Diego's big idea

The arrival of Tod’s in Delhi is the latest chapter in the global expansion of the brand. But it all began with just one shoe.

Sanjiv Bhattacharya        Print Edition: November 30 2008

Mr Tod’s: Diego Della Valle at his
Mr Tod’s
It’s the launch party for the Tod’s store at the Emporio Mall in Delhi, and the usual cast is all here—Delhi fashion designers, journalists and pretty girls drinking champagne. But they’re all shoved to one side when a scrum of photographers comes clattering out of the shop. The actress Bipasha Basu—a fan of the brand—is being escorted by the owner of Tod’s, Diego Della Valle, to the middle of the foyer where an Italian artisan is demonstrating how Tod’s shoes are made. Sensing a photo opportunity, the snappers scramble for position. And right on cue Bipasha raises a hammer and bangs a few holes in a piece of leather. The clickers go crazy.

Welcome to the Tod’s roadshow— a charming troupe of Italian cobblers, glamorous publicists and the brand owner himself, currently travelling through Asia, building upon a brand that already has 109 stores worldwide in 33 countries. By next year, Tod’s will have a handful more. Last week they were in Ancona, Italy—today it’s Delhi, and tomorrow Mumbai, Dubai and onwards. And at every stop, there are photo ops, a whiff of celebrity and many a glass of wine.

The star and the shoemaker: Bipasha Basu learns to cobble
The star and the shoemaker
As far as the photographers are concerned there are two celebrities in that shot—Basu and, to a lesser extent, Della Valle. But for those who know the Tod’s story the real star is the shoe that Bips was ostensibly making— a soft leather moccasin with 133 rubber pebbles in its sole known as the Gommini, which Della Valle created in 1978, at the age of 24.

Prior to the Gommini, the Della Valle family business consisted of a humble shoe factory founded by his father Dorino, in the picturesque Italian village of Casette D’Ete. The son, Diego, was an easy-going kid who’d failed to graduate from college, since he was far too interested in clothes, girls and sports. Post Gommini, however, Della Valle is the chief of a huge global brand, known the world over for its understated, luxurious leather goods— shoes and handbags, mostly—and its brand ambassador Gwyneth Paltrow. He sits on the boards of luxury behemoths LVMH and Ferrari, owns three homes, a Dolphin helicopter, a Dassault Falcon 2000 private jet, and three boats, one of which once belonged to JFK. Oh, and he also owns Fiorentina, the Italian Serie A football team.

“It’s an icon of this company, the Gommini,” says Della Valle when I meet him at his Oberoi hotel suite before the launch. A quietly spoken man of 55, in a blazer and jeans, he looks the very essence of Tod’s style— not flashy or edgy, but simple and comfortable, rather like the Gommini. “In America, the trend was to make car products—gloves, hat, shoes. And there was one Portuguese artisan who made a concept— they call them driving shoes and there were pellets in the sole. I liked the idea, but the quality was bad. So, I took it to our artisans and we made it better!”

He makes it sound so straightforward. But according to legend, the Gommini’s success is owed in part to Gianni Agnelli, the owner of Fiat and the most powerful industrialist in Italy at the time. Agnelli was a titan, by any estimation—a mogul, a fashion icon and a famous playboy whom the media dubbed “The King of Italy”. When Della Valle heard that Agnelli was a fan of driving shoes, he sent him a pair and Agnelli rather took to them. He wore them at Juventus matches—a team he owned. By some accounts, he wore them while recovering from a skiing accident, a time when the Italian media was focussed intently on his leg. In any case, it sparked a trend.

The Gommini: The shoe
The Gommini
Della Valle chuckles. “No, no, this is folkloristic, there’s no connection with the accident and my shoes,” he says. “Gianni Agnelli was a friend, so, of course, we sent him the shoes, it’s quite natural.”

To be fair, the Gommini’s success lies not with Agnelli, but in its design. It’s a slipperlike moccasin of soft, comfortable leather—not a shoe that shouts, but a shoe that quietly assures the wearer that he is being pampered. A subtle statement of luxury. It isn’t practical—during the rains, the holes in the sole will let in water. And it certainly isn’t necessary.the very concept of a driving shoe is extravagant. The idea is that the soft sole allows you to feel the engine under the pedal, an idea that could only have taken off in Italy. In other words, it's a shoe that best accompanies a Ferrari, and this is the very illusion that it sells. When you wear a Gommini, you're wearing the shoe of Ferrari owners and big-shot industrialists like Agnelli who own football teams and have gorgeous women hanging off their every word. Your shoes are letting you know. you're that guy.

Diego was quick to capitalise on his big idea. As the Gommini took off through the '80s and '90s, he expanded his portfolio to boots and handbags. By which time, he'd named his business Tod's.an Americansounding name in a fashion world dominated by Italian-sounding brands. According to legend, he found the name "Tod's" in a Boston telephone directory. But again, Della Valle laughs and shakes his head. "It's a nice story, but not true," he says. "The idea was to have an international name, easy to pronounce and remember. We went through 100 or 200 names.it was a process of elimination."

Nevertheless, there is a casual preppiness to the Tod's style.and Della Valle himself.that feels as American as it does Italian. It's one of the reasons the New Yorker described him as "the Italian Ralph Lauren", a tag Della Valle rejects. And to be fair, his approach to luxury is markedly different. While Ralph Lauren has diversified into fragrance, jewellery and even paint, Tod's remains committed to the family business. hand-crafted leather goods from Italy.

"You cannot have this dilution of brands because where is the quality?" he says. "Luxury cannot be commercial. high quality and commercial are not the same thing. And luxury must be exclusive. you can't have too many shops."

Doesn't global expansion compromise exclusivity? "No, because the quality and the product is the same. One can't change the feeling.the touch of the leather, the smell, the feel.you have to keep these things the same. And in this market, we are exclusive. India today, Russia tomorrow, or Brazil. You can be global without being commercial."

Della Valle is enthusiastic about the luxury market in India, the Sensex notwithstanding. He's new to the country, only having visited once before, on a whistlestop tourist holiday with his wife. "There is a good number of people here who have good salaries, they like quality, they want luxury," he says. "And Indian people know luxury. Look at Emporio!" He rubs his forefinger and thumb. "You can smell the luxury in that place."

To Della Valle, the future of luxury is simplicity. "International people who travel, they want quality, not quantity. Just one car, not three. One house which is not too big but charming, not too much furniture but with beautiful light. Two blue jackets, two black, some blue shirts, something you can wear with jeans."

His own attire is a case in point.a blazer, jeans and some black sneakerlooking shoes with white rubber soles. They're not Gomminis, they're not even available in the Tod's catalogue. in fact, they're another more recent creation of Della Valle's, 30 years after the Gommini. "They were made especially for me," he says. "I wear them when I travel.they're sporty but formal, very versatile. It looks simple, but this is the most difficult thing.to make simple things of high quality, and still be fresh and modern and useful."

Somehow, I suspect, for Della Valle, it's not as difficult as all that.

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