ROME (AP) — Leonardo Del Vecchio, who founded the Luxottica eyewear empire in a trailer and turned an everyday item into a global fashion item, becoming one of Italy’s richest men, is died on Monday, the eyewear company announced. He was 87 years old.
“EssilorLuxottica announces with deep sadness the passing of Chairman Leonardo Del Vecchio,” a statement from the company reads, its name reflecting an agreement struck several years ago between Luxottica and French lens maker Essilor.
The statement said EssilorLuxottica’s board of directors will meet to “determine next steps.”
Luca Zaia, the governor of Veneto, the northeast region where Del Vecchio started his business in 1961 in a town in the Alpine valley, hailed Del Vecchio as one of “the most successful entrepreneurs in the world”.
Italian media said Del Vecchio died in a hospital in Milan, where he was admitted several weeks ago. No cause of death was cited.
From a start in a Milan orphanage, Del Vecchio became one of Italy’s wealthiest industrialists. Globalizing fashion eyewear, Luxottica now manufactures frames for dozens of big names in fashion, including Armani, Burberry and Chanel.
On the Forbes list of the richest people, Del Vecchio and his family were ranked 60th last year, with assets of $24.5 billion.
Del Vecchio’s father sold vegetables on the streets of Milan but died before he was born. The youngest of four children, when he was in his twenties, he worked as an apprentice making parts for eyeglass frames, then went into business for himself. He moved from Milan to the village of Agordo in the Dolomites in 1961, taking advantage of an offer of free land to create jobs and discourage young people from flocking to cities for work.
What started as a company housed in a trailer gradually grew into a sprawling complex, a 90-minute drive from Venice, employing thousands of people and producing tens of thousands of frames every day.
Del Vecchio struck gold turning life’s rather mundane necessity into “designer frames” for eyeglasses and sunglasses. Luxottica’s corporate website lists 33 major brands, including Valentino, Prada, Michael Kors, Coach and Brooks Brothers.
Two moves as he grew his business were widely seen as pivotal. One strategy led him to invest in the retail sector, opening Luxottica stores. The other strategy led him to acquisitions, in particular that of the American company Ray-Ban, in 1999, a brand which, under the company’s marketing approach, gained in cachet.
Del Vecchio’s empire has expanded with a deal, announced in 2018, with French firm Essilor. This agreement created a massive entity with more than 140,000 employees in 150 countries.
But Del Vecchio took care to keep his family financial vehicle, the Delfin holding company. In its last configuration, Del Vecchio held 25% of its capital. Under the Delfin umbrella are also considerable holdings in banks and insurance companies.
Unlike some of Italy’s brightest industrialists, like TV mogul Silvio Berlusconi and Fiat’s Gianni Agnelli, Del Vecchio kept a low profile, so much so that the Italian media dubbed him “Mr. Nobody.”
The daily Corriere della Sera quoted him as saying of his early mentors in the craft: “They left me several important lessons – discipline, method and skill.”
Del Vecchio preached simplicity. “For years, my lunch was boiled cabbage. Its smell reminds me of the great effort, the dream I had of doing something that belonged to me, even if small, but where I could put my ideas and my abilities to use, ”said the Milan daily quoting him.
He remained untouched by the corruption scandals that rocked the spheres of Italian business and political power in the early 1990s.
“I don’t like paying taxes, but I like sleeping at night,” Del Vecchio told The Associated Press in a 1995 interview at company headquarters.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi, an economist who had headed the European Central Bank, paid tribute from Germany, where he was attending the G-7 summit.
“For more than 60 years, a protagonist of Italian entrepreneurship, Del Vecchio has created one of the greatest companies in the country, starting from humble beginnings,” Draghi said in a written statement. The industrial “has brought the community of Agordo and the whole country to the center of the world of innovation”, declared the Italian Prime Minister.
Del Vecchio was married three times, including twice to his second wife, Nicoletta Zampillo. He had six children: his son Claudio and two daughters from his first marriage to Luciana Nervo; a son, Leonardo Maria from his marriage to Zampillo; and two sons, Luca and Clemente, with former investor Sabina Grossi, La Repubblica newspaper reported.
Frances D’emilio, Associated Press