Leonardo Del Vecchio, Italian titan of eyewear, dies at 87

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Leonardo Del Vecchio, an Italian entrepreneur who grew up in an orphanage and went on to amass a multibillion-dollar fortune as founder and chairman of Luxottica, one of the largest manufacturers of eyeglasses in the world, died June 27 at a hospital in Milan. He was 87.

His death was announced by his company, now known as EssilorLuxottica, and was widely reported in the Italian media. The cause was not immediately available.

Mr. Del Vecchio founded his company in the 1960s and grew his operation through acquisitions to include the Ray-Ban and Oakley brands, as well as the LensCrafters, Pearle Vision and Sunglass Hut chains. Luxottica manufactured frames for luxury lines including Giorgio Armani, Chanel, Prada and Bulgari, as well as producing its own models.

At the time of his death, Mr. Del Vecchio ranked 52 on the Forbes list of world billionaires, with a net worth that the magazine estimated at $27.3 billion.

In Italy, his wealth placed him in an orbit with Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate and former prime minister, and the late Giovanni Agnelli, the head of the auto company Fiat. But Mr. Del Vecchio cultivated a quieter presence as he built his empire from nothing.

Mr. Del Vecchio never knew his father, a produce vendor who died before he was born. Unable to provide for him and his siblings amid the deprivations of World War II, his mother placed him in an orphanage when he was 7. He went to work at 14, severing part of a finger in an industrial accident.

Mr. Del Vecchio opened his first factory in Agordo, a small town ensconced in the Dolomite mountains of Northern Italy where he had obtained free land through a program aimed at boosting the region’s economy.

Over the years, Mr. Del Vecchio turned his company, Luxottica, into a giant that manufactured a significant portion of all glasses frames worn in the world. At the time of his death, Forbes described Luxottica, which merged in 2017 with the French lens-maker Essilor in a $49 billion deal, as the “world’s largest producer and retailer of sunglasses and prescription glasses.”

Central to Mr. Del Vecchio’s success was his insight that glasses need not be merely an eyesight aid perched atop the nose. They could also be an expression of personal style, a purchase that reflected fashion preference as much as it did medical prescription.

Mr. Del Vecchio stepped down from daily management in 2004 but returned to lead the company 10 years later amid turmoil in the executive ranks. Of departing chief executive Andrea Guerra, the Economist reported, Mr. Del Vecchio said that his strategy had “diverged” from his own.

Mr. Del Vecchio was past 80 when he finalized the deal with Essilor. In 2019, he paid more than $6 billion for a Dutch competitor, GrandVision, to form what Forbes described at the time as “the world s biggest eyewear brand.”

Mr. Del Vecchio was born May 22, 1935, in Milan, where his parents had emigrated from the southern region of Puglia. Although reticent about his personal life, he spoke at times about his experience in the orphanage and how it had marked him.

“For years my lunch was based on boiled cabbage,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying. “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.”

From a young age, he saw the value in work, in whatever form it took, telling Forbes that if he had started life as a fruit seller, he would have been “passionate about fruit.” As it happened, he found an apprenticeship at a factory that made molds for goods including eyeglasses frames.

The region of Northern Italy where Mr. Del Vecchio established his company had a centuries-long history of producing eyeglasses. In addition to turning the industry into one of high fashion, he brought it to the international market, listing Luxottica on the New York Stock Exchange in 1990. His purchase of LensCrafters in 1995, according to Forbes, was the “first significant hostile takeover of an American company by an Italian enterprise.”

Mr. Del Vecchio was married three times, including twice to his second wife, Nicoletta Zampillo, according to Italian media reports.

With his first wife, Luciana Nervo, he had a son, Claudio, who is the former chief executive of the clothing retailer Brooks Brothers, and two daughters, Marisa and Paola. With Zampillo, he had a son, Leonardo Maria. He had two other sons, Luca and Clemente, with a companion, Sabina Grossi. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Del Vecchio owed his success in large part to the intensity of focus that he maintained from his first days as a factory apprentice until the end of his career.

“If you are distracted or rest on your laurels, as I saw happen with various entrepreneurs who started out with me, without your realizing it, someone will come and claim your business,” the Italian daily the Corriere della Sera quoted him as saying. “Once they have surpassed you,” he added, “it becomes very, very difficult to catch up.”

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