MILAN — As Lapo Elkann was recovering from a near-lethal cocaine overdose about a year ago, the subsequent media assault forced him to do some deep soul-searching.
The grandson of Gianni Agnelli was mum about the unexpected episode at the time, but he is now opening up about his past, admitting his mistakes and depression; he did so during an interview last week on Rai Uno, Italy’s main TV channel, revealing what it was like to awaken in the darkened hotel room and not remember what had happened to him, and the onslaught of the European press over the incident, which included being found in the apartment of a well-known transvestite.
An articulate and perky Elkann told WWD during a phone interview, “It was the hardest part of my life. I committed a big mistake, so I wanted to understand more about myself. The question I asked myself was, ‘Who is Lapo — forget Elkann — and what does he want?'”
The answer the 29-year-old son of Margherita Agnelli and writer Alain Elkann came up with was that Lapo is an independent person who loves Italy and design and wants to support his country. And for those reasons, he has formed Italia Independent, a company launched Wednesday during the Pitti Uomo fair in Florence.
Elkann hosted a dinner Tuesday night at the contemporary art gallery Galleria Alessandro Bagnai to celebrate the birth of Italia Independent. Clad in an ivory cashmere double-breasted blazer that belonged to his grandfather, a turquoise polo shirt and pastel camouflage pants, he welcomed such guests as his brother John and his wife Lavinia Borromeo, Beatrice Trussardi, designer Ennio Capasa of Costume National and Diesel’s Renzo Rosso. “I’ve known him for a long time,” Rosso said. “We speak on the phone every day and I am excited about this project because he has a great sense of marketing and style.”
At the moment, Italia Independent is only a pair of sunglasses called Sever that are made entirely from carbon, a first in the eyewear sector. The sunglasses will be launched at the Luisa Via Roma specialty store.
The wraparound frames include other innovations — they involve no licensing agreement, and production is fully controlled; they can be personalized, and they can be purchased on the Web.
Though Italia Independent is a stand-alone start-up with no links to Fiat, Elkann remains tied to the auto company, where he is involved in the redesign of the iconic 500 car.
“Italia Independent is my dream, one that I want to share with people rather than keeping locked in a drawer,” said Elkann. “Now, we did the sunglasses, but we have so many ideas in terms of products, even ones that include big means of locomotion or accessories for the sea and the mountains.”
Whatever the nature of the product, Elkann is adamant it stand out design-wise. “Personal belongings are unique objects that we feel are ours only, so I want to give people the opportunity to have something unique,” said Elkann, who is very involved in the design.
To translate that concept into the eyewear, the company is developing acetate styles that can be customized on the Web. Consumers can match their favorite lens color to the frame and can get any initials engraved inside the arm, or write a personal note if the glasses are a gift. From click to delivery, the process takes up to 20 days.
Equally important is a philosophy of long-lasting design that bypasses creative overkill. “We want people that are part of the Italia Independent world to dream today and tomorrow,” said Elkann.
And, of course, everything launched by the brand will be Italian-made.
Giovanni Accongiagioco, the company’s chief executive officer, added, “It’s a lifestyle philosophy that interprets the ‘Made in Italy’ style in a global world, when outsourcing is a matter of fact.”
Accongiagioco, 26, said the sunglasses break away from the traditional rules that characterize the production of frames. First there are the techniques used to mold carbon, which is rigid; crafting corners is a challenge. The process requires an aluminum mold, seven strata of carbon, a resin overcoat, storage in a freezer at 5 degrees Fahrenheit and varnishing by hand. The sunglasses are entirely handmade by artisans in the Belluno area, which is home to Luxottica, De Rigo and Safilo.
“We sought the best workmanship and a company that already supplies components to Safilo and Luxottica because we wanted to control the production from start to finish,” said Accongiagioco.
“Licenses are sterile, simply an easy way to make money,” added Elkann.
A handful of high-end specialty stores such as 10 Corso Como in Milan, San Carlo in Turin, Jet Set in St. Moritz and Eclaireur in Paris will carry the frames this spring. The goal, according to Accongiagioco, is to score 60 sales points worldwide by yearend.
Prices for the sunglasses and sales projections were unavailable.
Graced with the same sense of style and individuality as his renowned grandfather, Elkann channeled his good taste into Fiat when the company was in a woeful financial situation. In December 2003 at 10 Corso Como, Elkann introduced a line of sweatshirts with a vintage Fiat logo splattered across the front, generating immediate buzz. He then developed sneakers, bags, luggage and ski gear that helped revitalize the Fiat brand.
But his role at Fiat was not his first job. In the tradition of the Agnelli clan, work starts early and is varied. Elkann lived in Rio de Janeiro, studied in Paris and attended college in England. His résumé includes internships at Piaggio motorcycles, at Salomon Smith Barney in London and at Danone in Paris before he became Henry Kissinger’s personal assistant in 2001.
He started at Fiat Spa in 2002 as assistant to the head institutional relations manager, and in 2003 he moved to Fiat Auto Spa, where he was in charge of the Fiat Europe Operative Marketing Business Unit. Along with his elder brother, John Elkann, he is a shareholder of Ifil, the investment trust owned by Group Agnelli.
And now Elkann wants to use his background to grow Italia Independent. “I’m privileged and lucky compared to other people to be able to do this [start my own company], but I believe in my generation,” said Elkann. “It makes me happy to see successful Italians. I’m not envious at all. I hope this project opens minds up in a country that still doesn’t give much room to young people.”