Byline: Samantha Conti

MILAN — Prada’s former public relations chief Leslie Johnson remembers clearly how her boss Patrizio Bertelli felt about the first Miu Miu show she organized in New York. The year was 1994, the venue was the Josephine Pavilion at Bryant Park, and Bertelli had watched the show with the rest of the audience, except that, as usual, he refused to take a seat. When it was over, he wove through the crowded backstage to find Johnson — and to smack her.
“He just walked up to me, and hit me on the forehead with the palm of his hand. I had no idea what he was trying to say — until later when someone explained the gesture means ‘good job’ to the Tuscans,” said Johnson, chuckling.
Bertelli, in addition to riding atop Prada’s $1 billion enterprise, has a majority stake in Helmut Lang’s business, and only last week bought a 75 percent stake in Jil Sander AG. In doing so, Bertelli has created Italy’s largest, private luxury goods group, solidifying his reputation as a man of action, not words. “I do things — and then talk about them,” he told WWD last March. “In this business there needs to be less chatter and more work.”
Whether or not he wants to talk about it, Bertelli, a college dropout who got his start selling leather belts, is reconstructing the face of Europe’s fashion industry. “He is a revolutionary: He is redefining the fashion game,” said Alex Magona, an equities analyst for Flemings in London.
Together with his wife Miuccia Prada, the 53-year-old Tuscan has transformed a prestigious but dusty accessories house founded by Prada’s grandfather into a design powerhouse with sales this year expected to hit $909 million. Add in Jil Sander and Bertelli’s controlling stakes in joint ventures with Helmut Lang and eyewear manufacturer De Rigo, and the figure swells to more than $1.2 billion — that’s bigger than Gucci Group and Giorgio Armani.
Bertelli, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is showing no signs of fatigue: Sources say he’s hard at work on another round of deals. “What we’ve seen so far is the antipasto,” said one source close to Bertelli. “Over the next few months, he will be moving on to the first and second courses of the meal.” As reported (WWD, Sept. 1), Bertelli may already have taken a 9.5 percent stake in Fendi; both companies, however, have declined to comment on the reports. Last month, he also took an 8.5 percent stake in the traditional English footwear firm Church and Co., although the move appears to be for financial rather than strategic reasons.
Magona said Bertelli’s vision of the fashion industry is futuristic: “He is moving in a new direction: The products in his stable are both avant-garde — and commercially successful. And unlike most Italian fashion entrepreneurs, he has found a way to grow without licenses. He grows by buying other brands — and therefore never runs the risk of diluting the Prada name,” Magona added.
Carlo Pambianco, who owns a consulting firm here, said Bertelli has understood perfectly the way business will be conducted over the next decades: “A large market share, innovative products, direct distribution, alternative means of advertising — like taking part in the America’s Cup race — are the keys to success,” Pambianco said. “Bertelli has understood this, and he’s very sure of himself. In this sense, he feels superior to his counterparts in the business.”
Friends, colleagues and former employees describe Bertelli alternately as a genius, an instinctive animal, a loving husband and father, and — when he gets angry or worked up — a holy terror. His temper tantrums are notorius in the industry here, and his screaming is not for the weak-kneed. “Yelling is just the way he expresses himself,” said a friend. “He yells at everybody, no matter who they are. He’s very democratic in that sense.” Bertelli has always thrived on a good challenge, whether that means taking part in the America’s Cup 2000 race, tooling around the countryside in his silver 1956 Porsche Speedster — one of his eight vintage cars — or staking his claim on chunks of the luxury goods market. “I’m not crazy about ownership. But I love gambling, mapping strategies, and doing good business,” he told WWD last year.
There’s no doubt that control is a fundamental part of his work ethic. There’s an old Italian expression that says no leaf on the planet moves without permission from God; Prada employees say the same goes for their company, where Bertelli is almighty. It’s no surprise then, that Bertelli has always steered clear of licenses and franchises, opting instead to take stakes in Prada’s smaller production companies, and monitor the cash registers and display windows in Prada’s more than 120 wholly-owned stores worldwide. A former employee said he oversees “everything from the toilet paper supply to the ad campaigns” at the company’s headquarters here. Bertelli, who is also a wizard in the kitchen, has even been known to decide the menu at the employee cafeteria. His control over information within the company is as tight as a nylon glove. “He is reluctant for his employees to share information with one another. He keeps them in the dark about all kinds of projects, including new product lines,” said a former employee. “We had to read the papers to find out about his stake in Gucci.”
Bertelli’s lucrative, but ill-fated, investment in Gucci signaled his debut into the society of mergers and acquisitions: Italy rose one Sunday morning in June 1998 to learn that Bertelli had taken a 5 percent stake in archrival Gucci. And, in a one-two jab that jolted the industry, and Gucci management, he raised that stake to 9.5 percent just a few days later. The goal, he said, wasn’t to take over the company but to cooperate with Gucci on strategy: “I’m not like a lot of people in the fashion sector whose mentality is ‘mors tua, vita mea’ — if you lose, I win,” he told WWD at the time. “I believe in a less cutthroat, less hysterical way of doing business. If the sector as a whole is successful, then everyone is successful.”
After months of communicating through lawyers, Bertelli failed to convince Gucci chairman and ceo Domenico De Sole that cooperating in such fields as advertising, distribution and real estate would benefit both houses. He later sold his stake to LVMH, which was attempting a hostile takeover of Gucci, and pocketed a capital gain of $140 million. With his enigmatic, Mona Lisa smile, he said he was happy about the “nice” profit he made, and vowed to put the Gucci saga behind him: “Opportunities were lost for both sides, but what are you going to do? You say ‘Amen’ and get on with things.”
It didn’t take long for the Gucci wounds to heal. Two months after cashing out, he announced the Helmut Lang deal — a joint venture and 51 percent stake, to promote the designer’s brand worldwide, open stores and launch a Lang accessories line — and six months later he captured Jil Sander, the prize he’d been after for years. “Owning Jil Sander,” says a friend, “was Bertelli’s personal obsession.”
Andrea Ciccoli, a consultant for Milan-based Bain, Cuneo & Associati, said Sander sent a powerful signal to the industry when she chose Bertelli as a partner. “Her message was that fashion entrepreneurs can now challenge big financial investors like banks or conglomerates such as Italy’s Holding di Partecipazioni Industriali (HdP), and compete with them for acquisitions….It was clear that Jil Sander was courted by everyone…and in the end she chose a fashion company,” Ciccoli said. Sander told WWD that she sold to Bertelli because he understands her: “Jil Sander and Prada share a common understanding of fashion. Both are driven by the objective to design and market contemporary fashion.”
Bertelli, who was born in the ancient Tuscan city of Arezzo, 90 minutes’ drive south of Florence, grew up living and breathing leather, and nurturing the Tuscans’ trademark pride and independence. “Tuscany is full of independent artisans, the Tuscans have real trouble working under someone else,” said Pambianco. Bertelli also inherited the Tuscan temperament: “They’re passionate, and if they have something to say, they’ll say it right to your face. Bertelli isn’t someone who’ll talk behind your back,” Pambianco added.
Indeed, Bertelli isn’t one to hide his feelings. In a 1997 interview he talked openly about his ‘personality conflict’ with Bergdorf Goodman president Dawn Mello, accusing her of copying Prada’s designs while she was creative director at Gucci. In the same interview, he took a swipe at Gucci, whose shares he was already stockpiling, for painting its outlet store Prada green.
When he was younger, Bertelli worked in small accessories workshops, sold belts, and eventually produced and marketed his own lines of leather accessories — Sir Robert, Pitti and Granello — in Italy and abroad. He met his wife at a trade fair where she discovered he was selling bags that looked suspiciously like hers. One year later, in 1978, his company I Pellettieri d’Italia, began producing Prada’s leather accessories collection and the two began their lucrative and magical partnership.
Over the years, Bertelli trained his hands and sharpened his eyes, becoming a master of detail: “He knows exactly how a buttonhole should be made, how the vamp on a shoe should be formed. And he has the incredible ability to talk to you while he’s at his sketchpad designing a shoe,” said one friend.
Prada launched footwear in 1983, women’s ready-to-wear in 1989 and men’s clothing in 1994. In recent years, annual sales growth accelerated to a stunning 60 percent, slowing down to the more modest 15 percent Bertelli is projecting this year and for the next three years.
The Bertelli-Prada team has always been formidable: Both are driven, self-confident and have a strong sense of mission. As fearless as Bertelli is — and friends say nothing scares him — Prada is just as sure of herself. “I have always been sure about fashion, even in the beginning when buyers told me they didn’t like my designs and that an accessories house had no business designing clothes,” she said, in an interview last year. “For years they said awful things, but the criticism never got to me because I was always sure about what I was doing.”
Friends say their partnership, alternately loving and combative, is the fountainhead of their creativity. “They totally complement one another: It’s a yin-yang relationship,” said Karla Otto, the Milan-based public relations agent and a longtime friend of the couple. “Their success is due to their relationship: They’ve learned a lot from one another. It’s because of Miuccia that Patrizio is not just a businessman, but a businessman who knows fashion.”
Friends say they are also model parents. As a result of their chaotic work life and limited free time, their two sons Lorenzo, 11 and Giulio, nine, eat dinner with their parents every night, guests or no guests. “They’re a beautiful family: They’re always talking, talking, talking,” said one friend. “Bertelli is an extremely affectionate father, and always manages to find time to play soccer with the boys. Frankly, I don’t know when he sleeps,” said Otto.
Janet Brown, a fashion retailer in Port Washington, N.Y., and one of the first stores to introduce Prada to the U.S., said Bertelli is a cross between Gianni Agnelli and Federico Fellini. “He has done for Prada what Agnelli has done for Fiat, and there’s always been a lot of theatrics, a lot of drama involved,” Brown said. “He has great taste, and a frightening business acumen: He’s moved mountains in a country where it is not easy to do so. There’s no stopping him.”