It seems nothing can hold Lapo Elkann back.
In late October, the Italian playboy-industrialist, Fiat scion and frequent fixture on Vanity Fair's best-dressed list was bouncing around the men's made-to-measure department at Gucci's new Rodeo Drive boutique, dressed in a white seersucker suit and a pair of tortoiseshell eyeglasses with tinted lenses. Literally bouncing. Elkann launched himself forward using a combination of the gray plastic boot encasing his left leg below the knee and a pair of gleaming blue metal crutches that could have come straight from the "Tron" prop closet. The boot, crutches and an upper body brace peeking out at the unbuttoned collar of his monogrammed dress shirt came thanks to a Vespa crash in Milan several months earlier.
But the accident wasn't enough to keep Elkann away — or even noticeably slow his breakneck pace. Over the next month, the hyper-kinetic 37-year-old would ping-pong around the globe like fashion's Forrest Gump. From L.A. he would head to São Paulo, Brazil, to open the South American company headquarters of his Italia Independent eyewear brand. By mid-November, he was in New York City, opening his first stand-alone U.S. boutique. On Dec. 4, he was in Paris, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld at a summit on the French economy. By the end of that week, he would hit Art Basel in Miami Beach for an event in advance of his second U.S. store, set to open there in January.
Even his seven-day whirlwind visit to Southern California was a dizzying mix that included the aforementioned Gucci opening (the remodeled boutique houses an extensive range of Lapo's Wardrobe by Gucci, a collaboration between Elkann and the brand), attending the Gucci-sponsored LACMA Art + Film Gala, making a handful of Hollywood meetings (he is an investor in the movie distribution company Good Films, which was co-founded by his sister Ginevra) and checking in on a West Hollywood storefront that is to be the third U.S. boutique for his eyewear brand, which has been worn by celebs including Lady Gaga and Rihanna, Dwyane Wade and Jared Leto.
Although the Milan-based Lapo Elkann hardly registers a blip on the wider U.S. pop culture radar, his standout sense of style has earned him a regular spot on Vanity Fair's international best-dressed list for the better part of the last decade, name-checked as a menswear icon and perennial collection inspiration. Thanks to enterprises such as the 11/2-year-old Gucci partnership, an Adidas collaboration that debuted in October, the new U.S. boutiques and products that span from the ultra-affordable to the ultra-luxe, the man is about to become a whole lot better known stateside.
Elkann is the great-great-grandson of Fiat founder Giovanni Agnelli. A recurring theme in many of his projects, from eyewear to the Gucci suits and accessories, is the notion of customization, which comes in large part from his family legacy in the automobile industry — including the ultimate luxe nameplates in grown-up boy toys: Ferrari and Maserati.
"Maybe you didn't know this," Elkann says, puffing on an e-cigarette over a Palihouse power breakfast during his visit, "but 93% to 97% of Ferraris are custom. Before doing this [project with] Gucci, I did it with Ferrari. We had a 360-degree customization program with Ferrari where you could have anything you wanted [inside], even denim.... Five, six seven years ago, I knew people wanted differentiation — in their cars, in their clothes, in their eyewear. That's why my eyewear offers millions of customization options."
It's hard to think of a life more uniquely bespoke than that of Lapo Eduard Elkann, who was born in New York City, raised in London and Brazil, attended boarding school in the French Alps, studied in Paris and graduated from London Guildhall University. In 2001, he worked as a personal assistant to Henry Kissinger, and entered the family business the next year. There he held a variety of jobs, most in marketing and branding of various Fiat-owned brands (Ferrari and Maserati among them).
Through the Agnelli family investment company, Elkann and his two siblings still own a controlling stake in Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. But he left the day-to-day employ of the business in 2006, having experienced both high points (the successful relaunch of the Fiat 500) and low ones (a near-fatal 2005 drug overdose). He launched the Italia Independent eyewear brand in 2007 and a marketing and advertising company (Independent Ideas) in 2008.
He met Gucci's creative director, Frida Giannini, in 2011, when his ad agency teamed with the luxury brand on a customized version of the Fiat 500, complete with leather seats embossed with Gucci's double G logo.
"This is the collaboration which started the marriage — if you allow me to call it that — between Frida and I.... There was nothing out there as far as high-end menswear that offered something really unique in terms of materials, in terms of designs, in terms of quality and service," he said. "I said to Frida: 'Why don't we do something that will grab those customers at the very top?'"
That idea would become reality in summer 2013 with Lapo's Wardrobe by Gucci, an eye-catching made-to-measure capsule collection designed by Elkann and Giannini. It includes colorful and boldly patterned suits, shirts, knitwear, shoes and accessories, all offered with customization options ranging from picking the kind of buttons and style of monogram to adding a silk lining inspired by an archival Gucci print to a suit jacket. A suit in the collection retails for around $8,800 — more than twice the average price of a regular Gucci made-to-measure suit.
"He's a detail freak — if you didn't figure that out," fashion designer Jeremy Scott says of Elkann. "He's obsessed with things. I went to his house because he wanted to show me how much of my stuff he had. We literally went through his whole closet and he was like: 'I had this custom made because I wanted a brighter color, and this and this.' It makes sense that he'd do [a collection], because he's sort of been his own haberdasher in a way for a long time."
The collection with Gucci represents the Lapo of luxury, but Elkann wants both ends of the customization spectrum, "not just in luxury, but affordable luxury and in brands people can afford day to day. This is for phones, suits, shoes, a TV and on glasses and sunglasses," Elkann says.
Italia Independent has seen some serious success with glasses and sunglasses. The first style of carbon-fiber frames was inspired by the distinctive hull of the Stealth, a sailboat owned by Elkann's grandfather. Today, the line includes metal and acetate sunnies and optical frames covered in Kevlar, cashmere, stone-washed denim, linen and even black velvet. The company's eyewear, which usually retails from $127 to $497, can be spotted framing all kinds of high-profile faces — among them Beyoncé, Halle Berry, Elton John and Gwen Stefani. The brand's collaborative efforts include a capsule collection designed by perhaps the most famous sunglasses-sporting fashion designer on the planet, Lagerfeld, whose ponytailed silhouette is stamped on the temple pieces of each pair.
The U.S. could be a growth engine for the Italia Independent Group, which made its debut on the Milan stock exchange in mid-2013, reporting annual revenues at the end of that year of $34.1 million, up 59.1% over 2012. Less than 6% of eyewear revenue came from the fledgling U.S. market, where the glasses are carried in 250 optical boutiques and a handful of department stores, including Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue.
That means there is plenty of room for expansion here for the brand, which added another global collaboration to the mix in October when it launched a partnership with Adidas Originals that includes half a dozen versions of Adidas' ZX Flux sneaker, including a rainbow animal print, a bold zebra stripe, a black-on-blue camouflage and a gray ballistic mesh.
Italia Independent plans to add a third U.S. boutique by opening a West Coast outpost at 8551 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood in March. And to hear Elkann tell it, there's more to come.
"I am not at liberty to talk about it yet," he said. "But we will be announcing something in the watch industry in 2015 — and something in the sports industry as well."
As if to add a flourish of punctuation to his statement, Elkann hops to his feet, grabs his gleaming blue crutches and launches himself forward. He arcs across the Palihouse patio and bounces up the stairs and out the door into the sunshine, his tablemates scrambling in his wake.
Head down and full speed ahead, the man whose company motto is "Write your own story every day" seems eager to take his next laps around the track of life.
Here's a short list of some of enthusiastic entrepreneur Elkann's recent projects.
Italia Independent. Founded in 2007 by Elkann and his partners Andrea Tessitore and Giovanni Accongiagioco, the brand focuses primarily on affordable, fashion-forward eyewear. With a handful of boutiques around the globe, the brand is starting to focus on the U.S. market.
Lapo's Wardrobe by Gucci brings Elkann's devil-may-care raffishness to menswear and accessories.
Adidas Originals X Italia Independent hit retail in October. The fall and winter capsule collection includes half a dozen versions of Adidas' ZX Flux shoe,headgear and a couple of bags.
"The Italian. A Photographic Interview. Lapo Elkann," by Glenn O'Brien and Wayne Maser has O'Brien posing a wide-ranging series of questions to Elkann, who answers via body language and facial expression alone.
"Black and White Stripes: The Juventus Story." Elkann has worked to bring the documentary about the fabled Italian soccer team, owned by the Agnelli family since 1923, to the big screen. The film is scheduled for release in 2015.