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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.

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.”

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