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Lapo Elkann by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Lapo Elkann by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

Fiat's Lapo Elkann: Revved up for new challenges Add to ...

Two amazing things about Lapo Elkann are his arms and his apartment. I was treated to a tour of both.

Let’s start with the apartment. Since Lapo (as he is known in Italy) is the Fiat heir and grandson of the late Gianni Agnelli, Italy’s greatest industrialist and – sorry Silvio Berlusconi – lover of women and other beautiful objects, I was expecting to be received in a baroque palace.

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I found myself instead in front of a rather drab apartment block on the southern edge of Milan’s historic centre, re-reading my directions from Alessia Margiotta, his PR lady and handler: “Go straight ahead to the end of the courtyard and find the door with the ‘Love’ symbol.”

There it was, four big chrome letters stacked in a square. Out bounded 34-year-old Lapo, not dressed as a wealthy prince, but a fashionable slob, with a blue V-neck T-shirt, dark pin-stripe pants and lace-less black brogues. So this was the guy described by Vanity Fair as one of the world’s best-dressed men.

But the apartment! I felt like I had entered a wild, chaotic fusion of FAO Schwartz, Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch and a SoHo modern art gallery.

A partial list of the contents of the main rooms: A projector in the form of Star Wars’ R2D2; a chandelier made from the exhaust pipes of a Ferrari; endless Warhols; parts of Fiat 500s turned into furniture and lamps; a wall divider made of the carbon-kevlar sails of Gianni Agnelli’s yacht “Stealth”; a surfboard; several fake, life-size palm trees; a black carbon-fibre dining table; toys of all kinds, from dinosaurs to superheroes; model boats so big that they could fit a child; the helmet of Italian world champion motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi; mirrored paintings by Michelangelo Pistoletto, provocative prints from Wayne Maser, photographer of Madonna and other stars; and Wayne Maser himself, in the flesh, as if he were part of Lapo’s collection.

“My apartment is not serious,” he says, “though it makes you feel seriously at home.” Indeed. I felt like a kid in a playground.

Lapo’s elaborately decorated arms don’t seem out of place in the clutter. They are a rain forest of bluish-green tattoos and tell the story of his passions and impulses.

Etched onto his skin are a palm tree; “Juventus,” the name of Turin’s Agnelli-controlled soccer team; “Outsider;” the fast-forward symbol from a computer keyboard; a star of David; “Independent,” the name of his design company and comeback vehicle, Italia Independent, and “BB,” which may be the initials of Brigitte Bardot or a former girlfriend – he is unclear.

Lapo, unlike his low-profile older brother John Elkann, who is chairman of Fiat, the Italian auto giant that controls Chrysler, and the Agnelli family holding company Exor, is an extrovert and a motor mouth (in five languages – English, French, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish). He seems happy to expose his “private” life, his flaws and his roller-coaster emotional state. He is well-liked by Italians and Italian reporters, because he is unvarnished, warm and open about the events that smeared another dark spot on the darkly romantic, and occasionally tragic, life of the family often described as Italy’s Kennedys.

It was late 2005 and Lapo, then working in the marketing department of Fiat, under Canadian-Italian CEO Sergio Marchionne, hit rock bottom. Paramedics found him unconscious in the Turin apartment of a transsexual prostitute. The victim of a near lethal cocaine-heroin overdose, he was gone to the world for three days and by the time he revived, he had become a media sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, the subject of endless stories about the glamorous, debauched and wistful life of Italy’s fallen prince.

He has kind words for Mr. Marchionne, who, he says, did as much as anyone to get him through his ordeal. “I had problems that could have made me lose my life, which I nearly did,” he says. “Sergio had been close. Even though some people don’t see him as human, he was the most human of all.”

We sit down for lunch at the carbon-fibre table. The menu, served up by his housekeeper Armando is simple, healthy and delicious Italian fare: bufalo mozzarella, prosciutto crudo so delicate that it melted in my mouth, carrot and arugula salads, pachino tomatoes from Sicily, thin strips of fried chicken, exquisite home-made ice cream packed in glass jars, Fiat-branded chocolates.

Between courses, Lapo lights up Marlboro cigarettes. He says he has cleaned up his act and that smoking is his last vice. An acupuncturist in Florence is trying to cure him of the habit.

Lapo is an odd ethnic and religious mix: “I am Jewish, Italian, American, Catholic,” he says, but stresses that he feels mostly Italian: “I love Italy and I say I am from Italy wherever I go.”

Named after the friend of the poet Dante, Lapo was born in New York and is the son of Gianni Agnelli’s only daughter, Margherita Agnelli. His father is Alain Elkann, a Frenchman who became a well-known TV personality. Lapo’s parents divorced when he was very young and Margherita married a Russian aristocrat. The family bounced around the planet, living in London, Rio de Janeiro and Paris (Lapo’s relationship with his mother is highly strained because of an inheritance-related lawsuit she launched against her father’s advisers).

When Lapo and John were in their late teens, their grandfather invited the boys to Turin to join the family auto dynasty. One of them would be chosen to succeed the old man and, ultimately, it would the more business-minded John.

But Lapo got to indulge is passion for the rolling industrial art created by the Fiat stable. He worked in merchandising and marketing for Ferrari and Maserati. “I am in love with cars; I love anything that moves,” he says, regaling me with a story of the time he drove a Ferrari Enzo supercar at 340-kms/hr on Northern Italy’s Balocco race track.

Later, he was intimately involved with the launch and brand promotion of the two cars, the Fiat Grande Punto and the new Fiat 500, that would spare the ailing company from oblivion under the Marchionne regime. Then his personal life fell apart and his relationship with Fiat came under strain.

He quit just as the first Fiat 500s rolled off the assembly line in 2007 and set up Italia Independent and a related communications company. “I was eager to show to myself that I was able to do things on my own without my family money and without my family and the support system of Fiat and Exor, and I did,” he says.

He has no plans to return to Fiat in a management role and says the company is in capable hands under Mr. Marchionne and his brother. “I think he did an incredible job in saving Fiat, but so did my brother,” he says. “What Sergio did I will for all my life be thankful. His energy, devotion and stamina are just incredible.”

He is, however, worried about the future of Italy as the debt crisis gallops ahead, a new recession hits and manufacturing jobs disappear. His hope is that the unelected government of Prime Minister Mario Monti, which replaced Silvio Berlusconi’s discredited regime in November, will make the economy competitive and secure the country’s traditional role as one of the world’s premier workshops for highly engineered products and luxury goods. “Italy has to learn that there has to be a change of mentality,” he says. “We have the luck of having a new Prime Minister who cares for the country. He cares and he is unafraid to make unpopular decisions.”

Italia Independent, less than five years old, is already making a splash in the design world. It is probably best known for its collection of sporty sunglasses, some with velvet or carbon-fibre frames, in wildly fluorescent or fruity colours.

The company also makes stylish carbon-fibre motorcycle helmets, men’s jackets and other apparel, and designer skis. Its latest project is called Ferrari Tailor Made, in which Ferrari owners, for a small fortune, can swathe the car interiors in cashmere, denim or hundreds of other materials in hundreds of colours. His next plans include Italia Independent mobile phones and real estate.

The company, with about 90 employees and €12-million ($16-million) in annual sales, is growing quickly and has given Lapo his own identity. But has it made the Fiat heir and future billionaire happy after so many years of emotional turmoil? “Happy is a big word; I have a much better balance in my life, but I have good days and bad days,” he says. “Just because you’re born in a privileged family and have money, doesn’t mean you’re happy. Happiness you can’t buy. Happiness is something you need to work for.”

_____________________

CURRICULUM VITAE

BEGINNINGS

Born in 1977 in New York City, grew up in London, Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Turin.

Attended European Business School in London.

HOME LIFE

Lives in an apartment in central Milan. Single but available.

PASSIONS

Cars, cars and more cars. Owns a matte olive green Fiat 500 with denim interior, a Ferrari

California in Scottish blue, and a Ferrari 458 Italia with camouflage interior and exterior. Loves boats and scuba diving.

CAREER

Owner and founder, in 2007, of Italia Independent, a design and style studio based in Milan.

Worked in marketing and promotion at Fiat and subsidiaries Ferrari and Maserati until 2007.

Was Henry Kissinger’s personal assistant in New York in 2001-2002

First job, at age 17, was making scooters at a Piaggio factory in Italy

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Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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