Luxury brands from Prada, Céline and Balenciaga to Valentino, Vera Wang and Versace entrust general contractor Angelo Michilli, the owner of Michilli Inc., with building their most valuable showcases: their stores. Michilli, a Bronx-born Italian-American, studied mechanical engineering at Manhattan College, and earned a Master of Business Administration in corporate finance from Pace University. He started his business in 1999. Most of his projects are in New York, although the company is also working in Beverly Hills; Chicago; Houston; Dallas; Tysons Corner, Va.; Miami, and Atlanta. Here, he discusses his most challenging projects, what it’s like to work with personalities in the luxury industry and the sectors he wants to conquer next.
How did you get started?
When I first got out of school, I was hired as an engineer to work on the Statue of Liberty renovation project. I was on Liberty Island and Ellis Island for two years inspecting the work. While I was there, I lost my desire to go back into the office and I wanted to get more into the construction side. I was hired by Turner Construction and worked there for about five years before a friend asked me to moonlight with him — he received some drawings for a store on 57th Street called Prada. I started moonlighting with him in 1992 and helped him build that store, which was the first Prada store in the United States.
Did you always want to work in luxury retail?
I knew I always wanted to work in a challenging market, whether it was fashion or medicine or something that was complicated or quirky and on the edge of design.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Typically, fashion houses hire a designer like David Chipperfield or Peter Marino — and when they are designing for Fifth Avenue or Madison Avenue, it’s their time to shine. They want to make their mark. So they are usually pulling out materials and designs that have never been duplicated, and that’s challenging.
What about the personalities?
The personalities are flamboyant. They are funny and very excitable and sometimes serious. The beauty of our business is one day you are dealing with the laborer who wants to borrow 20 bucks and the next you are dealing with the ceo of Brunello Cucinelli, who wants to know when his showroom will be done.
Which project has been really difficult?
There are many, but the one that takes the cake is the Valentino project on Fifth Avenue that opened last year. It’s a brand new facade that’s eight stories high and made of bronze and glass. We had Germans making the facade, we had Italians supplying and setting the stone, and we had Americans doing the skeletal part of the project. It was a lot to coordinate. There’s also the monumental staircase. The steel support in that staircase had to be built in Italy, and we had to disassemble everything, ship it here, and reassemble it again.
Has working with luxury brands changed the way you’ve dressed?
Let’s just say that after 2000, I stopped wearing pleated pants and colorful sweaters. But I’ve always enjoyed details. I think Bottega Veneta and Adriano Goldschmied are great brands.
We’re looking to open an office in Miami. Retail is our mainstay, but we are diversifying and doing more medical and residential work. I’m interested in expanding into hotels and restaurants because a lot of investments are being made in hospitality. Hotels are also building out more retail. So if we can get ourselves in those categories in the next two years, then we will be fine.