Few figures in recent history can match the level of influence that Gianni Agnelli had on men’s fashion. His influence however, wasn’t limited to his somewhat eccentric style. During his life, the bespoke-suited Gianni Agnelli held stake in the world showcase as an industrialist, Italian senator, principal shareholder of Fiat and the richest man in modern Italian history with a net worth estimated at $2 billion.
Gianni Agnelli – The Person
If one had to sum up the character traits of Agnelli in a few words, he would be: charming, intelligent, curious, and stylish, never sitting still and in constant search for the perfect one-liner. For example when JFK died, he just said “He was already screwed anyway” referring to his troubled back. It seemed Agnelli always tried to brush away everything with a joke thus shying away from emotional bonds with others. He had basically no relationship with his own children but instead enjoyed the company of women and life in general. During his 40 years in power he was probably the most important man in Italy’s economy, yet failed to groom a family heir. This article is written in collaboration with Ben Butler, who guides you through Agnelli’s vita, and Sven Raphael Schneider who thoroughly discusses all aspects of Agnelli’s clothing and style.
The Childhood and Upbringing of Gianni Agnelli
Gianni Agnelli was born into success and nobility. His grandfather Giovanni Agnelli propelled the family into affluence by co-founding Fiat well before Gianni was born. His father–Edoardo Agnelli–continued the family’s growth as an Italian business magnate and principal shareholder of Fiat. In 1919, formal nobility entered the family line when Edoardo married Virginia Bourbon del Monte–the daughter of the Prince of San Faustino, a member of the ancient Tuscan-Umbrian family.
The family’s entrepreneurial spark didn’t just transfer in Gianni–it continued to grow throughout his childhood. When he attended D’Azeglio High School in Turin, Italy, he developed an increased intrigue for business and the advancement of his family’s reputation, which he would later capitalize on.
Tragedy and His Grandfather’s Influence
Unfortunately, Gianni’s life rapidly began to change in 1935 when his father tragically died in a plane accident at age 43.Conflict arose between his grandfather and mother as Virginia became intimately involved with Curzio Malaparte, a writer and journalist, just a few months after her late husband’s death. In response, Giovanni attempted to gain parental rights of her seven children.
After the death of his father, Gianni’s grandfather moved to the forefront of his life and became an extremely influential figure. Gianni wrote the following about him:
“[My grandfather] represented authority and absolute power. He was a powerful man in his city, a powerful man in Italy. He was a very simple man and by nature a very influential man. And so, for me, he represented absolute power.”
He remained close to his grandfather from 1935 until 1940 when Gianni was pulled into the war that spun Europe into chaos.
Gianni Agnelli’s Experience in World War II
Gianni served on the Russian and North African fronts during World War II–both of which came with their own misfortunes.
On the Russian front, he was wounded twice, almost lost one of his fingers to frostbite and endured even more punishment in North Africa as the driver of an armored car built by Fiat. It’s said that he got into an argument with a German solder over a woman in a bar. Rumor has it that although he was shot in the arm, he managed to finish his drink before finally walking out.
After Italy fell to the Allied powers, Gianni acted as a liaison offer for the occupying U.S. Army. American occupiers forced Gianni’s grandfather to resign from Fiat because the company built tanks for the war. This, however, wasn’t the worst fate of Fiat because Giovanni already had a plan in place to deal with the transition–he placed someone clever and trusted in power to run the company until Gianni was mature enough to take control. The man’s name was Lieutenant Valleta.
Gianni Agnelli’s Rise to Power in Fiat and Italy
Valleta remained in charge of Fiat until 1966 as Gianni Agnelli’s grandfather had intended. At that point, Gianni Agnelli took control and started growing the business as hehad intended to do since his time at D’Azeglio High School.
He led the company’s explosive growth by diversifying the business portfolio and expanding into countries such as Russia, Spain and South America. This involved moving into industries like construction, finance, telecommunications and media. Gianni gained an extraordinary power boost from this diversification with the purchase of La Stampa and Corriere della Sera, two of Italy’s most important newspapers. Eventually, this strategy centered Fiat as Italy’s largest private-sector employer and thus a significant body of influence.
One of his fondest purchases was that of the Juventus Football Club, one of Italy’s most distinct football teams. His family’s involvement with the club started in 1923 and continued with Gianni personally running the club between 1947-1954. Agnelli resigned from his hands-on leadership role due to health concerns, but continued to own the club until his death. He’s legendarily known for often landing his helicopter at the training facility to chat with his players and calling the club’s president each and every morning at 6 a.m.
Other notable conquests include his local acquisition of Alfa Romeo, Lancia and a stake in Ferrari as well as Maserati. In retrospect, his involvement in three of the most famous sport car brands in the world–Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari–were tremendous accomplishments. Previously and politely rejecting Ford in the past, his absorption of Alfa Romeo had all the more significance since the American motor company had already been eyeing up the Italian brand.
However, many controversial deals were made during his time in power, including a deal with Colonel Qaddafi in the 1970s. During the time’s international petrol crisis, Gianni decided to sell part of his company to Qaddafi’s Lafico to ease the blow of the troubled economy. Ultimately, Gianni would buy his shares back back once the situation improved.
Another famous deal was reached when he sold 20% of the car business to General Motors, in the early 2000s.
Gianni Agnelli’s Role in the Italian Economy
Gianni and Fiat’s influence on the Italian economy was extraordinary.
He’s credited with moving Italy from an agriculture-centered reliance to an industrialized nation. In fact, before his influence and actions truly set in, just about three-quarters of the Italian population was living on the land. The country continues to credit his business acumen to Italy’s post-WWII rise from absolute poverty to becoming the world’s sixth richest state. It’s also mentioned in whispers that during his lifetime Gianni owned a quarter of the shares on the Italian Stock exchange. During its prime time, Fiat supplied 50% of Italians with their vehicles and was the icon of industrial success and style.
The Uncrowned King of Italy
It’s not uncommon to hear Gianni referred to as the “Uncrowned King of Italy.” His tremendous stake in the Italian economy through his growth of Fiat as a diversified, private employer, his frequent dinners with the world’s most powerful individuals and overall admiration from his country ensured such a title. Italians used to say something along the lines of, “Agnelli is Fiat, Fiat is Turin and Turin is Italy” to express his influence on the state of affairs.
Another common nickname was L’Avvocato (lawyer) because he studied law, although he never practiced it.
Eventually an anti-corruption crackdown erupted in Italy. This resulted in the removal of most of Italy’s corrupt influencers. Regardless, Gianni and his reputation remained untouched, further solidifying his title of the “Uncrowned King of Italy.” This cannot be said of any other political or business force in the country.
The Women of Gianni Agnelli
Gianni Agnelli was a notorious playboy. This, however, didn’t harm his public persona–it only increased it. Notable mistresses include Linda Christian, Danielle Darrieux, Rita Hayworth and Pamela Churchill Harriman–the former wife of Winston Churchill’s son. Rumors also add Jacqueline Kennedy to his list.
Gianni lived in a 28-room villa in southern France where he spent five years with Pamela Churchill Harriman. Pamela enjoyed the relationship and even described this as one of the happiest time periods of her life, but the relationship hit a rough patch in 1952 when she found Gianni with Anne-Marie d’Estainville. While allegedly driving d’Estainville home, Gianni got into a terrible car accident that damaged his leg so badly that the doctors thought they may have to amputate it. His affair with Pamela fizzled out soon after.
He’s often quoted giving the following advice about women:
“There are men who talk of women and others who talk to them–I prefer talking to them.”
Gianni Agnelli’s One and Only Marriage
After a series of affairs, Gianni settled down by marrying the Neapolitan Princess Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto. According to the official Gianni Agnelli website, he said the following about her:
“Marella? We have lived together for a lifetime. At that point, the other person becomes a part of you; how can we call ourselves friends? It’s more, much more, it’s part of you.”
Marella continues to stand out in history as a fashion icon in her own right. She was known for her tall and classical features so much so that she was admitted to the International Best Dressed List in 1963 and also eventually became a Hall of Fame Member.
Her portfolio in the fashion industry includes studying in Paris, working with photographer Erwin Bluemnthal in New York, contributing to Vogue and developing her own line of textiles. More recently, she oversaw the grand opening of the Renzo Piano-designed Giovanni and Marella Agnelli Art Gallery in 2002 to prepare the country for the Olympics.
Marriage didn’t stop Gianni from getting involved with other women, but the marriage remained intact until his death in 2003. Some of the women he had affairs with, such as actress Anita Ekberg, fashion designer Jackie Rodgers and supposedly even Jackie Kennedy.
His one-line response when asked about being unfaithful? “You could be a good husband and fool around, or a very bad husband and be fidel.”
His Love for Art
Gianni balanced his love for cars and beautiful women with an interest in art. His priceless collection included legendary pieces such as the Italian Futurists, four Monets and pieces by Klimt, Bacon, Warhol and Lichtenstein.
After his death in 2003, most of the pieces were donated to his hometown of Turin.
Although a man constantly in the public eye, Gianni consistently rejected the notion of having bodyguards around him. His philosophy on them was that they see too much and talk too much. He continued refusing to place security around him even though terrorists were gaining serious power in Italy.
One captured terrorist recounted a story of how he had Gianni in his crosshairs, but was unable to get off a clear shot. Gianni would continue dodging countless other attempts and fulfilling the natural span of his life.
The Death of Gianni Agnelli
On January 23, 2003, Gianni Agnelli passed away in Turin at the age of 81 from prostate cancer.
This occurrence shook Italy and was covered in every new outlet in the country. Just to give some more perspective about the significance of this event, Italy’s leading newspaper devoted its first 19 pages to Gianni.
They often say that the importance of a man can be measured by the number of people at his funeral. This further proves Gianni Agnelli’s impact on not only the country around him, but the world around him as well. Over 100,000 people–including both the president and prime minister–made their way to see his body in the Fiat headquarters. This was followed by an applauded procession through the streets.
The influence of the bespoke-suited Gianni Agnelli hasn’t wavered since his passing in 2003. His contributions to modern fashion, business and culture will keep the conversation about him alive for many years to come.
The Style of Gianni Agnelli – L’avvocato & Rake of the Riviera by Sven Raphael Schneider
The tie askew, the collar on his OCBD shirt unbuttoned, and the watch on top of his cuff — all that would have been impossible to pull of for most men, but not so for Agnelli. He knew all the rules, and he broke them deliberately. He never looked too neat, always with some sprezzatura, like a young rake.
He was very smart about his style in the sense that he fully understood the power of photography early on, and it worked in his favor. Even president Kennedy became jealous when he saw pictures of him and his wife! By displaying personal style hallmarks, he was able to become the center of attention, which helped him to cement his power. When he created his personal hallmarks of style, no one had really used those same identifiers before and because he was a character people soon imitated him. Even today, you find you men across the globe trying to imitate his style because he was found the balance between comfort, sprezzatura and elegance.
Should You Imitate His Style?
An inherent aspect of personal style is that the harmony between outward appearance and inner personality. Only your character paired with the way you select and wear your clothes can result into a true, personal style. Agnelli did many things, partly out of necessity in certain situations, partly because we wanted to be different, and as a whole, it worked for him. Now, if you like some aspects of his style, that’s fine, but don’t try to copy him exactly because you will never be able to achieve his style. Instead, you will always be a more or less bad copy of it, and copying someone else’s style doesn’t work even if you try hard.
It is far better, to use Agnelli’s style as an inspiration to create your own look, and if you do it right, the result will be far superior to the copied outfit you envisioned initially. In the following, I’ll be discussing 10 things Agnelli popularized, and how you can draw inspiration from his looks to create your own style, rather than trying to be a copycat.
1. Agnelli and the Watch on Top of the Cuff
Agnelli is extremely well known for having worn his wrist watch, usually a Fratello on top of his shirt cuff. He himself once claimed he did it simply because he didn’t have the time to pull back his shirt sleeve cuff every time he wanted to look at his watch. If that was true, he did it just for a practical reason, but looking at his style as a whole, I find his friend’s Taki Theodoracopulos’ story more convincing. According to him, Agnelli had always worn his watch underneath his Brooks Brothers OCBD shirt cuff, just like anybody else. However, his evening shirts were made by Battistoni in Rome, and since it was bespoke, the cuffs were much tighter than the off the rack Brooks Brothers cuffs. Agnelli wanted to wear his watch, and so he just wore it on the outside of the cuff. Fred Hughes, the business manager of Andy Warhol, was one of the first to copy it and soon thereafter, many others did it. Whenever, I see somebody wearing a watch on top of the cuff, I never think “what great personal style” but rather “he is so insecure and without personal style that he has to copy Agnelli”. Whenever you wear a watch on top of your shirt, people will think of Agnelli, and not you – if that’s how you want to be perceived, go for it, otherwise just don’t do it.
2. Tie with a Shorter Back Blade Than the Front Blade
Today, Agnelli is known for wearing the back blade of his tie (the slimmer end) longer than the front blade (the wider end) but he did not always wear his tie like that. In his early life, he wore a tie just like anyone else and it would take until the 1950s that we would start wearing the skinny end of his tie shorter. In the beginning, nobody noticed, but when he appeared on the ABC Morning Show, it was noticed. If any other men had done it, people would have thought of it as sloppy or assumed he dressed in the dark. Agnelli on the other wanted to look like that and did it on purpose. Although, it is definitely an Agnelli hallmark, he did not always were the tie like that. Most notably, neither end of the tie would hardly ever reach beyond his waistband, instead, he would tuck the long end into his trousers. Unlike the watch, a tie can be tied in many different lengths with many different knots and it is available in different lengths and widths. Therefore it is easier to make a particular look your own. Lately, I noticed many people trying to wear extremely long ties with a longer back blade that extend way beyond the waistband of the high rise trousers. In my opinion, it simply looks stupid but of course each to his own. If you want to wear the skinny end longer than the wide end, that’s ok, but make sure not to extend either end beyond the waistband, and you will look much better. Agnelli usually wore a dimple in his tie but it was never pronounced or perfectly in the middle. The way you wear your dimple is just another chance for you to create your own look.
3. The Unbuttoned Button-Down Collar
In line with the sprezzatura look he wanted, Agnelli sometimes wore his button down shirt collar unbuttoned, even when he wore a tie. For him it worked because he paired it with soft flannel jackets. Apart from the casual look, it really serves no practical purpose. Today, many men follow his example if they want to underline their nonchalant attitude, but more often than not it is combined with to many other accents, that the overall impression is the opposite of sprezzatura. It can work very well in the summer but I would suggest, you don’t over do it with other accessories such as wristbands, lacksocks, colorful sunglasses etc. otherwise it looks like your are trying too hard to be nonchalant, and that’s never stylish.
4. Unbuttoned Sleeve cuffs /Surgeon Cuffs
Agnelli had his suits made by A. Caraceni in Milan and D. Caraceni and would often wear his sleeve cuffs unbuttoned. At that time, working sleeve buttonholes, which are also known as surgeon cuffs, were something only found in true bespoke garments. Even 15 years ago, that was mostly the case, but then this feature started to trickle down the ranks and first brands like Polo Ralph Lauren would offer them on their RTW jackets with machine made buttonholes and today even H&M offers them. As such, the exclusivity once associated with working buttonholes has vanished completely, and it almost seems you are now more exclusive if you keep your sleeve buttons on a bespoke jacket buttoned, even though they are functional. Sometimes, men leave just the second and fourth button unbuttoned, or sometimes a button is just buttoned half way… In my opinion, all these variations look to forced and stands in conflict with true elegance.
Note, Agnelli almost always wore 3 cuff buttons, whereas today most men wear four. At the end of the day, it’s up to you what you wear and how you wear it but just bear in mind, that we live in a different world today than Agnelli did back then, and leaving one’s sleeve buttons closed is more understated and exclusive.
Instead of leaving your sleeve cuffs unbuttoned, you might want to consider leaving your barrel shirt cuffs undone. Unlike the unbuttoned collar, unbuttoned shirt cuffs have a huge advantage in the summer, because they make you feel considerably cooler. Personally, I frequently wear my barrel cuffs unbuttoned in the summer and it looks and feels great. All you have to pay attention to is the sleeve length, because it should not be too long and the shirt should just peak out a bit from underneath the jacket sleeve cuff.
5. Slippers, Loafers & Mocs with a Suit
Agnelli would sometimes wear very casual slippers, loafers or mocs with a solid grey flannel suit to add a casual note to his ensemble. Before, him, the Duke of Windsor did something similar by wearing loafers with a double breasted suit.
Loafers and mocs come in many colors, shapes and styles and generally, you can wear them with your suit today. However, not every shoe works with every suit. I would advise you to understand all the basics first and to start by wearing the basics extensively. Once you have mastered that, experiment with loafers, because it can look very well when worn by someone who knows what he is doing and rather sloppy when worn by someone who is in the midst of developing his own style.
6. Hiking Boots with a Suit
Apart from casual shoes, Agnelli would at times also wear rugged hiking boots with his suits, and while some consider it to be a stylistic choice, his friend Taki claims, Agnelli simply did it out of necessity. In 1952, after a fight with Churchill’s daughter, Agnelli had an accident driving into a truck, and while the doctors were able to save his right leg, it was never perfect again. Instead of wearing a brace, Agnelli opted to wear hiking boots to stabilize his foot.
If you live in the country and want to wear boots with your tweed suits, go for it. On the other hand, if you want to wear hiking boots with your city suit just because Agnelli did it, I suggest you look for a different inspiration because it is elegant at all. Of course, if you have a medical condition with your foot, it’s a different game and you wear what you have to wear, but when it comes to style, I suggest, you wear your hiking boots when in the mountains and opt for other shoes or boots with your suits.
7. Popover Shirts
In 1962, Jackie Kennedy spent 3 weeks in the south of Italy without her then husband JFK. During this trip she got acquainted with Gianni Agnelli, who showed her around the Amalfi coast. Of course, the paparazzi loved this “couple” and word was on the street those two had an affair during that time. Even JFK became wind of their excursions and in a mood of jealousy he sent a telegram to Jackie stating “More Caroline, less Agnelli”. At that time, Agnelli was often photographed wearing a white, three button popover shirt which was supposedly made by Inglese from Ginosa in Italy. Ever since, the popover shirt has become associated with Gianni Agnelli and he continued to wear them, just like many other men who copied him.
If you are in the market for a casual shirt, a popover can be a good option and if you like the look, go for it.
8. Washed Out Denim Western Shirt & JEans
Especially later in life Agnelli developed an affinity to denim, particularly jeans and denim shirts. For example for a July 4 party in 1991, he was invited on the boat of Malcom Forbes. While all others wore a blazer or something equivalent, he wore a washed denim shirt, blue jeans, blazer or something equivalent, he wore a washed denim shirt, blue jeans, suede chukka boots and a red bandana with his watch on top of his cuff.
In the last couple of years, these shirts have become popular again. First, Ralph Lauren revitalized them and lately bespoke versions with hand sewn buttonholes have been become en vogue.
Denim shirts are definitely a wardrobe items that can work for your style without looking like someone who wants to copy a certain style but you have to carefully incorporate them into your wardrobe otherwise it looks off.
9. Grey Flannel Suits
Agnelli was a great fan of flannel, especially grey flannel. He had all of his suits tailored at A. Caraceni in Milan, but the flannels he used were woven by Vitale Barberis Canonico in Italy. Although he owned various shades of grey, his favorite was definitely the one in the picture. It became so popular that Vitale Barberis Canonico produces it to this day. Although it is a solid fabric, it has many shades of grey with a mottled look that provides the fabric with a sophisticated depth. Overall, every man should own at least one grey flannel suit because it is perfectly suitable for business and casual occasions. On top of that, grey flannel trousers pair with most sport coats and work especially well with blazers.
10. Midnight Blue Tuxedos
Just like the Duke of Windsor, Agnelli was enamored with midnight blue fabric for his evening wardrobe. Sometimes, he would even wear a double breasted tuxedo ensemble unbuttoned, even though that would generally considered to be a faux pas. He liked to be different and showed it.
Now for your formal evening outfits, I suggest you stick to the rules because you have likely not the charisma of Agnelli. However, it is perfectly fine for you to wear a midnight blue tuxedo or dinner jacket. Although this color has become more popular with connoisseurs over the last few years, the majority of tuxedos is still black, and as such it is a great opportunity for you to stand out from the crowd in a subtle, sophisticated way.
Gianni Agnelli was a man of elegance who knew exactly what he was doing and who broke the rules so it suited his character. To be a man of elegance, you have to be more than dressed elegantly, and ideally you express a genuine interest in all kinds of things, ranging from art to grooming all the way to manners or simply all things that express beauty. Agnelli also showed us that his style could not be copied successfully because others never looked like him just because they chose certain elements he incorporated into his wardrobe. Rather than blindly copying someone else, try to interpret everything you see as an inspiration and make sure to add your personal note, thus creating your own, unique style.