The New Era at Tod's Starts Now
As the first designer to oversee both the men’s and women’s collections for Tod’s, Walter Chiapponi is breathing new life into the long-adored luxury brand.
"From my office window, I can see Villa Necchi," says the creative director of Tod's, Walter Chiapponi, longingly about the palatial private home in central Milan where the pictures you see here were shot. Chiapponi started his job in October 2019, five months before the city's terrifying COVID-19 outbreak, and showed his first collection not long before Milan completely shut down. So the former journeyman, who worked at the right hand of people like Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, Miuccia Prada at Miu Miu, and Tomas Maier and Daniel Lee at Bottega Veneta, couldn't even properly celebrate his début as the man in charge.
Tod's had put out clothes before, but in hiring Chiapponi and giving him creative control over the men's and women's collections as well as Tod's Factory, the brand's collaborative initiative, Tod's Group president and CEO Diego Della Valle was signaling a new fashion-forward strategy. This is not insignificant for such a heritage institution. Della Valle's father, Dorino, had established the house in the 1920s as a shoe factory in Le Marche, Italy. By 1978, Diego had taken over and laid the foundation for the global Tod's brand, starting with its most popular accessory, the Gommino driving shoe, a soft leather loafer with a pebbled sole that came to be favored by everyone from Princess Diana to Lauren Hutton to Gwyneth Paltrow. And for years the house produced ready-to-wear items, but it mostly riffed on pretty, functional activewear with the same leather it uses for its bags and shoes.
About three years ago Della Valle started to reorganize the business and leaned into more frequent product drops and capsule collections with creatives like Alessandro Dell'Acqua and former Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz. But to really reposition itself, the company needed a permanent fashion identity. In February 2019, Della Valle lured away Carlo Alberto Beretta from Bottega Veneta — another Italian brand that spun ready-to-wear out of an iconic accessory, the woven Intrecciato handbag — to run the business side as GM. In turn, Beretta poached Lee's veteran lieutenant Chiapponi to creatively steer Tod's expanded offerings. There is no better vote of confidence than when your old boss wants to become your new boss.
It was a challenge to create a fashion profile for what was until then mostly a lifestyle brand, and Chiapponi opened the throttle gently. Rather than come out of left field with spindly heels and drama, both things he had mastered at Givenchy couture, he sent out slouchy menswear and sneakers with safari jackets and pops of Crayola brights. Critics hailed the collection as contemporary and smart and started talking about Tod's in the same breath as the places Chiapponi used to work at.
Had there been a big bash, Chiapponi, an extrovert for whom the lockdown has been challenging, would have welcomed it. "I tried to keep quiet and be by myself," he says of quarantine life during a Zoom call from his office. The time was certainly good for perspective, walking the dogs, and cooking. He read like a madman, starting with Alice in Wonderland, "which I think is the most sophisticated book," and Patricia Morrisroe's biography of Robert Mapplethorpe. "But I'm a Taurus, and I really love to hang out with my friends and family."
The abrupt change posed professional challenges too. During his first few months on the job, Chiapponi split his time between Milan and Tod's vast headquarters and production facility on the Adriatic coast, where patterns and techniques are developed hand in hand with the company's longtime craftspeople. Suddenly, just as he was starting to get the hang of things, he had to shift to webcams. It was not easy for a designer who once trained as a sculptor and typically worked by blocking clothes to the body rather than building from sketches. "I need to touch fabrics and have deep sessions with my co-workers to rethink and put everything together," says Chiapponi. "For me, the creative process is when I'm in the factory and start to build up with chains, a piece of leather, a heel."
So it's perfectly understandable why, in the months since the lockdown was imposed, when Chiapponi produced his second collection and needed someplace to show it off, he chose the party pad he'd been staring at every day through the window like a portal to another time. "Villa Necchi was owned by a wealthy family from Milan, two sisters who lived together," he says. "They threw a lot of parties. To find a villa like this in the middle of the city with a huge garden with real flamingoes and a swimming pool and amazing art is very rare. It's dreamy." In lieu of a runway show, Tod's filmed a socially distanced gathering, inviting a diverse troupe of models led by Karen Elson, Irina Shayk, and Mariacarla Boscono. (They all appeared mask-free but were constantly tested for COVID-19.) "They were so happy to be together after six months of lockdown," Chiapponi says of the veteran trio. "It was like forgetting about what's going on in the world and having fun." We can almost remember what that's like.
The clothes for spring shared a lot of the same inspiration as Chiapponi's maiden voyage, a sort of 1970s and 1990s crossover, with long A-line skirts, ruffle-trimmed knee-length dresses in sorbet tones, and loose, flat-soled canvas boots bound by leather straps. "Punk is one of my references because they were taking amazing classics and making them new again," he says, though he notes that in his youth he was more of a club kid. Wes Anderson movies are another inspiration, which is especially apparent in the off-kilter styling. Textures are even softer than his fall collection, sometimes entirely rumpled, with drawstring-waist leather pants and oversize blazers. Trenches and safari jackets refer back to the travel ethos of the driving shoe — almost nostalgically, considering how housebound we all still are — but it's mostly the kind of stuff you can easily roll around in at home.
While Chiapponi has big ambitions for Tod's, he knows it would be folly to try to transform its essence. "This brand has such a big DNA, so to start [going crazy] to prove myself would not be very relevant," he says. Besides, Della Valle — an industry legend who created Italy's first homegrown fashion luxury group, which includes Hogan, the heritage outwear company Fay, and the Parisian shoe company Roger Vivier — has traditionally been resistant to massive brand overhauls. Designers who come on board to work at Tod's Group stick to the brief. That suits Chiapponi just fine. "I'm not a big ego person," he says. "I really like to have a conversation. People used to warn me that it was impossible to work with Mrs. Prada, and I had the best relationship of my life with her. I've met so many people in my journey, my career. And when you're nice and gentle and try to collaborate more than push and impose yourself, your relationship with your boss always gets better."
For the near future, given the incredibly choppy economy, Chiapponi is happy to put one pebble-soled foot in front of the other. Stores are being quietly tweaked to make room for his collection. He's done his own refresh of the existing handbags and shoes—minus the Gomminos, of course. But there is no talk of fragrance or new categories. "For the moment, we have to take baby steps to make people aware of the changes. We don't need to be too in-your-face."