Mercantile Style: Gianni Agnelli

Gianni Agnelli wearing a suit
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

When you think of the kind of figures typically lauded as style icons, they are almost always actors, musicians, or people who work in the clothing industry in one way or another. You’ll also find a good helping of other creative types — writers, directors, artists — as well as the occasional aristocrat, politician, and sportsman. 

It is very rare indeed for anyone from the business world to be included in this particular fold. For all of their commercial successes, titans of industry are rarely celebrated for their sense of style. What’s more, the situation seems to be devolving by the day. For one thing, suits and ties in professional contexts appear to be on the verge of extinction. A new wave of Covid-casual business attire certainly hasn’t helped matters either, although the dressed-down approach of the Silicon Valley set has gradually been filtering into Wall Street and beyond for many years now. And then, at the tippy top of the corporate ladder, the billionaires of the world (who aren’t all that well thought of by the general populace at the best of times) have a nearly universal reputation for dressing terribly.

There’s a kind of irony in all of this, in that those with more money than most to put towards a good wardrobe are often the worst at doing so. And while it’s certainly true that having money helps matters when you’re looking to upgrade your clothing game, there’s no question that simply throwing money at the problem won’t do. As evidence, simply look at just about any mogul you can call to mind.

Gianni Agnelli in a crowd at Fiat
Gianni Agnelli shows Italian president Luigi Einaudi the new Fiat 600 in 1955
Image credit: Silvio Durante / Public domain

The exception that proves this rule is Giovanni ‘Gianni’ Agnelli. As the head of the family that founded the Fiat empire, Agnelli certainly had riches to spare. At one point, he was thought to be worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of £2 billion, making him the richest man in modern Italian history. But to single out Angelli’s fortune as the source of his celebrated sense of style would be to miss the point.

Agnelli had the appearance of being that rarest of beasts of the clothing world: the true individualist. 

He was at once an old-school clotheshorse and a maverick trendsetter, equal parts traditionalist and iconoclast. And while his money and reputation no doubt meant that Agnelli could get away with the kind of quirks of dress that your average pleb might not, it would be tough to deny that there seemed to be something almost preternatural about his dress sense.

Just think of all of the Agnelli quirks that have become canonical in his wake. Have you ever seen someone leave the collar points of their button-down shirts left rakishly undone? Agnelli started that. Ever cast your eyes on an off-centre four-in-hand tie knot with the back tail outstretching the blade at the front? Chances are that was cribbed, consciously or otherwise, from L’avvocato himself. How about surgeon’s cuffs and DB jackets casually left unbuttoned? Slipper-like casual shoes or hiking boots worn with a tailored suit? Or — perhaps most famous of all — a watch worn over the cuff of a dress shirt? All down to ‘the Uncrowned King of Italy’.

Gianni Agnelli wearing in a suit
Agnelli and fellow businessman Luca Cordero in 1985
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

While it’s true that many of these flourishes seemed to spring naturally from Agnelli’s innate sense for the sartorial, some came from more practical considerations. The watch thing is a good example: Agnelli famously claimed to wear his wristwatch over his shirt cuff because a busy industrialist such as himself simply didn’t have the time to pull back his sleeve in order to check the time. In truth, the tighter cuffs of his bespoke Battistoni dress shirts simply didn’t fit over a watch in the way that his daytime Brooks Brothers button-downs did, so he decided to pop his watch over the top of them instead.

The source of his idiosyncratic footwear choices proved equally prosaic. After a road accident near Monte Carlo in 1952 caused serious damage to one of his legs, Agnelli opted for comfort over propriety in his subsequent shoe choices. The hiking boots, in particular, gave him the support he needed in lieu of a brace that would undoubtedly have ruined the silhouette of his finely appointed Caraceni suits (And speaking of shrugging off serious injury, he was also shot several times, by the by, although it isn’t quite clear how that affected his style choices).

It wasn’t just the clothes, though. The Agnelli mythos endures not because of a singularly well-appointed wardrobe, but because of the full package. His business successes turned him into a legend in his own lifetime, widely celebrated in his homeland and throughout the rest of the world. While Fiat has certainly had its ups and downs, the company Agnelli presided over once accounted for just shy of five per cent of Italy’s GDP while employing three per cent of its workforce. The man’s legacy was such that more than 100 000 people made their way to Fiat’s headquarters to pay their respects upon his death in 2003.

Gianni Agnelli on a boat
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Then, of course, there’s also in the jet-setting lifestyle, the enviable good looks, and the company he kept to consider. Among the guests of the legendary parties held at his 28-room villa on the Côte d’Azur, for example, were the likes of Prince Rainier, Errol Flynn, and JFK, to name but a few. Meanwhile, his much-publicised romantic dalliances (real or otherwise) included Jackie Kennedy, Rita Hayworth, Anita Ekberg, and socialite Pamela Churchill Harriman. It was after a row with the latter that the aforementioned car crash — involving a Ferrari, a meat lorry, and a 120mph collision — occurred. A tumultuous life, certainly, but inarguably glamorous too.

Small wonder that to this day, 101 years after his birth, we’re still leaving our collars unbuttoned and our ties askew, all in the hopes of capturing some of that elusive Agnelli magic. It’s in these small sartorial details, as much as in the grand sweep of a life well-lived, that the Rake of the Riviera lives on. 

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