We speak to Diego Della Valle ahead of the opening of the Tod's store in The Dubai Mall extension
Head of Tod's on limited editions, safeguarding Italian history and the UAE
My interview with Diego Della Valle is cut short. Admittedly, he’s a billionaire business tycoon and, as far as I can tell, running late for a very important date: the opening of the new Tod’s store in The Dubai Mall extension. As president and chief executive of the Tod’s Group, which owns Hogan, Fay and Roger Vivier, as well as Tod’s, Della Valle needs to be there to welcome his guests. It would be decidedly un-Italian of him not too, in fact. But he’s also a charismatic, if at times incomprehensible, interviewee, a pillar of Italy’s business community and a larger-than-life-personality, so I can’t help but lament when his people ask me to start wrapping things up.
The Tod’s story begins in the early 1900s when Della Valle’s grandfather, Filippo, founded a small shoe factory in Casette d’Ete, in Marche, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. In the 1960s, under Della Valle’s father’s stewardship, the business prospered, but it is Della Valle himself who can be credited with transforming a relatively small-scale, regional shoemaking business into a global powerhouse.
He joined the company in 1975 and in the 1980s, renamed it; Tod’s, in its current incarnation, was born. One early stroke of genius was the creation of the Gommino shoe – a carefully crafted moccasin-like driving shoe with 133 rubber stubs running along its underside. Inspired by his travels to the United States, where he discovered a relaxed attitude to dress, Della Valle realised that people needed a beautiful, well-made shoe that could be worn in a professional, elegant or casual environment. Each Gommino is entirely handmade, using 100 different steps.
The juxtaposition of an everyday material such as rubber with the high-quality leather and craftsmanship that Tod’s is famed for, proved to be a winning formula. Andrea Incontri, Tod’s creative director of menswear, sums up its appeal: “The Gommino is an industrial product mixed with artisan work.”
More importantly, Della Valle proved to be a master marketeer – in an age before influencers, product placement and widespread celebrity endorsements, he managed to convince high-profile public personalities (most notably Gianni Agnelli, the late Fiat titan) to sport a pair of Gomminos, duly cementing the shoe’s status. Tod’s shoes have since been worn by the likes of Princess Diana, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Cate Blanchett and Hillary Clinton, to name but a few.
Today, the Gommino is available in everything from denim to nubuck and suede, in every conceivable colour (including a special Ferrari version with blue and white stripes running down its side). The shoe even has its own website – where fans are encouraged to upload pictures of their prized Gomminos in action.
To celebrate the launch of the new Dubai Mall store, Tod’s produced an exclusive collection of Gommino loafers for men and women, which take their inspiration from the varying hues of the UAE’s desertscape. Produced in soft-washed denim, the colours are white for Ras Al Khaimah, cream for Ajman, pale yellow for Sharjah, a shade of ochre for Abu Dhabi, a rust red for Dubai, a blue hue for Umm Al Quwain and black for Fujairah.
“This is a part of the world where people love special editions, limited editions and capsule collections,” Della Valle tells me. “I liked the idea of the seven sands. I love the desert, too. I don’t have the desert in Italy so when I am in the UAE, sometimes I like to spend my time in the middle of the desert. There is a lot of energy out there.”
The opening of the new Dubai store offered the brand an opportunity to reiterate its commitment to the region, Della Valle adds. “It’s an occasion for us to say we are here and we are happy to be here. In this part of the world, especially Dubai, people like to live. They like to go out, they like to go to nice restaurants and they like to buy the best products. For us, it’s a place where we need to stay.”
Born in 1953, Della Valle has emerged as an active proponent of Italian industry, as well as the oft-romanticised Italian lifestyle. Along with his brother, Andrea, he is a shareholder in leading Italian organisations such as Piaggio, producer of the Vespa; Rome’s fabled Cinecittà, one of the largest film studios in Europe, which in the 1960s was the birthplace of such classic works as La Dolce Vita; and the football club ACF Fiorentina. He has been nominated to become a Cavaliere del Lavoro, the highest honour that the Italian Republic bestows for professional achievement and, in the public sphere, has emerged as a spokesman for Italian values such as patriotism, hard work and respect for tradition.
The “made in Italy” moniker is a cornerstone of the Tod’s brand. All of its products, which now extend beyond shoes to include bags, smaller accessories and ready-to-wear clothing lines for men and women, are still produced in Italy, and this is an obvious source of pride for Della Valle. He famously donated €25 million (Dh112.3m) to help restore the Colosseum and insists that successful businesses have a responsibility to give back to society (this is particularly true of brands that benefit from Italy’s standing as a centre of both culture and style). “Our company benefits from the ‘made in Italy’ reputation. So we love to do something for our country,” Della Valle says. “I think, as businessmen, one part of our job is to give back.”
Della Valle is conscious of the need to adapt and communicate in increasingly contemporary ways. “People love experiences and they love storytelling,” he says. “For us, it’s perfect, because we don’t need to build a story. We have a story, but we need to explain to our clients, especially new ones who don’t know much about our long story of style and fashion. We have to explain what we are. And we have to communicate with that new audience in a new way.
“Before, we were a seasonal company, with products every six months; with summer and winter collections. Now we are a monthly company because we need to give products every month to our shops. At the same time, we need to promote those products with precise storytelling, marketing and ideas. The mix is perfect. Our production section is very old-style. And we want people to remain with this mentality. The communication is completely different. It is very fast, but it gives us the opportunity to share our message with millions of people quickly. And every day, we can speak directly with our customers.”
This dual approach is perfectly encapsulated in the brand’s spring/summer 2018 advertising campaign. The overall effect is one of laid-back elegance, a hallmark of the Tod’s brand. But the protagonist is Kendall Jenner, a model who is very much of the moment. In this context, she becomes the picture of Italian sophistication – impeccably dressed as she lounges by the sea, plays cards and cuddles an adorable puppy.
“You have to have the perfect mix of good taste and charm,” Della Valle has said. It’s a premise that can as easily be applied to the campaign, the brand and the man himself.