Italian Stallion

Article excerpt

Byline: Barbie Latza Nadeau

Playboy industrialist Lapo Elkann vows to rehabilitate Italy's image--just as he did his own.

Sitting in his Milan studio at a sleek glass table made from the front half of a Fiat 500 car, Lapo Elkann is a bundle of harnessed energy. The raffish grandson of former Fiat chairman and style icon Gianni Agnelli, Elkann is the quintessential Italian playboy who has slalomed a fine line between his aristocratic lineage and his wild side (his untamable locks and boyish good looks landed him on GQ's list of the world's 25 Sexiest Men last year). Innately charming and surprisingly humble, he has what the Italians call sprezzatura, the art of making elegance and intelligence so natural they seem accidental.

At 34, the New York-born and Paris-bred Elkann has already reinvented himself several times over. Six years ago, the aspiring industrialist ended up on the front page of every Italian newspaper after nearly dying of a drug overdose. The incident involved a slew of unseemly characters--including a 54-year-old transvestite prostitute who ultimately saved Elkann's life by calling an ambulance. Elkann left Italy and cleaned himself up. He returned a year later with the primary goal of revamping his reputation. Now he wants to do the same for his country's reputation.

"Italy is at a turning point where we have to prove ourselves internationally. I think Italy has all the potential to do it if people can just put aside all the bullshit and stick to what's important for the nation," says Elkann, one of a new generation of Italians who want to change the image of their homeland from a European basket case, wedded to an outmoded "made in Italy" business model, to an innovative competitor in the global marketplace. "We need to hit 'reset.' There needs to be a generational change. I'm not speaking about age, but about vision. If we understand and accept who we are, we can do that."

Widely viewed as one of Italy's top creative-marketing talents, Elkann was the driving force behind the success-ful relaunch of the Fiat 500 in 2007 for the car's 50th anniversary. Now he is hoping to give the same boost to Ferrari, which is owned by Fiat SpA. Early in December, Elkann will join Ferrari president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo in inaugurating the Ferrari Tailor Made project, which will allow drivers to fully customize their quarter-million-dollar sports cars. "Status is boring," he says. "We want to sell uniqueness. We want to allow our customer to build the product with us. Real luxury is customization." Buyers will be able to choose whatever paint color, leather, and dashboard trim fits their fancy--so long as it adheres to the overall Ferrari style. "We protect the values of the DNA of the brand while letting our customers feel part of it," he says.

Elkann definitely has his grandfather's DNA. In 2002 he entered the family business as assistant to Fiat's institutional-relations director. He later honed his skills working in the marketing divisions of Ferrari and Maserati at the factories in Maranello and Modena, before going back to Turin and eventually taking charge of worldwide brand promotion for the Fiat Group fleet, which includes Fiat, Alfa Romeo, and Lancia. After the relaunch of the Fiat 500, Elkann left the family business, but he retains a majority stake in Fiat's parent company, Exor, together with his brother, John, and sister, Ginevra.

In 2007 Elkann created his first company, a lifestyle brand called Italia Independent. In addition to producing its own line of ready-to-wear fashion and eyewear--including a pair of spectacular specs designed for Lady Gaga--the firm teams up with other high-end brands to create limited-edition specialty products, like the Alfa Romeo Brera Italia Independent, an opaque-titanium-gray sports car with only 900 units produced for sale. Elkann likes to boast about his team's versatility, saying his handpicked designers can work with anything from a 60-cent Bic lighter to a $40 million luxury private jet. …