November 04 2011
Simon de Burton
The last thing I really wanted was to clash with Lapo Elkann. But it happened.
It was 9.30am on a Monday morning when we made our rendezvous at a tiny coffee bar on the edge of the Ferrari factory complex in Maranello. He was just biting into one of those sandwiches made from the sort of white Italian bread that resembles thinly sliced polystyrene foam and, apart from the fact that the only other two people in there were women, I knew that he had to be the person I was looking for. Who else but a regular contender for “world’s best-dressed man” would set off for the office in a scarlet Rubinacci suit?
It certainly didn’t go too well with my own trousers – resembling Rose Madder on the Winsor & Newton colour palette and supplied by that rather less exclusive outfitter, Gap. Not dashing, but definitely clashing.
But Elkann clearly took the crimson pants as confirmation that I would fully appreciate his Rubinacci and whipped off the coat with a remarkable flourish.
“I put this on today especially for you because it has an English theme,” he announces, proudly displaying a surprise silk lining decorated with an exquisitely executed image of HMS Victory.
After he’s given the starry-eyed café girl a hug, a kiss and some euros to cover the foam breakfast, we step out into the spring sunshine and jump into Elkann’s daily driver – not a Ferrari but a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, a non-PC SUV with a 6.4-litre engine, a nought-to-60mph time of 4.8 seconds and an olive-drab paint job that makes it look as if it’s just left the set of M*A*S*H.
At this point, there might be some who need reminding that Jeep is owned by Chrysler; 53.5 per cent of Chrysler is now owned by Fiat; Fiat is part of the Fiat Group, which owns Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Lancia; Fiat Group is owned by Exor, and Exor’s majority shareholders are the three Elkann siblings: eldest brother John (chairman of Fiat), Lapo and their sister Ginevra.
They are, of course, the grandchildren of Gianni Agnelli, Italy’s greatest and most stylish industrialist, who died aged 81 in 2003. The somewhat more reserved John was selected by Agnelli to be his heir and, as well as running Fiat, he is the chairman and CEO of Exor. The extrovert Lapo, 33, has instead tended to set his extremely active mind to the product design side of things.
Fluent in four languages, he was born in New York, and grew up in London, Brazil and France before working in the US. He began his career as a personal assistant to Henry Kissinger (who was a close friend of his grandfather) before joining the “family firm” in 2002 where, a year later, he oversaw Fiat’s brand promotion at a time when the company was in the doldrums. Elkann helped perk it up with some retro-cool clothing and accessories designs using the vintage Fiat logo, and went on to be instrumental in capitalising on Fiat’s past with the reinvention of the Cinquecento, recently made available in a £14,800 Gucci-labelled special edition.
Things were all going nicely until late 2005 when Elkann went out on the tiles in Turin one night and ended up in a right old state after overindulging in a potentially lethal mixture of drugs while in the company of some transsexuals, one of whom saved his life by calling an ambulance.
After what his charming communications person quaintly calls “his accident”, Elkann stepped out of the automotive world and set up a lifestyle and clothing company called Italia Independent together with an advertising and communications agency, Independent Ideas, which works with a diverse slice of Italian brands ranging from Borsalino to Smeg.
But when you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Agnelli, cars are simply in your blood – so it will come as no surprise to learn that, as well as continuing to run his Independent operations, Elkann is again spending part of his time at the Fiat Group, working and consulting for its jewel in the crown – Ferrari.
Back in the Jeep, he’s looking cool behind the wheel in vintage Cutler and Gross shades, and his equally vintage Henry Maxwell brogues are dancing between the brake and accelerator as we surge along the link roads between the factory buildings, en route to the Elkann nerve centre. Despite the 6.4 litres, progress is slow because Elkann has to keep stopping to hug and kiss and cuddle and greet people from the factory who we keep bumping into (almost literally in some cases) along the way. He might be an obscenely rich playboy, but the affection of the Ferrari employees, which borders on that afforded a Maharaja by his subjects, seems genuine.
Eventually, we abandon the Jeep and head into one of the buildings. Being with Elkann negates the need for access passes, and we breeze through doors that would usually be barred to the likes of me – at one point, we’re in a large and spotless air-conditioned chamber filled with retired Ferraris, many Formula One models, that now belong to private enthusiasts who have them restored and maintained by the factory. I count 38 before the scarlet suit darts back out and wraps its arms around another old friend; this time Dario Benuzzi, who joined Ferrari in 1971 – six years before Elkann was born – and is now its chief test driver.
Suddenly I’m being bundled into the driving seat of one of the first Ferrari FFs to leave the production line. Elkann squeezes in the back, Benuzzi flops in on the passenger side and I’m ordered to “Drive it!” Am I nervous? Well, I wonder what the headline would be in the next day’s Corriere Della Sera if I hit a lamppost and simultaneously rub out one of the most important members of Italy’s “royal family” and Ferrari’s top tester.
I cruise around like an over-cautious learner driver for five minutes before Benuzzi takes over the wheel and we resume the journey at light speed, jinking between pedestrians and trucks filled with car parts, before drawing up at our destination – Centro Stilo, site of Elkann’s Ferrari nerve centre.
After passing through an anteroom furnished with table, chairs and model cars, we emerge into what is effectively Ferrari’s version of an haute couture studio. This is where the marque’s “Tailor Made” concept takes shape, providing a service for those for whom a standard Ferrari isn’t quite exclusive enough, enabling them to turn it into something that is.
The place is pleasingly untidy in the best, creative sort of way, with swatch books, paint samples, hides and components littering tables. You can tell something’s different here because the materials in the swatch books belong to a host of venerable fashion houses and the “mood boards” on the wall show combinations of metals, colours and finishes that are never seen on “ordinary” cars – there is, for example, copper mesh for seats and velvet for head linings.
Although he can only devote seven days per month to Tailor Made, it is clear from Elkann’s enthusiasm for the subject that it is his favourite area of work.
“Look, I didn’t live in Italy until I was 18. I didn’t grow up around the Fiat or Ferrari factories, and I never expected to work in the family firms – but cars are absolutely my number-one love,” he explains. “The first one I owned was a Fiat Punto HGT. And because I wanted to be different from the outset, I painted it in a matte titanium grey and gave it a blue leather interior with baby-blue stitching. I’ve since owned, I suppose, about 20 cars and not a single one of them has been standard-looking.
“Anything I work with, I always want to make it look better and more beautiful. The point of the Tailor Made service is to guide the client through what is an unlimited range of possibilities, which will enable him or her to realise their dream. Today, customisation is the key to real luxury, and there is now more opportunity to customise than ever before: the music you have on your iPad, the lighting effects in your kitchen, the essences and perfumes that give your house the feel you want it to have. Customisation is not a joke, or a philosophy, or a psychology – it is a reality. If you put yourself in the environment that suits you, then you’re going to have a better life – it’s as simple as that.”
However, Tailor Made, insists Elkann, is not just about allowing Ferrari buyers with more money than taste to turn their supercars into gaudy, rolling representations of their own lack of aesthetic judgment. It is about making them understand what works and what doesn’t, and – perhaps more importantly – protecting one of the most valuable brand names on the planet.
“The Ferrari of someone’s dreams might cost €200,000, it might cost €6m. My job is to show what can be achieved with a particular budget,” he says. “If we speak about white, for example, we speak about 100 variations of white; if we speak about matte paint, it can go in 10 different directions. Upholstery can be cashmere, moquette, stingray, woven metal or suede; we can make Borrani wire wheels – usually associated with old cars – work on a new car; we can go from cutting edge to jet fighter, from heritage to classic to race – but what it is not about is doing things that are foolish.
“Ferrari is a brand of humongous worth, it’s a paradise land in which you need to know how to leverage value so as not to tarnish what has already been created. To demonstrate what that means, I tell the story of the Japanese tourist who asked one of our workers to sell him his overalls as a souvenir – the answer was no, simply because of the man’s pride in where he worked.
“The Ferrari brand gives energy to Italy. It is probably one of the most powerful Italian brands in the world, and we have to be very careful not to damage it,” says Elkann, sounding almost fanatical.
One of his favourite materials to work with is carbon fibre, something that you’ll find in the parts bins of most high-end car makers these days. But Elkann can claim to have been at the vanguard of its use in the luxury industry, with Italia Independent being the first to market carbon-fibre eyewear. He was partly inspired by the boat that he and his brother inherited from their grandfather, the staggering, 93ft Stealth, which Agnelli commissioned from German Frers in 1997 – not only the hull but the beds, kitchen, interior fittings and even the lavatories are made from carbon.
“It’s the Ferrari Enzo of the seas,” opines Elkann. “But I can find just as much inspiration in the street, from travelling, from books, or from people – especially the car designers of the past such as Jean Bugatti and Pininfarina.”
He also cites Ralph Lauren’s fabled car collection as a source of ideas – and, by the look of one of Elkann’s personal cars, he’s rather inspired by the clothing, too.
“This was the first of these to have a completely denim interior,” he says proudly, opening the driver’s door to a matte white and matte black 599 GTB in which the seats and dashboard are covered in the ubiquitous material, artfully torn and frayed in parts.
We head for another part of the factory where the finishing touches are being put to his latest smoker, a California painted in matte “Scottish” blue with lapis lazuli Cavallino badges, “sugar cane” blue interior with denim inserts and contrasting baby-blue exhaust pipes. The boss of Ferrari Mexico happens to be in there, too, and gives the car the thumbs up.
“Now,” says Elkann, “I’m going to show you the other car I’m having made – but this one you can’t write about or photograph. The boss [Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, chairman of Ferrari] is completely against it and says it’s not to be publicised.”
We walk through the door of Carrozzeria Zanasi, the independently run, specialist coachworks that has operated alongside Ferrari since the 1960s and still works on some of the marque’s most important projects – it was here, for example, that the 400 Enzo supercars (now worth around $1m apiece) were painted.
Round a corner, we see the new car that Montezemolo doesn’t approve of. Out of respect to Elkann’s wishes, I can’t describe it – well, maybe I can just tell you it’s a 458 Italia with brown-tinted windows – but, beyond that, let’s just say it looks like no Ferrari you’ve ever seen, and it clashes like hell with that scarlet Rubinacci suit.
But, as Elkann so sagely observes, “Luxury today is having the opportunity to make something that is yours, and yours alone.”