It is no wonder that one of Diego Della Valle’s foremost passions is raising global appreciation for things that are—as the familiar little label says—Made in Italy. He is himself an exemplar of the credo. Born into a humble and hardworking family of shoemakers in postwar Italy, the young Della Valle saw his father’s work pay off in the 1960s as his shoes became fashionable items in America. After working with his father for several years, he launched a second brand of shoes in the 1970s, a soft-soled moccasin with adistinctive rubber-nub sole called J. P. Tod’s thatquietly became a high-quality, low-key status item until the 1990s, when Tod’s exploded. Under Della Valle’s direction, Tod’s now encompasses three other brands, Hogan, Fay, and Roger Vivier. He owns the Fiorentina soccer team, is a shareholder in the Rome film studio Cinecittà and the media company that publishes Rizzoli books, and recently increased his ownership in an iconic American force, Saks, Inc. Della Valle has funded productions at La Scala in Milan and is even paying for the restoration of the Coliseum in Rome. And the 57-year-old tycoon is just as elegantly diversified in his own life, with trophies both stationary (homes in Milan, Paris, Ancona, and Capri) and mobile (a Falcon jet, a helicopter, a fleet of cars including several Ferraris, two mega-yachts, and a boat that once belonged to his American idol, John F. Kennedy). Despite having achieved something like sopra-hero status in Italy and given how ardentlyhe campaigns for the ideals of Italian quality, Della Valle still desires the one thing that everyone whohas got it all needs: time to enjoy it.
DAVID COLMAN: Looking over your vital statistics—the houses, the boats, the plane, La Scala—you are really living la dolce vita. It’s hard to believethat you built it all up yourself from such humble beginnings. What was it like growing up in the cultureof shoemaking?
DIEGO DELLA VALLE: It is what I listened to when I was young, 24 hours a day. Plus my mother worked in the factory with my father. And I stayed many hours a day with my parents, inside the factory. I smelled leather all of my life.
COLMAN: Growing up in the ’50s in Italy, what did America seem like to you?
DELLA VALLE: I remember perfectly my first trip to New York, when I was on the bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan, when I saw the skyscrapers. It was like an incredible dream. New York was a movie, it was the American stars, it was Marlon Brando, it was John Kennedy, it was all of that. Of course, it is many other things. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MoMA. You know, more or less, I am an old, traditional guy.
COLMAN: But modern still. You like old-fashioned modern.
DELLA VALLE: Both. Fifty percent of my personality is very close to the roots and the other fifty percent is very curious about the future.
COLMAN: Would you say that Tod’s seems to be a combination of these two things?
DELLA VALLE: I think that, yes, maybe the brand follows the owner, no?
COLMAN: Obviously many people have diverse portfolios, but you have an interesting one. I mean, why buy a soccer team?
DELLA VALLE: Why not? What do you do Saturday afternoon when it rains?
COLMAN: [laughs] Right.
DELLA VALLE: It’s a joke. Our life is our business. Ninety-five percent of my occupation is the Tod’s group. My soul, the soul of my family, it is what we know, it is what we like to do. Any other thing is the family investment where I don’t invest my soul or my energy. We invest only money. And Fiorentina is, typically, an Italian hobby. We love football, me and my brother, we like to have one team. I think it’s a good reason to be close to young, energetic people.
COLMAN: What other things do you love enough that you wish you could buy a stake of?
DELLA VALLE: I don’t have any one financial attitude. My love is to do product. I love to do the best product that is possible to do today. I love to open shops around the world.
COLMAN: What is your strategy for Tod’s right now?
DELLA VALLE: The strategy is to stay where we are, and not move from our philosophy of exclusivity and high quality. I think if we remain what we are, day by day, the attention will grow about how special we are, about the style of life these products represent, the Italian style of life. That’s what I hope we’ll be in the future.
COLMAN: Are you going to be moving more into apparel?
DELLA VALLE: Not so much. We want to stay special with Tod’s. We specialize in leather. We want to do apparel in leather, for men, a few pieces—basic, iconic pieces like our shoes or our bags. For women, Derek [Lam] translates our philosophy very well.
COLMAN: What about Saks Fifth Avenue? What was the appeal of buying into that?
DELLA VALLE: Saks is one of the temples of good- quality products in America. The Saks shop in New York, for me, is the most interesting department store in America.
COLMAN: Do you remember going to Saks when you were young?
DELLA VALLE: Yes, of course. When I was young and coming to New York with my father, I didn’t have anything to do. I was in between Saks and Bloomingdales and Bergdorf Goodman.
COLMAN: Did it make a big impact on you then?
DELLA VALLE: No, because I didn’t have too much money in my pocket at the time.
COLMAN: Well, you sure changed that. You do a very good job of representing the sort of Italian ideal that we love here in America—the well-dressed man of the world, he has a soccer team, he has cars, he has a house in Capri. It’s sort of like you’ve got the Italian dream, right?
DELLA VALLE: [laughs] I am the typical Italian guy?
COLMAN: No, not the typical.
DELLA VALLE: I am the typical Italian guy!
COLMAN: Not typical, but the Uomo dei sogni. The man someone dreams of being.
DELLA VALLE: Maybe I am like it because I try to remain young in my mind. You try to be young,maybe you like to have a few toys, but it’s not the most important thing in life.
Photo: Diego Della Valle at Villa Necchi campiglio in Milan, January 2011. All Clothing: Della Valle’s own. Sittings Editor: Karen Kaiser.
COLMAN: One of the things that’s very nice about Tod’s is a certain kind of sporty, elegant life that Italian people are so good at achieving—a style that is casual but elegant.
DELLA VALLE: The Tod’s style of life is about a good mix between many generations of people, between the old roots, and the people who like to remain in the original old houses in the country, and the modern sense of life. Tod’s was one of the luxury brands that translated that very well 25 to 30 years ago. Because in those years everyone was more formal during the week, and on the weekend they tried to be comfortable.
COLMAN: Maybe that’s something American men are finally understanding. What do you like about American style?
DELLA VALLE: We like the icons of American style. I am a big fan of Levi’s jeans. And I was a big, big fan of Brooks Brothers. We were fanatics about aviator sunglasses. My American idol was Steve McQueen. When I think of America, I think of him.
COLMAN: When I used to come to Italy in the ’80s, I would see these Italian guys who were so much preppier than Americans were. A friend of mine was like, yeah “preppino,” the “preppini.” The Italians do it much better.
DELLA VALLE: Are you preppy or more of the Italian look?
COLMAN: Io sono tutto Americano. Very All-American.
DELLA VALLE: Good. A real WASP guy.
COLMAN: How do you say WASP in Italian?
DELLA VALLE: Vespa? No, there isn’t [a term].
COLMAN: You have a lot of nice pastimes, but what’s your favorite? Do you like sailing the most?
DELLA VALLE: I have many toys, but no time, unfortunately. It’s a problem. When I have free time I try to do nothing. I try to stay in my house with my dear friends. Or see a movie with my children. I like to play football with my friends. I like to eat my country’s food . . . that’s it.
COLMAN: I understand that you gave a lot of money—I think it’s about $34 million—to restore the Coliseum.
DELLA VALLE: We paid for all of the restoration of the Coliseum. I like to do that. I like to make that an example of our culture, no? Everybody knows it around the world.
COLMAN: Are they going to change the name of it to the Della Valle-seo?
DELLA VALLE: No. I want to open a few shops in the Coliseo.
COLMAN: Those arcades are perfect.
DELLA VALLE: It’s a joke.
COLMAN: No, I know. Are there other things that you would like to see restored? Does any other monument need it? I guess, actually, all of Rome is just a wreck, isn’t it?
DELLA VALLE: Well, one big investment for now is that we support La Scala in Milano. We try to do something for our country.
COLMAN: You seem to be connected in the political world of Italy. You’ve had a friendship with [Silvio] Berlusconi, I know you’ve had your arguments with him too, but what is appealing about the political world of Italy?
DELLA VALLE: I don’t want to lose my time speaking about politics. I prefer to spend it trying to do something for my country.
COLMAN: Would you ever consider going into politics yourself?
DELLA VALLE: Never.
COLMAN: What other brands do you like? Any specific other brands besides Levi’s?
DELLA VALLE: I like a special Cartier watch but more or less, I use an American military watch because it’s very light. It’s possible to read the hours at night . . . That’s it. I don’t have a passion anymore.
COLMAN: No passion? At all?
DELLA VALLE: No, not now. When I was young, yes, not now.
COLMAN: What happened?
DELLA VALLE: I think that I want to have practical objects.
COLMAN: So, what kind of car do you drive?
DELLA VALLE: I don’t drive too much, especially during the week. I like the big Chrysler Monovolume for my business week. I have a few Ferraris at home.
COLMAN: But you never have time to drive them.
DELLA VALLE: Yes, but I like to look at them on a Saturday afternoon—it’s like I’m on a holiday.
COLMAN: It’s nice just to have them to imagine that you can drive them. It’s enough that they’re there.
DELLA VALLE: It’s true. It’s like a sculpture, no?
COLMAN: Si, una scultura della possibilità. A sculpture of possibility.
DELLA VALLE: Esatto. That’s the perfect sculpture for me now.
Photo: Courtesy of Tod’s. fashion details page 215.
David Colman is a New York-based writer.