It’s like a car accident; we all have crashes, and I was very lucky not to die in that crash.”
Italian ‘Kennedy’ Polishes Eyewear and Image
HE is dressed in urban fatigues, but there will be no blending in for Lapo Elkann. There never really has been.
Born into the all-powerful Agnelli family, the Italian version of the Kennedys in power, money and tragedy, he was one of its bright spots: a top executive at Fiat, with a flashy style, an energetic charm and a publicly cultivated reputation as one of Italy’s most envied bachelors.
But 18 months ago all that came to a very public end. He was found near death in a coma from a cocaine and heroin overdose, in the apartment of a 54-year-old transsexual prostitute named Patrizia. It was front-page news in every major newspaper — including the one owned by his family.
When he was released from the hospital, he promptly left the country.
Now, he is back in what has been a slow and meticulously managed return to Italy after an exile in America. Ostensibly, his renewed visibility is to promote his new designer eyewear line, Italian-Independent. But another, far more delicate campaign is at work here, the one to restore his image — and by extension that of his family — with his countrymen.
But Mr. Elkann, 29, is very clear about one thing: He is not asking for anyone’s forgiveness.
“I have never let down Italy and I never will,” he said during a rare interview in the lobby of a hotel on the outskirts of Bologna. “I love my country and I owe a lot to my country, and in that sense whatever I can and will be able to do for my country I will do.”
With his signature mane of red hair pulled back, Mr. Elkann spoke on a range of subjects that include his new passion for design (“I am not yet even a decent designer, but I love it”), the mission statement of his new company (“My key goal is to make complexity become your simplicity”) and why he currently prefers life in New York over Italy (“It doesn’t allow you to be lazy”).
But the task of reinserting himself into Italy will not be easy. Apart from his own problems, he has the steep history of his family to contend with.
“I believe that in Italy there are two important things. One is the Vatican and the other is the Agnelli family,” said the writer Giancarlo Galli, who wrote a biography of Gianni Agnelli, Mr. Elkann’s grandfather. “And in the same way Italians love and hate the Vatican they also love and hate the Agnellis,” he said.
Gianni Agnelli is a near mythic figure in Italy: A fabled industrialist who turned his family’s car company into the most important company in Italy and one of the major European car builders. He was also a subtle yet extremely powerful behind-the-scenes political player for decades.
“Put together,” Mr. Galli added, “the Agnellis represent many things.” And not all of those things are good.
ONE potential liability for Mr. Elkann — whose mother, Margherita Agnelli, was the only daughter of Gianni — is his maverick streak. He has a disdain for convention and his unpredictability can flare up, as it did during the interview, when he aired an extraordinary theory: that his overdose may have been orchestrated by Luciano Moggi, the disgraced former head of Juventus, which the Agnelli family owns.
Mr. Moggi resigned last year and has remained under investigation for his role in a soccer game-fixing scandal. Mr. Elkann says the two argued a week before the episode.
“Why was there a photographer already waiting at the hospital?” when he arrived in the ambulance, he asked.
Mr. Elkann speaks in grandiose terms befitting someone of his pedigree but also emits an affected earnestness of someone who seems to be grasping for some acknowledgment that has long escaped his reach.
He is sober now, he said, but he chain-smoked through the interview, at the end of which he openly admitted that he was no saint.
He blamed the strain of watching his family company pass through an especially difficult period for the events of the now infamous evening.
“I am an obsessive personality,” he said. “And if you are an obsessive personality you need to be aware of it and be able to drive it with success. There are moments in your life when you are driving it well but you shift and you shift badly and you hurt yourself. It’s like a car accident; we all have crashes, and I was very lucky not to die in that crash.”
But this is not simply about Mr. Elkann’s fall from grace or his graceful return to the covers of fashion magazines. It is merely the latest chapter in the saga of the Agnellis and their role as Italy’s unofficial royal family.
Because of Fiat’s historical importance to Italy (at one point accounting for almost 5 percent of the country’s economy), the government has, at times, stepped in to underwrite and subsidize the carmaker, which has not endeared the family to portions of the taxpaying Italian citizenry.
The Agnellis have also been immersed in drama and a series of tragedies, including drug overdoses, divorces, abrupt deaths, suicides and internal power struggles.
And there has been no shortage of schadenfreude over Mr. Elkann’s fall. He is currently being parodied as a character on a popular Italian comedy show.
“How are you supposed to deal with it?” Mr. Elkann said, when asked about the parody and jokes. “You’ve got to laugh about it and to smile about it. If you come from a family like mine, and challenge yourself to do new things and have success being satirized, you just have to accept it.”
BUT Mr. Elkann also knows a thing or two about image control. He previously served as worldwide director of brand promotion for Fiat and was credited with rejuvenating the company by splashing the Fiat trademark across sweatshirts, wine bottles, watches, luggage and chocolate. Whether on the covers of tabloids or business journals, he was the public face of Fiat.
Luciano Regolo, the director of Novella 2000, a celebrity magazine that has chronicled Mr. Elkann’s life, said that the Italian public was ready to move on. “In this case his actions were not dishonest against the public or business,” he said. “I don’t think if it is a drug problem that he has to ask forgiveness.”
Mr. Elkann repeatedly noted that life was a long journey — “a marathon” — and he had a message for his enemies: He intends to be waiting for them at the finish line, with a smile on his face.
“In America if you succeed you don’t have to apologize,” Mr. Elkann said. “In Italy success is envied, and envy is the worst, worst, worst thing in the world. It’s easy for me to say, because I have had more than many others, but at the end of the day I have never envied anyone. I wish to no one that they waste their time envying anyone else.”