MILAN - 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.
SHOCK SENDS SHARES LOWER
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 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% in Italy's largest insurer Generali . It also owns about 27% of real estate company Covivio , listed in both Paris and Milan.
Shares in EssilorLuxottica traded 1.8% lower by 1050 GMT, while those in Generali and Mediobanca both slipped 2.7%.
(Reporting by Claudia Cristoferi, additional reporting by Giulia Segreti and Federico Maccioni, Writing by Keith Weir Editing by Barbara Lewis)