SANT’ELPIDIO A MARE, Italy — Diego Della Valle is bringing Italy’s symbol of culture, the La Scala theater, to Asia and, subsequently, to Russia and the Middle East.
In a unique partnership, Tod’s SpA’s chairman and chief executive officer has agreed to contribute to support La Scala’s productions for a year and help promote its values globally. Today, the company will hold an event to mark the partnership at the brand’s Tokyo boutique, followed by a larger-scale happening in Beijing on Friday.
“La Scala is our cultural temple, it’s part of the history of the country, and it always brings out emotions, whatever one’s musical proficiency,” said Della Valle, impeccable in a double-breasted Caraceni suit, in an interview in his office at the company’s sprawling headquarters here. “We must not forget where we come from, our roots,” he said.
Della Valle is also linking the Tod’s brand with the theater through the production of a short film called “An Italian Dream,” which will be shown during the Asia trip and also is available on the brand’s Web site, where 13 La Scala ballet dancers reinterpret some of the steps that go into the making of a Tod’s pebble-soled moccasin, such as cutting, hammering and stitching the hides. The dancers perform on the theater’s stage, in between its rows of seats upholstered in red velvet and in its boxes adorned with golden decorations. This is the first time the iconic Milan theater has collaborated on a project of this kind.
“Tod’s and La Scala share the same DNA,” said Della Valle, referring to the theater’s local workshop and artisans, who continue to make sets and costumes by hand.
Della Valle has always been a staunch supporter of the Made in Italy label and of Italian craftsmanship and quality, and Tod’s shoes and handbags are handmade in-house here. Della Valle disclosed the plans to double the size of Tod’s plant by the end of 2011 or early 2012. The compound today comprises a 918,000-square-foot alabaster Italian marble and glass building and a 172,800-square-foot factory.
“Customers have a right to know where the products are made,” said the entrepreneur. “It’s not right to say that Made in Italy has no value, and this affirmation also weakens smaller companies and their contractual power.”
With the exception of France, “in part,” he said, “nothing is as well done as in Italy.” As a manufacturing country, Italy has been vying for stricter regulations concerning the Made in Italy label, clashing with Northern European nations, which are mainly distributors and traders rather than manufacturers.
Through the partnership with La Scala, Della Valle can be seen as an ambassador of Italy’s heritage and craftsmanship. The entrepreneur is expected in Tokyo today and will then travel to Beijing. “The Chinese and Japanese are well educated, but we are also trying to reach out to younger people, who may be curious about La Scala,” he said.
On Friday, the La Scala ballet dancers will perform at a modern amphitheater, Tank 751, in the heart of the Beijing 798 art district, where the venue will be transformed to be conceptually reminiscent of La Scala with the help of Asian-Italian architect Ico Migliore. The theater’s prima ballerina, Sabrina Brazzo, and leading man, Marco Messina, will perform a pas de deux especially created for this event by La Scala’s choreographer, Gianluca Schiavoni, who also choreographed the dance in “An Italian Dream.” The party, expected to draw 800 guests, will be followed by music by DJ Max Chipchase and guest DJ Alice Dellal.
“We are mulling the idea that the theater’s choreographers could go and teach Chinese ballet dancers,” said Della Valle. “We have a social and cultural obligation. We must leave a sign beyond the business, whether small or big.”
Della Valle, however, is also a savvy entrepreneur and marketing man who has built a $991 million company that is listed on the Milan Stock Exchange and who keeps his ear to the ground. China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan have been boosting Tod’s revenues. In the first half of the year, Asia posted bigger gains in sales compared with Europe and the U.S., growing 17.3 percent to 68 million euros, or $90.4 million at average exchange rates for the period.
While there are plans to further grow in the region, Della Valle is eschewing the siren call of masstige. “We want to be fast, but must absolutely steer clear of turning out mass market products,” he remarked.
Likewise, although Della Valle revealed Tod’s will launch its first e-store by next spring, he is adamant the company will be entirely in control of the site, producing it in-house in order to avoid the risk of projecting a mass market image. “An e-commerce site is too powerful a vehicle to delegate it to someone else, and it’s a service we offer,” he said. The site will first launch in the U.S. While Della Valle expects it to be “a very important part” of Tod’s business, he said “the desire to go in one of our stores must remain. The dream is essential, it’s a piece of our lifestyle and is strongly linked to the purchase.”
Tod’s lifestyle is reflected in the company’s headquarters, designed by Della Valle’s wife, architect Barbara Pistilli. Surrounded by well-tended gardens, the venue includes a nursery school, a restaurant, a gym and a new multimedia library for employees. Art pieces by Igor Mitoraj and Jacob Hashimoto embellish the common areas, as do a Ron Arad steel staircase and armchair. A superior working environment is paramount for Della Valle, who also donated an elementary school to the town, with 30,000 square feet of green landscape, eco-friendly solar panels, a library, a gym, a sports field and a botanical garden.
Indeed, several artisans have been working for decades for Della Valle and, earlier, for his father Dorino, who started the business making shoes for Calvin Klein and Neiman Marcus, among others.
The group comprises the Tod’s, Hogan, Fay and Roger Vivier brands. Della Valle also has plans to revive Parisian fashion brand Schiaparelli in 2012. “We have the Place Vendôme palazzo, we are pleased that the brand is ours, with its archive and history,” he said.
Della Valle said he is very satisfied with the growth of Roger Vivier, which he described as “feminine and sexy, one of the two, three most beautiful brands in the world, and that in two or three years will be the maximum expression of the dream in the world of accessories.”
But Tod’s isn’t Della Valle’s only business interest. One of Italy’s leading businessmen, he also has personal investments that include RCS MediaGroup, which owns the newspaper Corriere della Sera; furniture producer Poltrona Frau; film studio Cinecittà; eyewear maker Marcolin, and motorcycle firm Piaggio. He has partnered with Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo in a high-speed train project called Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori, which will be inaugurated in September of next year, and he also owns the city of Florence’s soccer team, Fiorentina.
“These are all high-visibility, low-engagement commitments,” said Della Valle.
Perhaps most visible of all is his 9.4 percent stake in Saks Inc., which has led to some speculation that Della Valle might be interested in bidding for the U.S. luxury retailer. He has dismissed the rumors, however.
“Saks is a beautiful investment. It’s a great company with managers of the highest level,” said Della Valle. “For many years, I’ve been friends with and highly value [president and chief merchandising officer] Ron Frasch and [ceo] Steve Sadove. And Saks is in everyone’s collective imagination, it stands for America, with Rockefeller Center and Fifth Avenue, for example.”