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A Shoe-In for Style

For Diego Della Valle, the leather empire of Tod's shoes and accessories is the stuff his dreams are made of.


Diego Della Valle, scion of Italian leather goods empire Tod's, never passed a storefront he did not want to peek inside. Right now, steps away from his own newly expanded Rodeo Drive boutique store set to reopen today, he is sizing up his neighbors--Max Azria and Ermenegildo Zegna--as he walks to lunch. The testosterone must be flowing.

"So many stores are sterile, like a freezer," he says later at the Grill. "I try to understand if there is a dream or not. In 95% of them, there is not."

In the past two decades, Della Valle, 46, has parlayed his father's Milan-based shoe business into a global accessories giant with 39 boutiques worldwide, 16 more in the works, and annual sales of more than $200 million. He has won the hearts and soles of princesses, fashion models and Hollywood stars with his trademark driving moccasins, and transformed Tod's into the quintessential modern luxury brand.

Although his English is a bit rough, "dream" is one word that rolls easily off his tongue. Dressed in a casually elegant gray suit made by his personal tailor, a Brooks Brothers blue shirt and brown suede Tod's, Della Valle has his own California dream: He'd love to buy a bungalow by the ocean, live in Levi's and a T-shirt and drive . . . all the time.

Not that life in Italy is all that bad.

There are houses in Milan, Capri and on the Adriatic coast, which he shares with his companion, architect Barbara Pistilli, and their 3-year-old son, Filippo. (Married twice before he met Pistilli, and the father of a grown son, Della Valle calls himself "the typical Italian male.")

There is a private jet, a boat once owned by Joseph P. Kennedy and a 1998 Ferrari Spider. He and Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo are "like brothers," he says. "We have the same customer . . . the dream people." (They also co-own the Acqua di Parma fragrance and Web eye wear.)

Della Valle's 25-year-old son, Emanuele, is also at lunch. The electric guitar to his father's violin, he heads Hogan, Tod's offshoot that produces more athletic-looking footwear and accessories. Emanuele lives in New York's Chinatown, dates an artist and smokes cigarettes (when his father is not looking). Dressed in jeans, a sports jacket and blue hipster wraparound glasses, he is in L.A. to open a Hogan store on Robertson Boulevard this week. . . and to help translate for his father. (Emanuele orders fish--dry--for his dad, and white wine. "For jet lag," the elder Della Valle says.)

Della Valle recently took Tod's public, and he is eager to grow the brand. He admires luxury conglomerates LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Gucci Group and hopes that Tod's, like the mega-luxury powerhouses, will one day be in a position to acquire other labels "if the synergy is right."

His father, Dorino, 75, founded the company in the 1940s, after beginning work as a cobbler's assistant at age 9. Eventually, he produced private-label shoes for Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Diego, who left law school in Bologna for the family business, wanted to create a brand that would stand on its own.

In 1979, he randomly chose the name J.P. Tod's (since shortened) because it was easy to pronounce in any language, then began an aggressive marketing campaign. Over the years, he has earned some famous fans. Tod's leather D-bag, a boxy leather tote, was named after Princess Diana, who was pictured in magazines carrying a tan version. Hillary Clinton was famously photographed climbing onto Air Force One with one. And Tod's evening shoes and bags always get a lot of red carpet time at awards shows. The new Beverly Hills store, more than tripled in size with 7,500 square feet of space, has a VIP room for celebrities to shop in private.

Della Valle has been a movie buff since he was a boy living in the small Adriatic town of Ancona, where going to the movies was the only thing to do on Sunday.. He loves cinematic tough guys--Brando, McQueen, Hopper and Nicholson. ("I saw Russell Crowe in Italy wearing a pair of my sunglasses," he says, and is rooting for "Gladiator" to win an Oscar.) "Cinema is still the only thing to do on Sunday," he says, "except now I have my own screening room."

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