Born to drive: Lapo Elkann, Fiat heir and founder of Garage Italia Customs
by Stewart Campbell
Climb on board with yacht owner Lapo Elkann. The heir to the Fiat fortune lives fast and sails even faster – thanks to Lap-1, his 40 knot Baglietto, customised by his own Garage Italia Customs. Stewart Campbell tracks him down in Milan to talk yachts, cars and why his wild days are definitely behind him...
Yesterday Dubai, today Milan, tomorrow Miami: Lapo Elkann is tired. I catch him between hemispheres, jet-lagged and running on espresso. Even his attire is muted this frigid Milanese morning: white pin-stripe shirt and chinos (not a cherry red brogue in sight). At least the America leg of his never-ending world tour is about play and not work. In Florida, he’ll hook up with his latest fascination, all 13.8 metres, 1,600hp and 40 knots of it. Lap-1, the camoed-up Baglietto launched into Elkann’s ownership last year, seems the perfect floating representation of its owner, and he the personification of it. “It’s fast, lean and mean,” he says. “Unique, distinctive from everything else.” That’s the popular image of Elkann, anyway, the playboy prince turned entrepreneur, as famous for his scrapes with the press as his Agnelli heritage.
The 38-year-old says he needs this time on board. “It’s like plugging in. I would say that the place I relax most on planet Earth is in a boat. First of all, I am moving but in an environment I don’t control, in an environment that can do anything it wants, and I am not the ruler.”
That’s a big change from his day to day. The reason for all this travel is two-fold: to promote Garage Italia Customs, his newly launched company that he aims to make the first word in after-market personalisation, and Italia Independent Group, his more established eyewear, media and lifestyle company set up in 2007.
His control of both is absolute; neither is the kind of cushy sinecure sometimes reserved for the scions of great houses. Italia Independent was – is – a gamble, started without his family’s money in a crowded market. Garage Italia Customs feels more like the passion project. He had a job for life at Fiat, the company he majority owns with his brother John and sister Ginevra, and achieved plenty during his four years there, not least the launch of the market-shifting Fiat 500, but staying at the family firm would have betrayed the very simple philosophy inked dermis-deep on his left forearm - independent.
This grandson of Gianni Agnelli, the former president of Fiat and unofficial “king of Italy”, couldn’t quit making things, though. In his case, eyeglasses. It’s what those Agnellis do. “I like industry and I like producing. Very much. I like being with workers and understanding what they do and how they do it. I like to work with design teams and I like to work with engineers.” The rest of it – the zeal, the nous – he says he owes to no one but himself. “It’s very natural in me. It’s not something that comes from my grandfather, my father, not at all. Zero. I created Italia Independent with no cash and today it’s a listed company. I could have asked for $100 million and done a huge campaign. But I didn’t. I like it the hard way.”
He gets steely when he says it, unflinching. I believe him. “I want to create my own empire,” he adds, just to be clear. He doesn’t deny his privilege – the legend grandfather, the countess mother, Margherita Agnelli de Pahlen, and prominent intellectual father, Alain Elkann, but sees his position as a responsibility. “It’s not free of charge. It’s great to build, it’s great to do, but the real key to the future for he who has means is generosity. Generosity is not the key to my future, it’s the key to our future.”
It’s not a side of Elkann celebrated by the European tabloids, for whom he is something of a fetish. His office houses four obscure golden statues, which I discover later are Golden Tapirs, awarded by satirical news show Striscia la Notizia to the celebrity who has caused the most embarrassing headlines in that particular year. Like many gilded sons, there was the almost inevitable overdose, the dash to hospital and the life and death recovery. That was a long time ago – 2005 – but the legacy of those wild days is a troop of paps forever framing him in their lenses.
He’s got a sense of humour about it all – the tapirs take pride of place in the office – but the smile quickly fades when it’s time to talk business. He turns flinty and admits to being ferociously self-critical. “I can seem very loose and cool but I am very hard on myself and whichever product comes out, and also on the people who work for me. I don’t tolerate mediocrity. I don’t tolerate laziness. There is no ‘no’. You need to kick ass 24/7.” He clearly expects a big buy-in from his staff, but empowers them to figure out how they work best – in the middle of the night or after chasing girls, he suggests. “I have zero judgement.”
He’s now got the boat world in his sights. It’s time for a change, he says, revealing that he’s already engaged with a “legendary” Italian boatbuilder about a new product range. Mum’s the word, despite my prodding. He’s also working with Baglietto on new 43 and 53 metre models. “I see a lot of boats around the world but I see a lot of big pieces of junk. Big doesn’t mean nice, and millions and millions of dollars doesn’t equal taste. The sad part is you see a lot of rich people with bad taste – a lot of the boats are extremely tacky and cheesy. I think the boat industry, the builders and designers, need to wake up and bring freshness and novelty,” he says. And if they won’t do it, he will. “There is an opportunity to do far more than is being done now. The yards need to be less lazy in what they show to you. It cannot be that I pay 15, 20, 25, 50 million euros and you propose me four options. When I pay so much, I don’t accept so little. It’s disrespectful, unprofessional and it’s not luxury. Luxury is the opportunity, the possibility, to go to any length.”
Lap-1 is the first boat he’s built and owned himself. He and his brother inherited Agnelli’s mythic Germán Frers-designed Stealth, so the boating background is solid. His love of the water can be traced even further back – to his childhood growing up in Brazil with his mother, following his parents’ divorce. He learnt to sail in Optimists off Brazil’s famous beaches, and went out with Agnelli as much as he could. His brother, John, was then old enough to be working at the family firm but young Lapo got to just enjoy being with his grandfather on the water. “I was probably the one who was more in love with doing those type of activities with him,” Elkann recalls. “We had similar traits. It was fun.” He never really needed to own a boat until his late 30s as one was always available to him. He’s sailed with Giovanni Soldini on Maserati, with Ken Read on Stealth in the Fastnet, as well as with the Luna Rossa and Team Oracle America’s Cup teams. “Sea people are far more interesting than those from other industries because they have seen the world, they have travelled. And, generally speaking, they are curious people.”
He can’t quite bring himself to say boats were his first love. Cars sit on that pedestal, and he remembers that desire always being there. “I wanted to play with them, I wanted the keys to them.” Brazil was notable, too, as the place of his first car crash, aged six. “I wasn’t known to be a very disciplined young boy,” he admits, grinning. He was in the mountains one day, sitting in the passenger seat, when he decided to see what would happen if he dropped the handbrake. The inevitable happened – into a tree. “I destroyed that Panda four by four.” The experience didn’t temper the car lust but it grew into a more general love of motion, and “motion is absolutely my favourite industry”. He’s frenetic in his attentions; an absolute focus on one project briefly, before moving on. “I used to ask Enzo Ferrari what his favourite car was, and he always said ‘the next one’. I am the same. Once I build something, I am already thinking about the next one. I fall in love for a very short amount of time.”
The Next Big Thing for Elkann is also very big news for yachting – his first true superyacht, an explorer. It will satisfy a lifetime’s longing. “My endless dream was always to be an adventurer, more so than an entrepreneur. Like Cousteau, you know?” The concept drawings are done – no, he won’t let me see them – and now he needs to settle on a final size, somewhere between 40 and 50 metres. Anything bigger and you lose the connection to the sea, says Elkann. “You think about these 100 metre boats, or big Lürssens of nearly 200 metres. Would I work on a boat like that? Absolutely. Would I want one? No, never, because I like to feel the sea. And for me the sea is not tinted windows and air-conditioning.”
It will be built, like Lap-1, at Baglietto, to designs by Elkann and his collaborator and friend Federico Santa Maria, formerly of Wally. Nowhere will be off-limits to the yacht. “Lap-1 I will keep in the Mediterranean, and Lap-2 will be all over the world. I don’t want to give limitations.” In styling terms, think Lap-1 amplified. “It will be extremely military, extremely tough; extremely elegant, lean and very mean. But also very cosy on the inside. It’s going to be influenced by the sailing world, because I love sailing boats, too.”
Why not have both, like his grandfather? “I need to make far more money to reach that objective. One day it will be reached. I have patience.” None of his boats will carry the flag of some pinprick territory, but that of Italy. Despite a peripatetic upbringing – born in New York, childhood in Brazil, formative schooling in Paris and London and a first job as Henry Kissinger’s personal assistant back in New York – he is passionately green, white and red. “I pay my taxes and I want my Italian flag. I refuse to have a Cayman or Isle of Man flag,” he says. “I have cruised all over the world to go and see who were the best boatbuilders. And, no matter what, my choice, even if it’s going to be a bit more expensive, is Italy.”
What a bigger yacht won’t offer is the same 40 knot thrills as Lap-1, but perhaps it’s time Lapo Elkann nudged the throttle back. His is a 100mph life – just living it vicariously for a couple of hours adds a wrinkle. But I’m not sure he knows any other way. “I don’t tolerate boredom. I’m not a great guy on holidays. It’s why I like boats and not houses. In a boat, if you get bored, you move it.”
He spent summer 2015 avoiding boredom at high speed all over the western Med, taking Lap-1 from Italy, to Spain and the South of France. The morning we meet, the 13.8 metre is on its break, strapped to a ship nearing Miami, site of our photoshoot. Back in Milan, Elkann is static, too, and he’s getting itchy. He’s only been back in town a day but it’s already time to move. He’s dreaming of Florida and getting back on board. What’s his first action when taking the helm? As if you had to ask. “I go full throttle. Always full throttle.”