbling business in Le Marche, in rural Italy. It was from within the basement walls of this modest enterprise that Diego Della Valle’s grandfather first applied the borderline obsessive attention to standards — quality in design, quality in construction, quality of materials — which today is etched indelibly onto the Tod’s manufacturing blueprint.

Diego’s father, Dorino, was another stickler for quality; in the 1940s, he parlayed the small firm into an international outfit, supplying private-label shoes to glitzy foreign outlets including Neiman Marcusand Saks Fifth Avenue. And here’s where a young Diego’s involvement begins. To give the teenaged Della Valle foundations in English and the basic tenets of international commerce, his father would take him on business trips regularly — more often than not to America. During one of these trans-Atlantic excursions, when Della Valle was 16, he made a discovery that would ultimately turn the family business into the Herculean enterprise it is today.

“I was walking around in New York, and saw a pair of moccasins in a shop window,” he explains, reclining into his swivel chair. “They’d been made by a Portuguese artisan. The concept was interesting, but the shoes were very bad: no quality, cheaply made, no technical realism had gone into them. But it was a starting point.”

The young Della Valle couldn’t have known, as he returned across the Atlantic to Italy, that the pair of shoddily made mocs in his luggage would evolve into a shoe that today is for Tod’s what the Stratocaster is for Fender, or the E-Type for Jaguar. But the young man The New Yorker would later dub the ‘Italian Ralph Lauren’ had certainly gotten his first scent of the preppy elegance the American middle classes carry off so well, and knew instinctively that his family’s stock in trade, steeped in the ancient traditions and methodologies of the Old World, would be devoured, hungrily, in the casual, informal-but-affluent penny-loafer-wearing milieu of the New World.

 

“It’s not true that  the name J.P. Tod’s is taken randomly from a Boston telephone directory.”

Della Valle knew — decades before corporate identity spawned a zillion-dollar industry and a kazillion boardroom platitudes — the value of a short, simple, speaker-friendly name, “You mean it was a little pretentious at the time? If you look at very big companies, the name is always user-friendly: ‘Apple’, ‘Hermès’, ‘Chanel’ — charming names!” Charming indeed, but aren’t they also phonetically ambiguous to much of their global audience? “Yes, I also wanted a name that is pronounced like it reads.”

“Yes, absolutely. People nowadays don’t want to just buy; they want to invest. Tod’s shoes or one of our bags are a long-term investment, not only because of the quality, but because we don’t change our look drastically every season. They get to buy something that’s modern, and will stay so.”

The ‘ain’t-broke, don’t-fix-it’ policy he’s describing is perhaps best represented in the Gommino — the astonishingly comfortable, quietly stylish loafer named after the 133 rubber pebbles embedded into its sole, which has barely changed since its arrival on the market, shortly after Tod’s was founded.

Headquartered in Casette d’Ete, close to the spot in Le Marche, Eastern Italy, where Della Valle’s grandfather first set up shop over a century ago, it is elegantly rendered from marble and glass, it has a polished-steel staircase designed by Ron Arad. Along with his grandfather’s wooden workbench and tools, plus eclectic artworks in every nook and cranny, a red Ferrari driven by Michael Schumacher in 1997 is on display (it was donated by Della Valle’s close friend and counterpart at Ferrari, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo). Most impressive of all, though, is something intangible in the building’s atmosphere: an all-pervading sense of quiet, efficient industry. Tod’s is famous for valuing and nurturing its staff, and to this end, the building offers a free nursery, a gym, restaurant and even an auditorium for lectures and exhibitions — which locals are also welcome to attend.

Dignità, Dovere e Divertimento   

The family motto is ‘Dignità, Dovere e Divertimento’, or ‘Dignity, Duty and Fun’. And here, we hit upon the defining feature of Tod’s as a company: it is, above all else, a family business, run in strict adherence to mores and methods passed down generations, with the principles of kinship woven into its cultural fabric. Diego’s brother Andrea stands shoulder-to-shoulder with him — figuratively, in his capacity as Vice President and CEO of Tod’s SpA. Della Valle’s architect wife, Barbara Pistilli, designed the illustrious company headquarters. His elder son Emanuele has also been involved in the past, and even Della Valle’s father Dorino, at the age of 86, occasionally patrols the factory’s corridors (on a bike, charmingly enough). “He’s essential to our technical processes and quality control,” says Della Valle. “He taught many of the professionals in the company today how to do their jobs. He knows the production process very well, and is one of the most important people in shoes and leather on the planet.”

Diego Della Valle, Italian Patriot

“Italy being part of us is a big part of our success,” he says. “Italian life — and real life, not that portrayed by actors and models or in movies — is our roots. It’s so important for Tod’s to be 100-percent Italian.” This is why the idea of moving production to cheaper parts of the world — something the economic downturn has persuaded many illustrious labels to consider — is anathema to Della Valle. “If we moved it to other countries, the quality would change. The Asian people want to buy ‘made-in-Italy’ quality. They want that philosophy.”

It’s also why his business interests outside Tod’s tend to focus on Italian brands (Ferrari, Generali, eyewear designer Marcolin, Vespa scooter manufacturer Piaggio, the newspaper Corriere della Sera and upmarket coffeemakers Bialetti Moka). “Tod’s is my job. The other part — the investments — don’t take up too much of my time or soul,” he says. There’s nothing that means more to him than the Italian artisanal tradition. Modern luxury giants — the likes of Ferrari, Bulgari and Brioni, as well as Tod’s — are, for Della Valle, the modern manifestation of a national yen for craftsmanship that goes back millennia. The older fruits of Italian artistry are, of course, evidenced all over the country in the form of crumbling classical antiquity. Which is why, early last year, Della Valle pledged US$34 million toward the restoration of Italy’s most recognisable landmark: the Colosseum. “That building represents the fact that Italians are the best artisans in the world — a people with a fantastic eye,” he says. “So when the mayor of Rome asked me to help him with the restoration, we were ready to go in five minutes.”

With the same end in mind as his Colosseum project — promoting Italy’s image overseas — Della Valle is also ploughing money into a new high-speed rail link. Guests forking out for a ticket that gets them into its upper-class section will be whisked from Rome to Milan in two hours in a sybaritic setting bedecked with (you’ve guessed it) natural leather. Again, the perception of Italy that visitors take away is one of the prime focuses of the project. “The reputation of our country is so important for all Italian companies,” he says. “That’s why we need to get back our reputation, when it comes to politics, as quickly as possible.”

 

 

Della Valle has often been a vocal critic of the disgraced former premier Berlusconi since 1993, when the then successful entrepreneur and owner of four major Italian television stations, announced a surprise decision to go into politics. Their relationship has deteriorated over the years, with Della Valle verbally taking ‘Il Cavaliere’ to task for taxation policies that penalised large businesses and overlooked smaller ones. Things apparently came to a head in March 2006, at a congress held by the Italian employers’ federation, Confindustria. Reportedly, the pair engaged in direct verbal combat. Then, in October of last year, when Mr Della Valle took out full-page newspaper ads to attack the “indecent” manner in which Italian politicians were allowing the country’s economy to slip into the mire while they remained preoccupied over “small or big personal and party interests”. This was the day after truckloads of petitions signed by 1.2 million citizens, demanding a revamp of the electoral system that maintained a shifty status quo, were delivered to court officials in Rome.

 

Living La Dolce Vita

Della Valle’s life is enhanced, rather than defined, by the spoils of immense wealth.

The 938th on Forbes’ billionaires list leads a charmed life by anyone’s standards. The main family roost — an ancient monastery in the hills that backdrop Capri, with a sauna and indoor and outdoor pools — is one of his five homes; another is a seventh-arrondissement mansion in Paris. His transport fleet includes five custom-made Ferraris, the aforementioned private jet and a helicopter to ferry him to Florence to watch Fiorentina (the football club he co-owns with Andrea). There’s also a mahogany yacht once owned by his hero, John F. Kennedy — a man who, he says, “represented a dream for a whole generation” — that the family likes to sail around the Mediterranean during summers. One of Tod’s best-selling loafers, the Marlin, was named after the vessel.

“My job involves my father, my brother, my son and so on,” he says. “And there’s no greater privilege than working with your family.”