One of the interesting things about Diego Della Valle, the charismatic head of the Tod’s shoe and leather goods empire, is how very Italian he is…becoming. He has always been Italian, of course, but of late the mercurial entrepreneur, who, in a stroke of late-20th-century marketing genius transformed a moccasin with rubber pimples into an international object of desire, seems to be consciously and energetically branding himself Mr. Italy. As his $1 billion company spreads across the globe, Della Valle, fired by a mixture of idealism and the highly evolved pragmatism of a self-made man, has become the latest standard-bearer for his appropriately boot-shaped native land.
On a cold January morning, he held a press conference in the center of the Colosseum. With a forest of TV cameras looming in front of him and Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, beaming at his side, Della Valle announced a $35 million gift from Tod’s to help restore the crumbling monument. Impeccable in one of his many Caraceni suits, he had added his usual casual touch with professorial horn-rimmed glasses and an armful of colorful leather Tod’s bracelets. He’s not tall, but exuded the relaxed confidence of a man who arrived by his own helicopter and private jet. His matter-of-fact expression suggested that sprucing up one of the great architectural wonders of the world was as simple as putting a new roof on the family house. After a solemn speech defining the gift as an expression of respect for the nation, an irreverent gleam crossed his shrewd dark eyes: “Don’t worry,” he said. “You won’t see a giant Tod’s shoe stuck on the side of the Colosseum!”
The intervention was just one in a recent series of high-profile moves that placed Della Valle squarely in the international spotlight over a period that—even for a hyperactive tycoon—seems an annus mirabilis. In September 2010 Tod’s Group bestowed $350,000 on Milan’s La Scala theater; a $7.4 million gift followed in June. Meanwhile Della Valle had the privilege of using the fabled theater and its ballet troupe for a short film with extravagant choreography depicting the cobbling of a Tod’s driving shoe, produced by his media-guru eldest son, Emanuele. The film, “An Italian Dream,” was shown last fall at a Tod’s megaparty in Beijing, where Della Valle hosted movie stars and celebrated the vast emerging market of moneyed mainland consumers that is proving to be the salvation of European luxury manufacturers. (The company has 25 stores and counting in China.)
In New York soon afterward, Della Valle stepped up to receive Fashion Group International’s Brand Visionary Award and partied at Barneys New York, which had been decorated with shoebox sculptures of his bespectacled face. A week earlier he one-upped the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim Helú, by acquiring a 19 percent interest in Saks Fifth Avenue, a coup that finally brought home to Americans the fact that the Italian shoemaker has ambitions well beyond leather. (So far the Saks deal, which cost Della Valle $170 million of his personal fortune and sent shares skyrocketing, has netted him almost $200 million in profits on paper.)