In Akira Kurosawa's samurai epic Kagemusha, there's a memorable scene in which generals discuss strategy. One of them points out that the emblem on their flag, a stylised Mount Fuji, symbolises the fact that their lord is "steadfast like a mountain". His constancy and predictability are precisely what make him a formidable force.
Twenty-first century Milan is not 16th-century Japan, and Diego Della Valle's sky-blue shirt and navy suit are a long way from a Shogun's battle armour. But beneath his Riviera-ready, smart-casual exterior, there's something of that same steadfast spirit about the 58-year-old billionaire and founder of Tod's. Diego Della Valle has turned the old family leather goods manufacturing business he inherited into a multibillion dollar international luxury brand while sticking closely to its roots in the region and its original artisanal principles. He still believes in the concept of luxury, even in a time when many recession-hit brands and consumers are jittery about the word and its associations.
Yet there's nothing old-fashioned about the way Della Valle has made this traditional approach work in the modern world. The scale of his achievement is remarkable. In one lifetime, he has done the work of generations by being attuned to the way power and persuasion work in the media age. His personal charm can be disarming: "Diego is the great seducer", an Italian friend warned me. Certainly, as the Hollywood heroines in Tod's ads attest (along with the much-papped visits of Peter Mandelson to his Capri holiday home and his yacht, Marlin), Della Valle has a record of seeing what matters in culture and tapping into it commercially. It is a story that is particularly Italian. Think of Armani and Richard Gere in American Gigolo; the Italians have a knack for turning fame into fortune.
"I think Italian style is about roots with a modern touch," says Della Valle, for whom a key purpose of Tod's mission is to champion the best in Italian lifestyle. While Italy as a market is only a minor concern, accounting as it does for around 20 per cent of its turnover, when it comes to its identity, its raison d'être and what ad people call its USP, it's all about Italy and the Italian way of life. Or at least Diego's idealised version of what Italy can be rather than what it is. Tod's futuristic factory in Sant'Elpidio a Mare, in the region of Marche, where Diego was born and where his grandfather started the family business in the 1920s, and the grand Art Deco headquarters building in Milan, are a testament to the yin and yang of that idea.
WATCH THE CREATION OF A TOD'S WALLET
Diego's grandfather was a modest cobbler based in a remote town in northern Italy. In the 1940s his father, Dorino Della Valle (who died in March aged 87), managed to expand the family business, investing in a small factory in Casette d'Ete, Marche, where he sold Italian leather shoes to a handful of international suppliers. But it was Diego who truly expanded the brand's horizons. As a wide-eyed teenager on a road trip of America, Diego became fascinated by the east coast's relaxed, preppy attitude that a new generation of middle-class Americans had adopted - the way they kept some of the trappings of tradition and formality in menswear, but refreshed and softened them with new colours and fabrics.
Returning to Italy, Diego began a law degree in Bologna, but quickly decided his true calling was business and fashion. He considered launching his own footwear brand, but had difficulty being taken seriously by the industry because of his youth. Instead, at 24, the budding mogul managed to persuade his father to let him run the family business. First, Diego presented Dorino with a pair of poorly made driving loafers he'd picked up on his travels and a business model in which he argued for profit through higher production values.
It was a compelling argument, and Della Valle Jr's masterplan was soon in motion. Diego set about designing and crafting a shoe from the finest leathers and using traditional Italian artisanal methods. Yet what resulted wasn't a backward-looking design or a heavy, stiff, preppy-style shoe: now focused on beauty and comfort, the first Tod's loafers constituted a redefinition of what it meant to be classily "casual" by taking out the hard structure and rebuilding it around comfort and flexibility - not an original concept, but never before done to such degree of perfection. The shoe quickly became synonymous with what Della Valle liked to call a "laid-back but luxurious" way of life. New breezy colours and comfort-first updates of classic styles followed.
A new name was needed for this new direction. Fashion business mythology says the name "J. P. Tod" was picked from a phonebook (Chicago, Boston and New York have been quoted) to encapsulate the new, Americana-inspired approach the brand had adopted - something Della Valle categorically denies. What is a matter of record is that the initials "J. P." were dropped from the business's name in 1999, when people began to call it "J. P.'s" stateside; Della Valle was worried that it would confuse people and complicate his advertising strategies.
HOVER TO SEE HOW A BAG IS MADE
That moment was arguably the only one in the story of Tod's where Della Valle seemed in anything less than total control of his brand's public image. Otherwise what happened to Tod's is a master lesson in branding and a case study in what value good branding strategy can add to a business -
capturing an east coast lifestyle and converting it into a story the world could buy into.
If the brand's conception was nearly a work of genius, the marketing of it was equally impressive. Diego persuaded a mutual friend to give a pair of his loafers to Juventus football club chairman and Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli, knowing they would be seen pitch-side by millions via television. A succession of similar promotional opportunities translated into massive demand and the dye was cast.
As Tod's matured into a worldwide success story, Diego's business interests widened. He launched the casual footwear company Hogan and the ready-to-wear label, Fay. According to the top Italian banker Claudio Costamagna, the former boss of Goldman Sachs in Europe, Diego proved to be a canny investor. "Diego is an instinctive businessman, not a classic numbers type of guy, although he does pay attention to them; he has incredible instinct and vision." His investments in the banking privatisations paid off handsomely, making him one of the richest men in Italy. He has a wide portfolio of business interests and is the biggest single shareholder in Saks Fifth Avenue (the very store his father once supplied shoes to), and sits on the boards of businesses (including the LVMH Group, Piaggio and Ferrari), and was behind the rebirth of his local football club Fiorentina after it went bankrupt a decade ago.
SEE THE TOD'S CRAFTSMEN AT WORK
But if you think that makes Diego one of the good ol' boys of highly networked and high net worth men in suits, think again. Diego was the first major Italian businessman to publicly criticise Silvio Berlusconi, then at the zenith of his power. The richest man in Italy with an extensive network of businesses in almost every sector, owner of 90 per cent of Italian media, not to mention the longest serving prime minister in Italian post-war history... taking on Silvio was not, on the face of it, the wisest of moves. But Diego was smart if not prophetic. In a way the schism between the two self-made men represents the two sides of Italy. Berlusconi's brashness veered into vulgarity, while Diego's subtlety and style made him look aristocratic. And where Berlusconi was the poster boy for global laissez-faire capitalism, Diego seemed to be promoting a sort of Cadbury-style paternalistic capitalism of 19th century vintage, building factories that resemble Bauhaus masterpieces. You can eat your food off the shiny white floor, while there is a crèche for the workers and manager's pre-school children. Furthermore, where Berlusconi hankers after the life of Hugh Hefner, Diego's resembles the Kennedys at leisure (fittingly, he owns JFK's restored Marlin sailing ship where he received the news about the start of the Berlin wall crisis).
The other jewel in the crown of Tod's group is Roger Vivier, the Parisian shoe brand he acquired in 2000. A sleeping beauty of a brand, Roger Vivier was the ever so French shoemaker to Paris couture in its golden age. In 2002, Diego hired Bruno Frisoni as creative director and Inès de la Fressange to be the muse and ambassador for the brand, lending it both glamour and, crucially, Frenchness. One of the first generation of supermodels, Inès is something of a French institution, being only one of four women whose likeness was sculpted into official statues of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic. She was the muse of Chanel and its public face for years. Deploying such a figure, however, isn't for the faint-hearted. She has a reputation for being strong-minded, detail-obsessed and a control freak. Some might say that's an apt description of Della Valle himself. So I ask him how they managed to find a way of working together.
"Well, it's a long story," he says. "I met her through one of my good friends, Luigi, her (now deceased) husband. Our relationship is between friends, family, relation and professional - she is very professional but in our family touch, she does a very good job. She gives a good mood to the company and the combination between the designer and the image. It's perfect. She has a lot of good ideas - and so maybe for Inès it's a little boring, the day-by-day of what we do. She is an artist, a genius, a businesswoman. Although what I do is I support her, I try to get everything as precise as possible, and of course the team there is very good. It's a good group of people."
Whatever the mix, the cocktail works well. The Roger Vivier brand of footwear, handbags, sunglasses and small leather goods has become one of fashion's worst kept best secrets. With no advertising and despite the recession, not to mention the eye-watering prices, sales are booming - the buyer at Harrods' shoe floor told my colleague that Vivier is their bestselling brand.
Another fascinating meeting of fashion philosophies has been between Della Valle and the late Elsa Schiaparelli, the great Italian designer who was a leading light in early 20th-century couture. An uncompromising luxury visionary, Schiaparelli had no interest in adapting to the pragmatic new demands of consumers after World War II, and the label closed in 1954. Six years ago, it was bought by Della Valle. Rather than lurch straight into a relaunch, he appointed ex-uber model and society star Farida Khelfa as an ambassador, and she has overseen the establishment of a kind of archive-cum-temple to the brand in the Place Vendôme in Paris, just next to the Ritz, where the Schiaparelli workshop was until half a century before. They've added to the archive with modern pieces that are true to the bold and often bizarre sense of Schiaparelli's beauty and fashion, Like Darth Vader's chair from Star Wars the movie.
Thanks to the excitement generated by this summer's Prada/Schiaparelli show at New York's Metropolitan Museum - and the way it drew out the thematic kinship between today's high-priestess of cerebral Italian luxury and her spiritual ancestor Elsa Schiaparelli - Della Valle decided to bring the label out of the archive and back into the retail world sooner than he hadplanned. Accordingly, Schiaparelli will soon re-emerge as a demi-couture proposition - and Della Valle will no doubt ensure that its relaunch is another triumph, coming as it does at the end of the cycle when the rest of the luxury industry is trying to cash in by extending their range down the price scale. No Burberry-style printed baseball caps here thank you very much.
Indeed, letting the fashion world's latest crazes pass him by seems to be part of Della Valle's secret. For all his business nous and cultural references, he invariably returns to one simple, familiar idea: that Tod's, and Italian style at large, can still lay claim to a unique understanding. Diego is fiercely loyal to his country, recently pledging 25 million euros to assist the conservation efforts of Rome's Colosseum - a move initially criticised by some as an advertising ploy but one that has since come to be seen as a genuine display of national allegiance. For Diego it's a message, all right, but a message to other titans of Italian business and industry to show some public spirit and eradicate the oft-repeated notion that "Italy is a poor country full of rich people". "If other people follow us," he says regarding his philanthropy, "its good, we want to give back the sign that they made a good choice." It's this commitment to his roots in his beloved Marche and Italy that set him apart from other Italian tycoons. Claudio Costamagna tells how "Diego is at once very international and very local; he loves nothing better than to take his Sunday morning coffee in his village café with his school mates he has known all his life and tell them about the week's adventures in New York or Shanghai".
WATCH TOD'S FILM RED TOUCH DANCING DREAM
In the luxury fashion world, "Made in Italy" has arguably lost some of the currency it had a decade or two ago. Most brands now look far and wide to source competitively priced materials and workers, and when there is a nation-specific focus, it is frequently on the oft-discussed "emerging markets" of Russia, India and, in particular, China, where brands have led a drive to manufacture (more cheaply than they can at home) and to market (thanks to a billion-strong new prospective consumer base). Many of the top luxury brands who have done best in China have explicitly targeted their offerings to local tastes.
Tod's is in China, like everybody else, and Della Valle says it's doing well there. Market analysts tell me that Tod's is underrepresented and therefore represents a huge opportunity, but when Diego is asked if expansion into new territories is urgently needed he seems unhurried.
"It's an incredible market, potentially, but you must remember that the Chinese people do love and appreciate quality too - to buy strong, good brands. Maybe if it's a watch, they prefer Switzerland. If it is perfume, they prefer France. If it's quality, it's from Italy. Tod's is in the luxury business, not fashion; for us, that's very important.
I tell him about a thriving Chinese designer, Uma Wang, who has reversed the trend of western brands shifting their production to the East. She recently decided that the best way to expand on her early success is to start manufacturing her products in Italy. It's a narrative that meets with Diego's approval.
"The idea of making the best one. It is the reason everybody came here. Strong big brands - French, English, Americans - who need to do product fantastically. The reason for this is that it's the best."
And who would dare take issue with the great seducer?