Fiat’s Frisky Prince of the City

“For me a cappuccino,” said Lapo Elkann, flicking two fingers in the air. He had burst through the doors of

“For me a cappuccino,” said Lapo Elkann, flicking two fingers in the air. He had burst through the doors of the diner, introduced himself and his companion, taken a seat and placed the order faster than you could say “Testarossa.”

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The New York–born heir to the Fiat fortune—known alternatively as the Prince William of Italy or the playboy who overdosed in a transsexual prostitute’s apartment in Turin two years ago—moves fast.

“She’s not bad,” he said in the wake of the mild-mannered Asian waitress at the coffee shop on the corner of Center and Grand streets. His friend, a New York–based artist named Marco Perego, nodded his ponytailed dome. “She’s cute,” Mr. Elkann continued. “Usually this place has ugly waitresses, but this one is a very delicate and elegant one, I must say.”

“Sorry,” he explained, “we’re Italian, so we always look around.”

On June 10, Mr. Elkann, who generally divides his time between Italy and New York, met The Observer at the diner across from his apartment to discuss, among other things, the launch of his new venture, a lifestyle brand called Italia Independent. The company, which for now makes only sunglasses, had its U.S. launch earlier that week at Barneys; the store will carry the oversized Italian-made frames for $395 to $1,325.

It is a measure of Mr. Elkann’s formerly hard-partying ways that he came to New York to slow down, clean up and live wholesomely—as if this big bad city were actually Hans Castorp’s mountaintop sanatorium.

Grandson of the original Italian mack daddy Gianni Agnelli, Mr. Elkann, 29, tan and possessed of a leonine head of blond hair, takes style seriously. He wore a pinstriped royal blue Oxford unbuttoned down to the chest, rolled up to the elbows and tucked into a pair of dark blue slacks, sans belt. A silver chain with a bejeweled medallion in the shape of an anchor hung about his hairy chest; his bare feet nestled in a pair of black velvet slippers customized with skull and crossbones.

“They’re funky, I like them,” he explained of the shoes. “It’s like the pirates, you know? We are pirates, not of the Caribbeans, we are pirates of the Mediterranean. Johnny Depp is pirate of the Caribbeans. We are pirates of the Mediterranean. But if he wants to come to the Mediterranean, we actually would love to invite him for a cruise.”

In point of fact, Mr. Elkann, like his grandfather, is an expert sailor; he and his brother own a state-of-the-art sailboat named Stealth. In 2003, they won line honors at the prestigious Fastnet race. Indeed, it can be said that when Mr. Elkann takes an interest in something, he goes balls out. He’s currently eager to show the world that his latest enterprise will be no exception.

“I always wanted to do something which was mine,” he said of his new brand. “I always wanted to do something which was—how you say—a breed in between my country and—how you say—independent thinkers. By independent thinkers, I mean people who don’t put themselves into boxes, people who think outside big systems and outside of politics.”

Fiat’s Frisky Prince of the City