Interview with Lapo Elkan for Vogue China
For a man famous for his fast cars, Lapo Elkann is considerably late for our interview. His car collection (voted the best in the world by Wallpaper* Magazine) hasn’t helped him beat Beijing rush hour traffic. When he arrives in his bright blue suit and dark sunglasses he does however, look remarkable cool and collected.
I was hoping to dislike Lapo. Not only is he taller, better looking and much, much richer than I am, he is famously known as one of the world’s most eligible bachelors and voted by Vanity Fair magazine as the world’s best dressed man. Lapo Elkann, however is a man I struggled to hate. He has so much energy I find myself asking him to slow down on several occasions and his honesty and charm make me believe that perhaps we aren’t from worlds quiet so far apart.
Born into one of the most famous families of Italy, Lapo is the heir to the Fiat SpA company fortune. His family company not only owns Fiat and half a dozen other car companies but also the supercars Maserati and Ferrari. At one point the company controlled nearly 5% of Italy’s GDP and Lapo’s Grandfather Gianni Agnelli was the richest man in modern Italian history until his death in 2003. He was also a style icon – a title his grandson, Lapo has inherited.
Today Lapo, along with his brother and sister, are the largest shareholders in Fiat. His brother is the Chairman of the group and his sister a film director. However it is Lapo who has spent much of his adult life in the headlines as the wild middle child. The creative one. The playboy. In recent years this has all changed.
Lapo, now 34, is an entrepreneur, having successfully launched ‘Italy Independent’ – a luxury product design company – and ‘Independent Ideas’ a creative branding agency.
Born in New York in 1977, he earned the title of international jet setter from a young age, being educated at French international schools in America, Britain, Brazil, France and Japan. Lapo’s writer and academic father divorced from his mother and married a man who was living in Brazil. “At the time and we travelled around the world and I would say that I was lucky to become an international person,” he explains, lighting the first of many cigarettes of the afternoon. “It is the luck that made me have a normal life because if I would have been brought up in Italy I would have been probably a brat”.
After military service, in his early 20s he moved back to New York and began working for academic and diplomat Henry Kissinger. “I knew Henry Kissinger through my father and at a very young age I’d always underlined one thing: I admire you, and I would like to come and work with you when you will allow me to do so.”
After a stint in New York in 2001 working with Henry Kissenger, Lapo returned to Italy to join the family business working for Fiat – specifically for Ferrari and Maserati – where he shook things up. When he joined Fiat, the family company, the reputation of the brand was going through hard times and the share price had dropped to only three Euros. By the time he left it was 23 Euros and he was hailed a hero.
“I had to break certain rules in the company making workers and directors eat together. I broke the classist rules of the automotive industry.”
The shake-ups weren’t easy though. The company was suffering and changing the status quo was essential. “I had to deliver projects and ideas with 400 times less money than my competitors, less people, less time, less product… it was extremely tough.”
Family connections must surely have helped open the door to such a major job but that didn’t make changing the company culture easy. “If you are someone who is bringing change, people fear you,” he explains.
Having been born into one of the richest families in Europe, Lapo could have easily been nothing but a playboy – enjoying the lifestyle of the rich and famous but he repeatedly explains his understanding of money – how easy it is to spend but how hard it is to make. And he is not shy in giving his colleagues credit for the success of both Fiat today and his own companies. “If I succeed it is because I have a good team. It is not because of who I am, it is because who we are.”
This conflict of being aware of his wealthy and privileged upbringing yet desire to make a difference repeats itself throughout our time together. He talks about friends – “knowing a lot of people doesn’t mean having a lot of friends”, and emphasizes that his friends are from “all walks of life”, not just wealthy celebrities. But his global aspirations in business and his knowledge and interest in international affairs shows the size of his ambition. He talks not of businessmen but of global leaders through out the ages. As we enter into a deep discussion on politics he talks about the success of the underdog and the importance of hope.
Lapo calls himself an international citizen but Italy is in his blood and from his strong Italian accent to his stylish tailored suit he could be from no other nation. But how can such an international character also be so strongly defined by his home nation?
“I love my country, always did and always will. I will always do anything I can to make my country shine.” And his promotion of many Italian brands is certainly going some way to re-inventing brand Italy.
Europe – and Italy specifically is going through some significant challenges, economically and politically recently. Does Lapo feel the need to help improve the image of his country on a global scale?
“First and foremost I would say, for Independent Ideas, the project I would most cherish to work on would be the relaunch of a nation.”
So therefore does he have ambitions to go in to politics?
“I would say to rebrand and remarket a country you don’t need to be a politician. Politicians have abilities and capabilities in many areas – they need to lead, they need to implement a vision – but to lead and implement a vision they need teams, they need people and they need substance.
He speaks highly of currently Italian Prime Minister: “Mario Monti is respected globally personally, professionally and is someone who re-gave credibility to our nation at a global scale,” he says. But he admits Italy has weaknesses and work needs to be done. However, he says Europe is in need of “refurbishing” and needs to get back to hard work. “We have been lucky for many years and it is time in a certain way, to give a kick to our butts.”
Lapo talks a lot about politics, about the lack of charismatic figures in politics today and the lack of inspirational people for the public to look up to. But if the world is not looking to Italy for its political leaders it is certainly looking there for its leaders of design.
“Many of the brands around the world, when they need aesthetics and they need beauty, they call Italians.” And Lapo’s ‘Italy Independent’ is certainly helping brands including Diesel, Vans, Virtue, Gucci and many others use those Italian aesthetics to improve the design of products and ideas. China is next on his list of countries to work with.
“Italy and China both have a history of tradition and innovation,” he says. “They both also have some elements of disorder and disorganization…of making things more complicated than what they are.”
But, he explains, he fell in love with China the first time he came here with Henry Kissinger many years ago. “This nation gives to me a sense of inner peace even though it is fast, quick, powerful and strong. It gives me a sense of wanting to do more.”
Lapo tells me that there are many elements of China he is a fan of, not least some of the people he has met on this trip. As well as speaking for three hours to students at a Shanghai design school, Lapo also met with TV host Yang Lan, film director Alexi Tan, who was also responsible for creating a special video for the Gucci 500 launch, and actresses including Li Bing Bing and Zhu Zhu.
“I think Zhu Zhu is a very talented and clever Chinese girl. She has a broad vision on creativity, which is very interesting,” he says. “I find Asian aesthetics extremely attractive,” he goes on. “I find Chinese women extremely gracious and extremely refined.”
Since our meeting in Beijing, Zhu Zhu and Lapo have been photographed as a couple, with Zhu Zhu seen on his arm at the parties at Cannes Film Festival.
Lapo’s success with the ladies is something that has been well documented and as pictures of the charming Zhu Zhu being whisked around Cannes by Lapo – both dressed in matching black and white outfits, I was reminded why it could be easy to be jealous of the man.
Lapo likes talking about women. He says that looks alone are not what inspires him any more. “Even though a lot of people might say I’m full of shit because I’ve had the luck to have a lot of good-looking girlfriends… which I am not denying.”
He talks about the phase in his life where he was on a quest for women who would “flatter his ego” and make him “look and feel better with himself.” But today he says, he likes women who have drive and dreams and who are getters who want to “change things”.
Lapo and Zhu Zhu were also photographed celebrating at a football game. Not just any football game. It was the last game of the season and the game that saw Juventus win the Italian Football League.
If Lapo were to have a hobby, then Juventus would probably be it. It’s probably a bit more than a hobby though. Of course his family own the club and his cousin is the chairman. One of the large tattoos on his arms (“each tattoo represents a part of my life”) are the large letters of the club that declares his allegiance to the team.
Lapo jokes how he told David Beckham that he had chosen the wrong team when the British football superstar moved to Italy and joined AC Milan – Juventus’ archrival.
Outside of football, Lapo doesn’t have a lot of time for hobbies outside of car collecting. He calls himself a workaholic. To get things done, he says, “You need to have brain, heart, soul but also you need to have balls and be lucky. You need to battle,” he says.
And for sure Lapo battles. The easy route is not one he has decided to take. “I could perfectly have a beautiful flat, drive a Ferrari have a great girlfriend and live very easily,” he says. “That’s not my choice”
His choice is to work and prove himself a successful entrepreneur. It’s almost hard to keep up with all the projects Lapo is working on. However one of his most exciting projects is Ferrari’s “Tailor Made” project. One-off, customized Ferraris, built to an incredibly high specification.
“We did a year of research with the best companies, the best brands, the best cloth makers the best color treatment companies, the best technological companies,” he explains. When the results met Lapo and Ferrari’s high standards they launched “Tailor Made”, first at Frankfurt Auto Show and now at the Beijing Auto Show.
These supercars are made to every one of the clients’ specifications on not just technology and handling but also with interiors. Denim, tartan or even pinstriped suit seats have all been produced, with cashmere or blue teak interiors and styled in a classic or modern way. Lapo himself has a matt camouflage Ferrari 458. But his clients’ requests have certainly been varied with one client asking to try 500 different shades of red and another requesting that the matt paint of the car to smell of chocolate.
But it’s not just the décor of the car, the pinnacle of the Tailor Made project is where clients are sent to the Ferrari factory in Maranello, Italy, and sit with Ferrari designers to create their own car. The price tag of this might set the buyer back up to six million Euros but there will be no other like it in the world.
Ferrari aside his two main companies ‘Italy Independent’ and ‘Independent Ideas’ keep him occupied and very enthusiastic. Italy Independent is a design company working with everything from and eyewear companies to boats and even a commercial space shuttle. Lapo was recently in Beijing to unveil the Gucci 500 – a Fiat car produced in collaboration with fashion brand Gucci.
Independent Ideas is his branding company and together they work on “product, communication, strategy and deployment of a strategy at a global level.”
Independent Ideas now employs nearly 100 people and he is proud to state that he started five years ago (launched on July 4th – American Independence Day) with just 250,000 Euros.
“To me independence is key, independence in the way I behave, in the way I dress, independence in the way I approach people, independence in the way I deploy the vision of the projects or objects of the companies I work for. And the team is independent in the way they think, the way they move, the way they act and the way they interact.
If his several companies and Ferrari projects were not enough, he is also launching a foundation called Independent Looooooove (with seven os for the seven launch projects around the world.) The foundation will focus on children who have been abused and, he says, “who have not had the opportunities I had.”
“I owe my generation some elements of giving back and not giving back from cash but giving back from time, energy…”
This man who has been born into so much and has achieved so much, is his life goal to make a difference?
“My life goal? My obligation is to make a difference,” he says lighting another cigarette. “It is not something I want to do, it is something I have to do. My great, great grandfather is the second founder of automotive after Henry Ford, he made a difference. I have to make a difference, not because of him but because of what I have been given and by the blessing I have been given from God.”
Noting his sharp blue suit and heavily tattooed arms, style is something Lapo has certainly inherited from his grandfather (whose suits Lapo still wears today).
“I am not someone who follows fashion, I am someone who follows style,” he explains. “Fashion is seasonal it doesn’t last. In time and in history style remains.”
But what is style? “Style means the right blend to fit who you are. You don’t need to fit what fashion states you have to fit. You have to fit to what makes you happy and in a way where you don’t look like a buffoon. Style is not only of the exterior but it is first and foremost on the interior. We are in an era where people focus on the exterior but if your interior is not well packed remember you are carrying bullshit on you and around you and you need to find an equilibrium and a balance between both and that’s the only way you can survive.
For Lapo it is this equilibrium that he has now achieved in his own life, which turned his life around. In his 20s Lapo was known as something a playboy. That all ended in 2005 when he fell into a coma after a drug overdose. Something that led to him cutting out alcohol, drugs and even caffeine but means he is now more focused than ever before.
“I think that what happened to me, allowed me to know myself much better. It happened to me in my 20s so it pushed me to go much deeper in everything and anything I wanted or didn’t want. And I had to work on myself. On my good and my bad self.”
Coffee arrives. “This is the real one for you,” he says, as he takes the decaffeinated coffee. No stimulants needed for the new Lapo.
“Today I feel there is an equilibrium. A balance between my inner self and my outer self and that’s what gives me the ability to be some one who is able to generate positive energy and build the companies and also rebuilt myself the way I want it, and not the way others wanted me to.”
Do the generations of successful industrialists and tycoons from his family tree put pressure on him to succeed?
“I am the one putting pressure on myself, I always did, always will, because pressure is not an enemy for me it is a companion.”
He talks a lot about the mistakes he has made and that really we are all the same, we are all scared sometimes, all make mistakes and all sometimes fall into temptation but its natural to make mistakes, he says, it is how people pick themselves up from them that is the key.
The fast living heir is selling his car collection later this year and he is single and off the party scene. As the interview draws to a close and the last cigarette of the afternoon is stubbed out, Lapo decides to join me to head out to a fashion party. As the party starts to liven up he takes the car back to the hotel – he’s got a lot of work to do. Has the playboy finally grown up?
“Yeah,” he says, “but it’s not bad to grow up."