Lapo Elkann blazes into his office on Milan’s Corso Venezia at a hot clip, a few minutes late, issuing a gracious, “Sorry, gentlemen”, in his cigarette-etched rasp. Trays of espresso appear for the people in the office. Elkann slams one down, then another, burns through a couple of Marlboros, rifles through a few papers on and off his desk, issues a few orders and begins to undress. Really undress, as in whipping off his jacket, shoes and pants. It’s swift work.
This much can be simply stated: Elkann approximates the effect of an intense weather cell, one of those heaven-reaching water-spouts that occasionally wreak havoc on the Mediterranean. The centrifugal upsurge is magnificent.
Many things fly by in the vortex around the man: People, ideas, pens, paper, cigarettes, eyeglasses, coffee, more coffee, his Juventus football club lighter (his family has owned the team since 1923), a couple of phones and, right this minute, his pants.
Fair enough, he’s changing into a suit from his made-to-order capsule collection for Gucci—the eponymous Lapo’s Wardrobe, in which he will shortly be photographed—so there’s an ostensible sporting efficiency to the exercise. But still. Would, say, Larry Ellison or Les Moonves dare the instant locker-room familiarity in his office with four or five people standing around? Elkann has no secrets, metaphorically or otherwise, or not many that he doesn’t automatically reveal.
The new suit is a peacocky double-breasted chalk stripe and could almost pass as bankerly. But the stripes are set gangster-wide, so it seems more appropriate for the gentleman who might be relieving the banker of his funds.
He puts his fist on his chin, like a Roman senator in a debate, and clicks his blue pen twice as the starting gun for continuing the reminiscence.
“Obviously I have been taught many things by both my grandfathers,” he says. “But the ventures that I take are not with my family’s money—they’re my decisions, my choices, and that’s the way I want them to be. It’s a very separate but kind wall that’s been built, with flowers, between my companies and my family’s companies. I’m still one of the largest shareholders in the family business, with my brother [John, the chairman of Fiat] and my sister, which I look at with very serious eyes, and I’m part of it. But my day-to-day life is building my group, my company, my empire, my story, which I hope one day I’ll be able to leave to my kids.”
He doesn’t have children yet—or a wife—but there should be quite a bit to leave by the time he’s done. Elkann’s literary talent for analysis along with his obvious entrepreneurial gifts—the Italia Independent IPO in 2013 was a solid hit on the Milan Exchange and last year, the company reported revenues of nearly $36 million, a 32.1 percent rise—is delightfully at odds with the knight-errant figure he cuts on the social battlefields, upon which he has long been a closely tracked star. Playboy? Maybe, but it’s mostly just another suit of clothes he can put on or take off. At his core, he’s a peripatetic entrepreneur working out his ancestral gift for empire building.
I ask him how, with the dozens of directions and the many continents to which he’s taking his businesses, he found the time to design the roomful of witty, razor-sharp shirts and suits for Gucci. He cracks a wry smile, blue eyes straight up through his big eyeglasses.
“Once I get to it, I’m very fast,” he says. He’s not kidding, in a couple of ways.
Elkann’s personal velocity shows in more than just the execution of his business ideas. Partly for Garage Italia, but partly because he’s just a classic pistonhead with genetic high-octane in his veins, he’s plotting a return to the Autodromo di Monza test track in a Ferrari 456 GT2. Or put another way, despite last September’s bone- crunching motorcycle wreck, he’ll be satisfying his velocity jones with another few dozen bursts down straightaways at 150 mph.
If one is around Elkann for long, it becomes clear that the eddies and gusts of events around him are just the shape of his wake, the disturbance coming off him as he slices through the waters of life at speed. He’s in whatever’s happening, but he’s so fast that he also seems in any given moment to be beyond that moment. Outwardly, he reserves his formidable impatience for himself, but there’s a strong sense that he’s always, silently, calling out “Next!”
“I think the automotive world, the big manufacturers, need to wake up,” he says not far from one of several love seats he has had fabricated from sawed-off vintage Fiat 500 engine bays. “All people want their things their way. When I move through the world, I want my things my way. Whether you’re old, young, male or female, there is a range of things that you like and things that you don’t like about any of your vehicles. We can change all of that. In fact, Garage Italia does not restrict it to cars; let’s take your boat, your jet ski, your motorbike, your 4x4, your helicopter, your Gulfstream and fashion it the way you like it.
“At this level of the market, there’s no limit. We’ve only been up and running for a few months, but we’re in the fortunate position of having to turn down jobs. We can do it anywhere, to any kind of vehicle on earth and deliver anywhere on earth. It’s a global design push.”
Or, in American terms, an air-sea-land version of Pimp My Ride. Garage Italia’s splashy debut was at this March’s auto show in Geneva, where Elkann and his 15 core designer-builders chose to deliver a hilariously elegant Fiat 500, the recently redesigned iconic Fiat “bug” of the late ’50s and early ’60s. The Turin factory had tweaked it into a very sleek, handy, mid-range urban gadabout, much as BMW tweaked the Austin Mini. In Geneva, Elkann presented it with his customary brio as the ‘Black Tie’ Fiat 500X, with tuxedo fabrics, cashmere and leather trim, and excellent black-on-black-striped “wrap paint”. Which is something nobody expected in the mid-range. That was his point.
As for his press clips, good, bad and indifferent, he’s had a selection of them printed as wallpaper, with which he has lined the hall leading to his door. Taken together, the wallpaper and the tapirs are a celebratory act of defiance: You think you’ve caught me, but there’s no way you will—so bring it.
But it’s important to know that there’s a larger, more legitimate historical reason for the unending attention of the Italian press. It is that—in Italy, metaphorically speaking—Elkann is descended from God. There were not many titans of industry in 19th-century Italy—there was certainly no automotive industry in southern Europe at all—as Giovanni Agnelli, Elkann’s great-great grandfather, invested in and then later became chairman of Fiat. If we add Elkann’s eternally stylish 20th-century grandfather Gianni—who ruled Turin for decades—in the Agnellis we have the family that, above all others, brought Italy into the modern age. In Elkann, then, we have a pure industrial deity who is just now realising his own powers.
We take a quick ride around the corner on an errand in his throaty Garage Italia-customised Maserati—kitted out with a silver-grey pin-striped paint job and black worsted wool pinstripe uphol- stery. We decide to walk back. Walking is complicated for Elkann right now, because, in line with the theory of velocity in his life, he’s more than a little stiff from that motorcycle crash a few months ago. He just recently got off his canes, so there’s a bit of a limp left.
“I have to be a little careful,” he admits.
He once hilariously described himself as a “French Turinese Neapolitan Catholic Jew born in New York”, and he is all of that. But he bears the aquiline profile and the swift, careless sartorial perfection of his legendary grandfather Gianni. Elkann’s visage is the DNA image of his forebears. All of Italy recognises this nose, these eyes, the silhouette of this face.
Milan’s business morning is fully underway as we undertake our walk—against us in the sidewalk crush come two well-splattered painters, in their white overalls, on a coffee and cigarette break.
“Ciao, Lapo,” they say, with not a little familiarity behind it.
“Ciao,” he says, “how are you, gentlemen?” Fifty paces farther, two imposing carabinieri. “Ciao, Lapo,” they say.
If he kept walking, he’d be greeting tutti di Milano in this old, familiar, 19th-century manner. It’s a great testament to his hometown role and to the public recognition that this is indisputably Elkann’s patch of earth. However, mosaically extravagant his life is, it’s their country and its industrial history that the police and painters address as they are moved to acknowledge him.
“So, you were born in New York,” I say to him as we round the corner to his office.
“Yes,” he volleys quickly, “but I’m Italian.” As he strides up to the bar in the cafe downstairs from his office, Elkann, ever the gentlemanly host, asks, “Care for a sandwich? I think we could all use a little something. Let’s order up a few.”
Back upstairs with our panini, downing more espresso, Elkann is moved to add the grace note. “I don’t deny my inheritance,” he says. “I don’t deny the luxury and the opportunity I’ve had to see beauty, to seek beauty or to learn from people. But there’s a mo- ment in life when it is time to make your life, to work on the things that you want to work at. The reality is that I couldn’t do all that I wanted to do in the family company, so I decided to do the things that I want to do on my own. This is just the beginning,” he says, pausing to click the cap of his pen.
“I’m not someone who likes to stop.”
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(This story appears in the July-Aug 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)