Italy’s Leonardo Del Vecchio, who rose from childhood poverty to build the eyewear empire that owns brands such as Ray-Ban and Oakley, has died at the age of 87, his company said on Monday.
Del Vecchio added a dash of Italian style to spectacles and became one of Europe’s wealthiest men, investing some of his riches to build influential stakes in Italian financial companies Mediobanca and Generali.
The billionaire founded the Luxottica business in 1961, initially to supply components for glasses, and remained the chairman and major shareholder in the world’s biggest eyewear group after it combined forces with France’s Essilor in 2018.
Fashion designer Giorgio Armani was among those to pay tribute to Del Vecchio with whom he had worked since the 1980s.
“Together, we invented a phenomenon that did not exist: we immediately realised that glasses, from simple functional objects would become indispensable fashion accessories,” Armani said.
Partly raised in an orphanage, Del Vecchio’s rags-to-riches story mirrored Italy’s own recovery after World War Two.
“Leonardo Del Vecchio was a great Italian. His story, from orphanage to leadership of a business empire, seems like a story from another time. But it is an example for today and tomorrow. RIP,” European Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said on Twitter.
Del Vecchio had remained an influential figure in Italian business and his death came as a shock.
“EssilorLuxottica sadly announces today that its chairman has passed away,” the group said in a statement, adding that the board would meet to “determine the next steps.”
He remained executive chairman of EssilorLuxottica until December 2020, when he handed the day-to-day leadership of the company to chief executive Francesco Milleri.
Del Vecchio’s influence extended beyond his own business and at the end of 2021, he was Italy’s second-richest man behind Giovanni Ferrero of the Nutella-making group, according to Forbes.
His Delfin holding company is the largest shareholder in Italian financial services group Mediobanca and has a stake of just under 10 percent in Italy’s largest insurer Generali. It also owns about 27 percent of real estate company Covivio, listed in both Paris and Milan.