Leonardo Del Vecchio, who founded eyewear empire Luxottica in a trailer and turned an everyday object into a global fashion item, becoming one of Italy's richest men in the process, died on Monday, the eyeglass company said. He was 87.
"EssilorLuxottica announces with deep sorrow the passing of Chairman Leonardo Del Vecchio," said a statement from the company, its name reflecting a deal forged several years ago between Luxottica and French-based lensmaker Essilor.
The statement said EssilorLuxottica’s board would meet to "determine the next steps."
Luca Zaia, the governor of Veneto, the northeast region where Del Vecchio started his business in 1961 in an Alpine valley town, hailed Del Vecchio as one of the "entrepreneurs of greatest success in all the world."
Italian media said Del Vecchio died in a Milan hospital, where he was admitted several weeks ago. No cause of death was cited.
From a start in a Milan orphanage, Del Vecchio went on to become one of Italy’s richest industrialists. Globalizing fashion eyeglasses, Luxottica now makes frames for dozens of stellar fashion names, including Armani, Burberry and Chanel.
On Forbes' list of richest persons, Del Vecchio and his family was ranked last year at No. 60, 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 20s, he worked as an apprentice making parts for eyeglass frames, then went into business for himself. He moved from Milan to the Dolomite Mountains village of Agordo in 1961, taking advantage of an offer of free land to provide jobs and discourage young people from flocking to cities for work.
What started as a company housed in a trailer steadily 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 found gold by turning the rather mundane necessity of life into "designer frames" for prescription glasses and sunglasses. The Luxottica's corporate website lists 33 top brands, including Valentino, Prada, Michael Kors, Coach and Brooks Brothers.
Two moves as he expanded his business were widely considered key. One strategy saw him invest in the retail sector, opening Luxottica stores. The other strategy led him to acquisitions, notably that of the US company Ray-Ban, in 1999, a brand which under the company’s marketing approach gained cachet.
Del Vecchio’s empire expanded with a deal, announced in 2018, with France’s Essilor. That accord 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 holding company Delfin. In its latest configuration, Del Vecchio held 25% of its capital. Under Delfin’s umbrella are considerable stakes in banking and insurance companies as well.
Unlike some of Italy's flashier industrialists, like TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi and Fiat's Gianni Agnelli, Del Vecchio kept a low-profile, to the point that Italian media dubbed him "Mr. Nobody."
Corriere della Sera daily quoted him as saying of his early mentors in the trade: "They left me with several important lessons - discipline, method and competence."
Del Vecchio preached simplicity. "For years my lunch was based on boiled cabbage. Its smell reminds me of the great effort, the dream that I had to do something that was mine, even if small, but where I could put to use my ideas and my abilities," the Milan daily quoted him as saying.
He remained untouched by the corruption scandals that rocked Italian business and political power spheres in the early 1990s.
"I don't like paying taxes, but I like sleeping at night," Del Vecchio told The Associated Press in an interview at company headquarters in 1995.
Premier Mario Draghi, an economist who had headed the European Central Bank, issued a tribute from Germany, where he was participating in the G7 summit.
"For more than 60 years a protagonist of Italian entrepreneurship, Del Vecchio created one of the biggest companies of the country, starting out from humble origins," Draghi said in a written statement. The industrialist "brought the community of Agordo and the entire country to the center of the world of innovation," the Italian premier said.
Del Vecchio married three times, including two times with his second wife, Nicoletta Zampillo. He had six children: 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 Sabina Grossi, a former investor in the group, La Repubblica newspaper said.