Diego Della Valle Talks About Embracing the Digital Age

Diego Della Valle, CEO of Tod's

For most of the 20th century, fashion held the culture in its clutches. Fashion was the barometer of all that was happening, of what had been and what would become. Sometime around 2005, the ivory-tower of taste began to erode. The digital world spawned a visual and communication revolution, and inspired a shift in power. As the pace of change in the digital world accelerated, it seemed that established and luxury brands became even more resistant to change. Once a flock, fashion consumers were suddenly activated and had their own voice.

On their own social media platforms, individual consumers became empowered, full-on, flat-out publicity machines. Where once the brands had led, the new trope saw individual consumers use their blogs and Instagram to dictate the aesthetic debate.

Lasts belonging to some of the luminaries who wear Tod’s

The “it girls” of the 1990s – Kate Moss and Chloë Sevigny, for example – have upgraded to dig-IT-al girls Alexa Chung, Kiko Mizuhara and Chiari Ferragni. Are they followers? No. It is technology that now drives fashion, not the luxury conglomerates who have become the flock. It is the brands that want the digital influencers and their followers. “I think it is a completely bigger world and it is not related to my village anymore,” says the softly-spoken Diego Della Valle, Tod’s president and chief executive.

We met the leader of one of the brands working to make sense of the new environment on a recent trip to Hong Kong. We speak in the cocooned surrounds of The Lobby at The Peninsula Hong Hong, Della Valle in an inimitably spiffy scarf and shirt. Around us is an old-world luxury mise en scène populated by new-world shoppers-cum-celebrities, relentlessly  snapping selfies and picking through “merch hauls”.

Fashion blogger and Tod's ambassador Chiara Ferragni

It’s an obvious juxtaposition. “It’s not only for us but for you too, in the media, because we follow you, right? Our leaders are now our customers,” says Della Valle.

How does Tod’s – the god of the driving moccasin, the Gommino – cope with the consumer shift into digital overdrive? Della Valle is pragmatic. “We need to transform and we have to understand the market,” he says. His house is not alone. The luxury brands are seemingly unready for the impact of the digital reality. The way forward is being cogitated and deliberated endlessly, each brand discombobulated by the market’s recondite manoeuvrerings.

Ferragni's own last, a customised shoe-mold

One week before Della Valle’s arrival in Hong Kong, Marc Jacobs had said he no longer understood the fashion industry. Five days later, Tom Ford echoed that sentiment. “I have no idea where we’re going,” Ford said. It was a surprising revelation from a man who at one time, and for the longest time, felt like the  most directed designer in fashion. It’s no small irony that both Ford and Jacobs acknowledge the example set by Karl Lagerfeld as a fashion pioneer.

Della Valle believes a major point of entry for the Tod’s empire – what he calls “one of the big points” – is the moment a consumer walks into the store. More pertinently, how to get them through the door. “We try to do many things. You need to do something to give a good experience when people go the shops because they don’t need to go to the shops anymore.”

Ferragni collaborated with Tod’s on the iconic Double T Gommino and the Gommino clutch

Della Valle pauses for thought and a smile crosses his face. “Before when we would come to Hong Kong, the publicist would tell you all about the mentality of the people, what they wanted, and we would give her the good food and she would give us service at the table, that was our stores. Now we have to sit down and discuss the most popular people, influencers, and we have to find the right people to attach to. That is the way forward for many companies.”

Hence Chiara Ferragni. Tod’s selected the international fashion blogger, businesswoman and subject of a #legend cover story in July to collaborate on a capsule collection by customising or reimagining her version of the iconic Double T Gommino and the Gommino clutch. In a subtle twist on the traditional fare, Ferragni brought a prettified palette of pastel persuasion to the fore. There was powder pink for the bag and sandy beige for the shoes.

The first stage in the collaboration

The #chiaralovestods collection was in stores and at Tod’s online. Just as important was the trip she made to Capri to shoot the film to accompany the collection. “The most important blogger in the world came to Italy for two weeks, to make a film encapsulating our Italian dreams,” Della Valle says.

It shows her adventurous escapades in short extracts. The Woman, The Convertible and The Sea show Ferragni living la dolce vita. It all appears as authentic as her picture-perfect Gomminos, lovingly captured askance the bow of a speedboat in pristine sunlight.

Reimagining the Gommino moccasin

Ferragni posted the endeavour to her blog, theblondesalad.com and her followers, all 12 million, no doubt swooned at the Italian picture-perfectness of it and dutifully followed the fairy tale to the nearest available online store. Who wouldn’t? In today’s milieu, these mini-motion campaigns are the new print advertisements.

Tod’s is a 39-year-old company but is versatile enough to respond to the market. “We completely changed about one or two years ago the business model in terms of format of the store,” says Della Valle. “Twenty years ago, for me and my competitors, one of the most important ‘points’ was to try to have the same store, same format, same window with the same product at  the same time, in all stores around the world.”

Such thinking is now démodé. Tod’s has changed its modus operandi completely and the emphasis is on surprise. “We want to do different flagships, with separate architects, with a different mood,” Della Valle says. “We started this project in London, Bond Street, and in Miami. Now, I think we need to move a little more.”

Tod’s headquarters in Sant’Elpidio a Mare is dotted with eye-catching art

The design of the London and Miami boutiques includes the idea of a more flexible space that might function as a gallery, become a home to one-off events or house capsule collections. They are the test beds for new ideas and concepts.

“The best part of the store is the pop-up store,” Della Valle says. “We need to start doing more, as they are more active. We promote different projects month by month. We can have ideas onsite, with the same product design as we have for e-commerce. That’s our new strategy, so we don’t lose customers in-store.”

The underlying theme is “for as long as stores are necessary”. “Maybe in the future we don’t need hundreds and hundreds of stores around the world,” Della Valle says. “It’s easier for people to buy online.”

Della Valle says Tod’s remains an old, high-quality Italian company with an incredible brand story. “If we transform our big roots with a charming story we are in a good position. We need new ideas, new content, to have people follow us. Before we start that discussion, we always remember who we are. It’s 70 per cent in one direction, 30 per cent in another.”

From the Gommino to the restoration of Rome’s Colosseum and online, Tod’s is driving the transformation of retail and following it.

This article first appeared in the September 2017 print issue of #legend magazine.

In this Story: #style / #fashion