NEW YORK — Stylish, brilliant, charismatic and charming — that was Gianni Agnelli, who died of prostate cancer in Turin on Friday. He was 81.
This story first appeared in the January 27, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The terms jet-setter and Beautiful Person might have been invented for him. But he also played another, far more important role. In his native Italy, as head of Fiat, he was the embodiment of Il Boom, the country’s postwar economic “miracle.” There, he was known simply as l’Avvocato, the lawyer — although he had only studied law and never practiced it — and was a dashing, larger-than-life figure, his handsome hawk-like face one of the most recognizable in the country. Pictures of him have been a staple of newspapers and magazines for decades. His wife, Marella, who survives him, with her long-necked aristocratic beauty and understated style, was regarded as one of the most elegant women in the world. Once a photographer got a shot of Gianni jumping into the sea from his yacht naked, and it appeared worldwide under variations on the headline, “The Man Who Has Everything.”
Although Agnelli may have looked like Hollywood’s idea of an Italian merchant prince, there was nothing make-believe about his power, business acumen and influence. In 1967, Fiat employed half of Turin’s 1 million people, provided one-seventh of Italy’s exports and was the leading European auto producer. Agnelli told Life magazine at the time, “All I’m doing is taking care of a few financial matters for my sisters.” The article continued: “To the proud citizens of Turin, however, ‘Agnelli is Fiat, Fiat is Turin, Turin is Italy.’”
But Agnelli wasn’t only fashionable, he was involved in fashion. Today, among Fiat’s vast holdings, which range from a tractor maker to an energy company, is a 10 percent stake in Holding di Partecipazioni Industriali SpA. Fiat reportedly pressured chief executive Maurizio Romiti to abandon his dreams of creating a fashion and textile empire. Last year, it sold Valentino to Marzotto, and it now plans to focus on its more lucrative publishing interests, including Italy’s most influential daily newspaper, Corriere Della Sera.
As his country’s preeminent business titan, Agnelli, in fact, seemed involved in some way in almost everything of moment that happened there. As Giorgio Armani eloquently put it, “I was deeply moved by the death of Gianni Agnelli because I thought he was, in a way, immortal. He was the protagonist of so much history of our country, it seems impossible today to think of not reading his interviews, always so precise and significant, or to listen to that unmistakable and fascinating voice.”
“It’s the whole end of an era,” said Oscar de la Renta, a close friend. “He’s an extraordinary man in lots of different ways. I don’t know any man that ever did more than he did, and lived every moment of his life to the fullest, and at the same time, was always a wonderful friend. He was the personification of style. There were so many people who tried to look like Gianni. He did it all in such a nonchalant way and looked extraordinarily well. As he aged, he looked more and more handsome.
“The one thing he loved more than anything else was the seas,” de la Renta added. “To see Gianni on his sail boats, which he loved more than anything, was wonderful. For him, that was not about a flashy boat. He hated that. It was about the sea and the wind on his face, that sense of freedom and space.”
Born in 1921, the year before Mussolini took power, into a life of great privilege, Agnelli, one of six children, also knew tragedy early. When he was 14, his father was killed in a plane crash. His grandfather sued his mother, Virginia Bourbon del Monte di San Faustino, for custody and won, and she died in a car accident when Gianni was 24. After serving in World War II first on the Russian Front and then with an Italian unit that fought with the Allied Fifth Army, Agnelli became a playboy whose boon companions included such renowned swordsmen as Aly Khan, Porfirio Rubirosa and the Marquess de Portago. He dated Anita Ekberg and at one point shared his 28-room Cote d’Azur villa, La Leopolda, with Pamela Harriman. Throughout his life, he retained the exuberance and brio of his bad-boy years.
Three of his male friends died in car crashes, and Agnelli almost joined them in 1952, when he was driving from Monte Carlo to Cannes and ran into a meat truck. The accident left him with a bad right leg and changed him; soon thereafter he settled down, moved to Turin and married Marella. (Her family was considered far grander than his, especially in Turin, where the Agnellis were regarded by some as new-money upstarts at the time.) The couple had two children, Edoardo and Margherita. Marella ran several charities, became a fabric designer and wrote several books. In 1984, she said, “Living with a very lively, turbulent person like my husband keeps me going. Only to follow him is quite an adventure. I don’t think it’s a good idea for the man to come home at night and talk over what went on at the office. My husband and I adore collecting paintings, and we do that together.”
Agnelli’s grandfather, Giovanni, had started Fiat in 1899, and in 1966, after Giovanni’s handpicked successor, Vittorio Valletta, retired, Gianni made himself chairman of the company. Other Agnelli family holdings in Instituto Finanzario Industriale, or I.F.I., were Ferrari, large blocks of Cinzano and of Club Mediterranee, the Juventus Soccer Team and La Stampa, the Turin daily newspaper.
Agnelli drove himself hard. He worked long hours and, despite his bad leg, he still loved to drive fast, to sail his yacht Capriccia and ski, and would sometimes take a helicopter to the slopes during his lunch hour. His friends included the young John F. Kennedys, whom he met when John was a junior senator, and his family was often compared to theirs.
While Marella made best-dressed lists in Balenciaga, and later, Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni also developed a reputation for style himself. He was always impeccably turned out, and one of his signatures was wearing his watch over his cuff. “He was confident and easy in a classic way, and his elegance was inborn,” said Beppe Modanese, honorary head of the Camera Della Moda. “He always wore that one item that looked good on him and that so many copied, such as desert boots or a sports jacket with a formal suit. I am sure he never thought about these details, and that’s what made him so different. He was always impeccably dressed and indirectly he was an icon of elegance, even when caught unawares.”
Tommy Caraceni, who runs his family’s tailoring firm in Rome with his brother Giulio, had dressed Agnelli since he was a teenager. “We still have some of his clothes to deliver,” he said. “Elegance is something a person is born with. He never looked at the details but he cared about the suit’s impression at first sight. He never exaggerated anything.”
“It was the little things, like the way Agnelli wore a double-breasted jacket unbuttoned, that distinguished him from the rest of the pack,” said Nicoletta Caraceni, a member of the same tailoring family who runs a shop in Milan with her father Ferdinando. “He was elegant for those imperfections.”
As Agnelli told WWD in 1965: “In certain circles and at a certain level, elegance is a duty, a necessity, a uniform. But in this group, where everybody is well-dressed, the personality takes over again and dominates the clothes.”
The tycoon’s aesthetic interests also made him a serious art collector. He owned Picassos, Matisses, Klees, Rothkos, Moores, Op Art and Gobelin tapestries. Among his holdings were Renoir’s “La Baigneuse Blonde,” posed for by the artist’s wife, and two Francis Bacon popes. Socially, he moved in the highest circles of the art world, and one of his close friends was the Duke of Beaufort, the owner of London’s famed Marlborough Gallery. “He has such an enormously disparate range of art, some of which is offbeat and surprising,” art historian John Richardson said recently. In September, the Pinacotèca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli opened in an historic former Fiat factory in Lingotto, and the Agnellis donated 25 masterworks from their collection. “Looking at art,” Marella said, “is a way of gaining access to spirituality.”
Since neither of his two children was interested in running Fiat, Agnelli had designated his nephew, Giovanni Alberto Agnelli, as his successor. Unfortunately, Giovanni died of stomach cancer at 33 in 1997. Gianni, who remained honorary chairman of the company, then enlisted Paolo Fresco of GM to run it. In 2000, Gianni’s son, Edoardo, was found dead under a highway embankment near Turin, an apparent suicide. In recent years, friends said that Gianni seemed to be grooming his grandson, John Philip (Jaki) Elkann, Margherita’s oldest son, to succeed him.
But Fiat is facing its worst crisis in decades. The Agnelli family currently holds about 34 percent of the group, now a diversified conglomerate with mounting losses in its core automotive unit. Umberto Agnelli, 68, looks poised to take Fiat’s helm. In one sign that he has become the new patriarch, the Agnelli family met Friday and nominated Umberto to head up the family’s privately held investment company.
In 2000, Fiat agreed to sell 20 percent of its automotive unit to General Motors, and it has an option to sell GM the rest in 2004. Meanwhile, a takeover bid for Fiat could be in the works from Roberto Colaninno, the former head of Telecom Italia. He has expressed in interest in taking the reins, but so far, the Agnellis have rebuffed his advances.
Agnelli’s passing truly marks the end of an era. He was a living link with the legendary playboys of the Fifties, and with an almost-vanished way of life which connected the European aristocracy to great fortunes and great power. Although his accomplishments as a businessman were considerable, he always retained the charm and dash of the rascal he had once been. In our much more egalitarian era, we won’t soon see his like again.