He has been portrayed as the wild child of Italy's billionaire Agnelli family: a globe-trotting jet-setter who cavorts with fashion models, drives ultrafast cars and collects tattoos.
The dashing Lapo Elkann is one of Italy's most eligible bachelors and habitué of male best-dressed lists. He has flirted with scandal and nearly died of a drug overdose in 2005, a tabloid misadventure that rocked his family and the country, where the Agnellis are regarded with a mixture of awe and reverence akin to the Kennedys.
But those days are long gone. Now Elkann, the middle grandchild of Italian industrial titan Gianni Agnelli, wants to make a different kind of headline: as an entrepreneur and global ambassador for Italy and Italian design. He frequently wears a tiny Italian flag pin on the lapel of one of his handcrafted suits.
"I'm a citizen of the world. I was born in the United States," Elkann says in his gravelly, Marlboro-seasoned voice. "I'm a global Italian. I want to export what Italians do best: design, style, taste, innovation and food."
Elkann is a modern-day renaissance man. He's a savvy marketer who was integral in the 2007 relaunch of the Fiat 500, and a design innovator whose team customizes exotic Ferraris using exotic materials. His design experiments stretch from luxury yachts to eyeglasses worn by Lady Gaga.
Though he is one of the three largest shareholders in Exor, the holding company that owns Fiat Group, Elkann holds no formal job with Fiat. His older brother, John, is chairman of Fiat, while his younger sister, Ginevra, is pursuing a film directing career.
Elkann is pursuing his own iconoclastic course. In June his Italia Independent design company went public, selling shares on the Milan stock exchange. The company, founded in 2007, mainly designs customized, fashion eyeglasses, such as the striking flocked velvet frames he has been sporting lately. But the venture could take on more auto projects like the Alfa Romeo Brera Italia Independent limited edition from 2009.
Through his separate Ferrari Tailor Made venture, Elkann and his team of designers work with Ferrari designer Flavio Manzoni to produce two or three customized Ferraris per year. These vehicles, which can take months to build, carry a steep price -- $4 million to $8 million apiece. So far the venture has produced about 100 vehicles.
"Ninety percent of Ferraris are customized. This even broader customization of Tailor Made has given Ferrari clients the opportunity to have even more possibilities and options for their cars to be always more unique and close to what their dream is," he says.
But Elkann, who can afford any car he wants, believes vehicle customization should not be limited to the very rich. It's central to the auto industry's future, he believes. As global head of brand promotion for the Fiat Group, he was instrumental in the 2007 50th anniversary relaunch of the iconic Fiat 500. He has a couple of 500s in his personal fleet. One well publicized picture shows Lapo lying on a pile of mattresses on the roof of a bespoke, olive Fiat 500.