Sandro Veronesi illustration

In the middle of our lunch in a cosy wine bar in central Verona, my guest, Sandro Veronesi, wants to look at my socks. “Let me see, what are you wearing?” he asks, slightly out of the blue but perfectly politely. Weirdly, this is the second Lunch with the FT guest who has made such a demand. The first, the fashion muse Amanda Harlech, concluded from my choice of hosiery that I probably drove a vintage car. (For the record, she was mistaken.)

So this time I am prepared for the unorthodox inquiry. I hitch up some trouser leg. The socks are long and they feature a series of horizontal stripes, in lime green, navy blue and dove grey, of varying widths. They hug the calf tightly, but not too tightly. They are warm but not excessively so. Bless them, my cotton socks. They are, I tell him, from his company Calzedonia, of course. I am a big fan. We have a laugh, and turn our attention back to matters above the table.

Veronesi understands socks. Socks and stockings have made him a very rich man, his net worth estimated at nearly $2bn in this year’s Forbes World’s Billionaires list. Calzedonia, which started with a small store here in the middle of Verona, can be seen in virtually every high street in Europe and the brand is beginning to make inroads in Asia. The group, which includes the underwear brand Intimissimi, the fashion label Tezenis and the knitwear brand Falconeri, reported consolidated sales of more than €1.8bn for 2014, an 11 per cent increase on the previous year.

Our lunch venue is Signorvino, a cross between a wine bar and a shop, which also happens to be part of the Calzedonia empire. Veronesi is disarmingly informal, wearing a deconstructed hybrid jacket/cardigan, the breezy epitome of that troublesome style category, “casual-smart”. He explains the concept behind the venue. Many entrepreneurs like to invest in wine, mostly by buying vineyards, he says. He prefers instead to promote the “wonderful” small wineries of his native country, devising a way to make their produce accessible to more people. You come into the store, which offers inexpensive regional dishes, and choose from an almost bewildering variety of wines, which are also offered for you to take away at exactly the same price.

“This kind of concept was missing,” says Veronesi, cheerfully. Beware if you are a missing concept, or a “gap in the market”, as it is more prosaically known in the Anglo-Saxon world, because this deceptively easy-going 55-year-old will have his talons in you before you know you even exist. The stores have been rolling out all over Italy and Veronesi says he has his eyes on international expansion. Italian wines are doing well in the UK, I tell him.

“Yes,” he says drily. “We had some prosecco in London. It is meant to be a cheap alternative to champagne. But it was £28 a bottle! For something you can pick up for €2 here!” I think he is exaggerating but the point is well-made. The restaurant’s menu is festooned with little circular mission statements, one of which consists of the words “Qualità” and “Prezzo”: quality and price. “Value for money” is a mantra for Veronesi and he seems genuinely outraged to hear of it being transgressed.

I ask him to recommend a wine. We decide on a Pinot Nero from the Trentino-Alto Adige region in the north, where Veronesi was born. “Light, young, good for everyday drinking,” he says with an air of expertise. I ask him also to advise me on a local speciality to accompany the wine. “How do you feel about horse?” he asks.

In Britain we make paintings of them, I say a little nervously. I am not sure I have ever eaten it, but I’m willing to try. So we both order the pastissada of horsemeat, served with creamy polenta. Veronesi explains the dish is a legacy of Verona’s Austrian past, and the (literal) remnants of its cavalry. I try to think of it as an enlightened proto-recycling operation.

I ask him how he ever became involved with socks. He replies that his first job in 1984, following a degree in economics and commerce at the University of Verona, was for Golden Lady, then the world’s leading manufacturer of tights, or pantyhose. “It was a different time,” he says un-nostalgically. “We would supply wholesalers and they would supply specialist shops. The supermarkets didn’t sell that kind of thing. It was very traditional.”

It was not a business model that he recognised from his studies, however. “We would go to visit a wholesaler, say in Napoli. We would go out, have a very long lunch, mozzarellas, wine. We would reach an agreement. And then the client would pay with a cheque that was postdated by six months, nine months. They were financing themselves by delaying their payments.”

Overseas transactions were scarcely better. “The worst were the French. We would be dealing with these grand dames, they said they would meet you at 10am and turned up at four, leaving you waiting in some old room. Then the price was never right, this was no good, that was no good. It was a hard life. There was no sense of fair play, or respect.”

Liberation came following a visit to London. “I saw these new kinds of stores: the Body Shop, the Sock Shop, and I thought to myself, ‘I can do that.’” He opened his first branch of Calzedonia in 1986. It was, he says, a moderate success. The second branch didn’t do so well. The third began to persuade him of a bright future for his ambitions. “I didn’t know anything about retail. But I began to understand that a good location was very important, even though it cost more.”

The horsemeat arrives. “How is it?” he asks me. Perfectly good, I reply honestly. But not very horsey, whatever that may mean. It could be beef. “There are butchers in Italy who specialise in it,” he says happily.

For the next few years, Veronesi devoted himself exclusively to his new project. The old business model was defunct, he concluded. He verticalised his operation, putting the company in charge of manufacture, distribution, retail. Everywhere he turned, it seemed, there were gaps in the market. Swimwear: “There were the great brands, which were very expensive, and the very cheap ones, which were not very nice.” Underwear: “There were beautiful luxury products around. But underwear is not like a watch, or a jacket, or a jumper. It is hidden. No one sees it. And you have to wash it every day. Why would you spend €500 on it?”

I ask Veronesi if he has made any errors on the way. “Continuously,” he says. “The important thing to remember, if you are trying something that is an innovation, is not to think too much about it. Because if you take too long, by the time you get there, the world will have changed. You take a risk, and if it doesn’t work, you make a change. We are not betting our lives on it.”

There are also the “bad news” trends to contend with: men opting for short socks rather than long ones; even worse, women choosing to go out in bare legs. “Even in winter!” he sounds incredulous, and says the trend started in England. I feel as if I ought to apologise.

The first branch of the lingerie chain Intimissimi (“simple styling in a refined language”) opened in 1996 and, 20 years on, you cannot avoid seeing the store’s products if you live anywhere near a European high street. The underwear features in a series of posters, worn by striking-looking women in striking poses. “But not too sexy,” says Veronesi. “Remember they are designed by women, for women.”

This brings us to another intriguing statistic in the Calzedonia story: 84 per cent of the group’s employees are women. And 59 per cent are under 30. “They understand more than us about these things,” he says almost resignedly. “They buy it, they wear it. We may come up with 1,000 rationalisations about a new product, [but] they are able to say, ‘This is beautiful, this is ugly.’” So it is a more instinctive approach? “Exactly.”

And then, he says, there is another factor. “Women have more energy, for a greater number of years, than men. Men, as they age, become either more wise or more stupid.” I raise an eyebrow. “No, there is also a third way,” he swiftly corrects himself. “They can become bad. They get this feeling that time is marching on, and the world has passed them by.”

I am definitely getting wiser, I tell him. But also a little tired. (We are roughly the same age.) “But it is right to be tired! It is normal! People often ask me, all these things you have done, you must have had no holidays, and worked 12-hour days. No! I work an eight-hour day, five days a week, and I go on holidays. That way, you use your head properly.” We drink to that.

He asks if I would like to try another speciality: pork marinated in Chianti, with potatoes and caramelised onions. Bring it on, I say. While we wait, I ask him to talk to me about opera.

Veronesi has recently entered the world of cultural sponsorship, with his “Intimissimi on Ice OPERAPOP” venture, which filled the world-famous Arena di Verona for a couple of sold-out performances last year. “Ice has never been this fiery”, said the show’s promotional slogan; but there were flames of wrath, too, from Italy’s opera establishment, for whom this sacred cultural space was never meant to entertain “Nessun Dorma” performed in conjunction with a triple salchow.

The show featured pop stars (Pharrell Williams, Kiesza, Anastacia), opera singers, Olympic skaters, wild lighting effects and costumes inspired by the latest Intimissimi collection. What brought that on, I ask?

“I used to appear in the opera here,” he says disarmingly. “As an extra. It was a normal student job.” What roles had he played? “Slaves, soldiers, priests. Everything.” The plan with “Intimissimi on Ice” was to produce a spettacolo. He certainly achieved that, I say. But what about the critics? He brushes their objections aside. “Look, opera in the 19th century, six hours long, it started in the afternoon, people took picnics, they talked through it. It was like a cricket match!” He knows about cricket: a googly of a simile.

“Now we can’t concentrate for all that time. We used to be able to do it, now we can’t.” So he thinks the critics are snobs? “They are killing opera! It is getting smaller and smaller audiences. And then it is subsidised by the state! Why?”

Because it is considered very precious, I reply. “If it is so precious, then let the people who think that pay for it.”

Because it is an important part of a national heritage? “Like giant pandas?” Well, a little bit like giant pandas. “It is not right — to ask the whole community to pay for something that only four people want to see.”

He is exaggerating again. But it is a guilty thrill to hear this point of view expressed quite so colourfully. I fantasise about setting Veronesi on to the English Arts Council. On skates, perhaps. “Intimissimi on Ice” is a perfect synergy for his brand, he says. “These are women who are not models, they are athletes, dancers, skaters. They are active women, real women.” What plans does he have for this year’s version? “To make it better. Like all the things we do, make them better.”

I try one last time to put a case for traditional, non-ice-skating opera. It needs protection from the state, I say, otherwise, at the mercy of the free market, it will die out altogether. “That’s not true,” he fires back. “Look at America. There is no state support there, yet there are plenty of avant-garde things that prosper. There are always people who want to support these things.”

Impressed by his confidence and dynamism, I ask if he thinks Italy’s entrepreneurs do a better job for their country than its much-maligned political class.

There is a long pause. He doesn’t want to go there. “It’s difficult,” he finally responds. “At first sight, it may seem like that. But it is easy to criticise. It is much more difficult to get things done.” Another pause. “What I believe is that single people can change things. They can change the world.”

The tonno del Chianti (an obscure culinary joke: the pork is described as tuna) is excellent, I say, and we order our coffees. I tell Veronesi that I like the formula of Signorvino. It is as if he is trying to do the same with wine as he has with underwear and hosiery. It is the same gap in the market, the same mantra: affordable quality. “Exactly the same. Who has time to eat five courses over two-and-a-half hours any more? People want to eat well, but quickly and at moderate prices. The world is faster.”

Doesn’t he have any nostalgia for the old world, when things moved more slowly, and opaquely? Women’s lingerie used to be a topic that was shrouded in mystery. Now it is everywhere. Has anything been lost in his great democratising mission? “No I am not nostalgic,” he says instantly. “I don’t look behind me. I prefer to look ahead.”

And what’s ahead? Another brand, another missing concept: Atelier Emé, a wedding gown manufacturer acquired by the Calzedonia group earlier this year. Veronesi says he bought the company partly as a favour to an old friend. “People ask me, why are you getting into weddings when no one is getting married any more? Eh, I don’t know. It was a decision from the heart. But could it be a gap in the market? Let’s try it and see.”

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

Illustration by Seb Jarnot

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