Lunch with the FT: Diego Della Valle

Under the watchful eye of a bodyguard, the chief of the luxury goods behemoth Tod’s tells Peter Aspden why dignity, duty, fun and a new Ferrari mean more to him than friendship with Silvio Berlusconi

The Milan headquarters of Tod’s is an austere building in the centre of the city that discreetly bears the name of the Della Valle family, who founded the small shoe factory in the Marche region of Italy in the early years of the last century. Successive generations have developed the brand to unimagined heights. Today, under the stewardship of the group’s president and chief executive Diego Della Valle, it is a luxury goods behemoth.

Tod’s accessories – the famous gommini driving shoes, the D-bag – have managed the rare and highly profitable trick of appearing both exclusive and ubiquitous. Of course, they are only the first of those things. That much is dictated by their stinging prices. But the gallery of celebrities who line up to model the company’s wares keeps them permanently in the public eye. Where would the haplessly tall Carla Bruni be, for example, if it were not for the reassuringly flat and ever-chic Tod’s ballerina shoes that keep her in the same airspace as her husband?

I meet Della Valle at HQ and we take a short walk to Il Baretto al Baglioni, where he often dines. He is wearing a formal dark blue suit, light blue shirt, dark blue tie, something of a uniform in this part of the world, and his characteristic coloured bracelets, which are emphatically not. As we walk, exchanging small talk, a burly man behind us looks like he is trying to overtake. I pause for a moment to let him pass, but he stops himself and gives me a stern look. We walk on, he walks on. The penny drops. Excitingly, Lunch with the FT is being tended by a bodyguard.

It is a sharp reminder of Della Valle’s wealth and status in Italy. Tod’s is a success story that continues to show impressive growth: half-year results of the €800m company released this week show sales up by 16.4 per cent from the corresponding period last year and net income up by 26.7 per cent. In an era full of financial gloom and political unrest, nothing succeeds like a well-cut handbag. What, I plan to ask Della Valle, does this tell us of the ways of the world?

But first it is time to order. The restaurant is dark and serious, and a waiter brings us spumante. We agree some terms of engagement: I will speak English, Della Valle will speak Italian, and we will iron out difficulties between us. He asks if I like Milanese food and recommends the house specialities: we will both have the riso al salto, a solidified risotto, and cotolette alla Milanese, breaded veal cutlets, to be accompanied by a Montalcino wine from Tuscany.

Della Valle, 57, is evidently in love with Italy’s most fabled region. He describes to me how he looks down from his helicopter when he is flying between Siena and Florence to find “total aesthetic perfection, a synthesis of everything that is beautiful about Italy”. He loves Tuscany so much that he bought the region’s most famous football team, Fiorentina, in 2002 after an approach from Florence’s mayor to rescue the ailing club, which was broke and relegated to the bottom of the league.

The club was duly turned around and is re-established in the league’s top division. Today it promotes the “correct values”, says Della Valle, mindful of his 13-year-old son’s passion for the sport. I ask if the decision to buy the club was made from the heart, or for business reasons. “With football, business reasons don’t exist,” he replies. He watches Fiorentina play when he can, but spends most weekends travelling.

This comes as no surprise: Tod’s is nothing if not a global concern and, as with most luxury goods companies, eyes are looking hungrily eastwards. Della Valle talks of the need to “intensify” efforts in Asia, where demand is especially buoyant. I ask him if he ever expected China to become such an important market. “I was in China in the bicycle years. Even 10 years ago I would never have imagined it.”

He says that the Chinese thirst for “beautiful things” is without precedent. “In previous cases [of rapid growth], such as postwar America or the Japan of 25 years ago, it was there, but it was a much more gradual thing. In China it is immediate, and it is felt by everyone.”

He goes on to explain the cascading effect of traditional luxury goods marketing: high-end goods are bought by the elite, and the middle classes aspire to them; then the middle classes acquire them, and the class below aspires to them. China has blown that model apart: enormous quantities of people are providing instant and relentless demand. “It does not allow the reputation of a brand to mature. But the really interesting question, looking ahead four or five years, is what will the Chinese people be buying to distinguish themselves from other Chinese people?” That, he says, will become an important existential issue for luxury brands: will they be perceived as exclusive, or popular? “It will be a delicate balance. To grow, but to retain that exclusivity. The dream touch.”

The understanding of material aspiration and, as he puts it, people’s “dreams” to be associated with high-quality products is central to Della Valle’s marketing vision. I ask him how and why certain products – the gommini, the D-bag – become fashion icons. “Because they are perfect: in aesthetic terms, their proportions, their quality.” Does he instantly recognise when a new product is destined for such status? “Yes, immediately. They are like thoroughbreds. You know they will last. And then it becomes a matter of maintaining coherence, with the re-editions, to make sure the DNA of the product is consistent.”

With all this talk of Asian resurgence, does he consider that the “Made in Italy” label will retain its lustre? “Yes,” he replies unhesitatingly. “Because it is still the maximum guarantee of high quality for products such as ours. Like the French for perfume, the Swiss for watches. The Chinese do not want to buy ‘Made in China’.” But the Chinese will surely learn, if they haven’t already, how to make things equally well? “But we have the hundreds, the thousands, of family firms, micro-enterprises, almost a Renaissance model, that guarantee that quality. That’s not easy to copy.”

All well and good. But there is a big problem with Italy, I say: its politics. Here we enter troubled waters. Della Valle is known not to be one of the greatest supporters of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. There was an unseemly and quintessentially Italian spat five years ago when Berlusconi admonished Della Valle for using the informal “tu” to him instead of the formal “lei”, a grammatical crossing of swords that seemed to belong to the 19th century.

Della Valle is more reluctant to be drawn into overt political discussion these days. But, I ask, isn’t there the risk that the enduring image of Italy as a centre of excellence is tarnished by the colourful ways of its prime minister? Is the country not becoming a little ridiculous in the eyes of the world?

Della Valle replies slowly and measuredly. “In the past 20 years we have made many strategic errors.” He blames politicians for their lack of international understanding, and the absence of a neutral bureaucratic infrastructure to help with transitions of power. But he doesn’t mention Berlusconi.

He says it is entrepreneurs such as himself who must step in. “We must become more visible. We have an obligation to do things for our country. To create a sense of solidarity. Our country is made by proud Italians.” He gives, as an example, Tod’s recent €25m financing of the restoration of Rome’s Colosseum, and calls for other successful companies to undertake similar cultural initiatives. “That way the reputation of our country will change.”

But can it really, in the era of the reputedly sordid “bunga-bunga” parties thrown by Berlusconi? “Unfortunately, we can’t control that. But Italy is much stronger than bunga-bunga.”

We are interrupted by a greeting from the next table, and I am introduced to Vittorio Feltri, one of the most influential journalists in Italy who writes for, and used to edit, the Berlusconi-owned Il Giornale. Feltri is with a striking woman who turns out to be from the Trussardi family, another famous name from the Italian fashion world. Pleasantries are exchanged. As we sit down again, Della Valle whispers to me that the minister of defence is at another table. We are surrounded by potentially hostile forces.

I ask about the food. The riso al salto, he says, is a peasant dish, the refrying of leftovers from lunch, which has recently become a “piatto snob”. A re-edition, I joke lamely, and he has the courtesy to laugh. And the cutlets are a typical Milanese dish? “Mine is,” he says. “Yours is customised,” referring to the cherry tomatoes and rocket salad which I ordered and which lie frivolously on its top. It is a comment that could only come from a luxury goods manufacturer.

I ask him about the origins of the Tod’s gommini driving shoes, which have acquired a mythological resonance in the fashion world. He was in the US as a young man, he says, and he spotted “these strange shoes, very badly made, from Portugal”, which were being marketed as a driving accessory. He bought the shoes and brought them back to his father. “He thought they were horrible, and told me to throw them away.”

But he thought again, and a revolution beckoned. “My father changed the way we think about shoes,” says Della Valle. “In the past, expensive shoes were rigid, heavy. So he had the idea of making them soft, to fit like a glove, using the best quality leather.” This was no esoteric footwear issue; it chimed with the way the world was changing. “Twenty years ago luxury goods were something you never used day-to-day. For your daily use you had cheap things, which were ugly,” says Della Valle. “But now, people work hard, they travel, they want to be comfortable, they want something that will take them from work to the weekend. And they want them to be beautiful.” Luxury went casual, and Tod’s became the soft-shoed ambassador of a profound sociological change.

I ask how he divides his time, and he says that his decision to bring up his son Filippo in the same village, indeed in the same school that he himself attended, forces him to travel. There is a summer house in Capri, another house in Milan, another in Paris, another in New York, another in Miami. A boat to cruise the Mediterranean. Another boat that used to belong to John F Kennedy, moored in Capri. He recounts the list unostentatiously, professes his love of the simple life, and manages not to sound disingenuous.

From dolce vita to dolce: we order dessert. He asks for fruit; I cannot resist the ice-cream. We talk some more about the great Italian brands, and I mention Ferrari. “I just got one today,” he says with no ceremony whatsoever. In fact, he explains, he ordered it some time ago but has just received the phone call saying it was ready. Luca di Montezemolo, Ferrari’s chairman, is a close friend and Della Valle picked out the car with Filippo, customising it with his trademark colours, which makes me feel a bit better about the cutlet.

He tells me about the initials, DDD, that are written on his private jet, which stand for Dignità, Dovere, Divertimento – Dignity, Duty, Fun. Picking out a Ferrari, he says, belongs in the last category, “but it is important to respect the mixture of those three qualities.”

I press him once more: it was all so alluring, this vision of elegant living, buttressed by an artisanal tradition, and the refined cultural sensibility that helped make Italy the most seductive nation on earth. But how did that translate in political terms? “The people have had enough of politics,” he says firmly. “They want a country that is run well.” Is he optimistic about the future? “I am realistically optimistic.” A bowl of cherries spookily appears at the table.

Then suddenly Della Valle looks across at the table opposite. A game of power-political musical chairs has taken place. Feltri has moved there, the minister of defence has taken his leave, and two new characters have appeared: the director of the Italian football league, and an under-secretary of state in Berlusconi’s government. “I’ve been looking at you,” says Della Valle mock-threateningly across the small room. “When we communists arrive, we’ll give you a half-hour warning!”

There follows a 10-minute barrage of thinly veiled sarcastic remarks between the tables. “We are only joking,” Della Valle tells me, apologising for the interruption. “They think I am a communist.” But you’re not, are you? I ask, just for the hell of it. “I am a liberal. I want everyone to be well.”

As I listen to the badinage, most of which I fail to follow, it is impossible not to think of Italy as a country at war with itself, torn between this thriving, pragmatic industrial sector that continues to seduce the world, and a political elite that seems mired in scandal and cheap adventurism. The exploits at the heart of Berlusconi’s private life seem a world away from the sophisticated dreams being so successfully peddled by Della Valle. I can’t help feel he would be mortified if anyone were found to be wearing Tod’s loafers at a bunga-bunga party. (But it is not, truth to tell, beyond the realms of possibility.)

Over coffee, we talk some more of people’s dreams. Della Valle has clearly achieved most of his. Are there any left? “More free time,” he replies instantly. “To be able to say: ‘Today I am not doing anything. I’ll look up some friends, see an exhibition.’ I do the opposite. Arrive. Airport. Driver. Office. Hotel. Meetings. Leave.”

The Italians call this reverie the dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing, but that particular dream is probably beyond Della Valle, at least for the moment. He can find solace, in the meantime, in having created the perfect wardrobe for it.

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