TURIN, ITALY—Less than a hundred miles west from Milan, wedged in between the Alps, lays Turin. A cultural center in Northern Italy, Turin hosted the Winter Olympics in 2006, and has since gained a reputation outside the Italian border: almost 2 million foreign tourists visited the region of Piedmont in 2015.
While thousands of residents flee the city every year to find jobs elsewhere, some come from abroad to find their luck in Turin. Such was the case of Walter Dang, a French fashion designer with Hispanic and Vietnamese roots, who moved to Turin in 2003 and is now one of the most successful designers operating in the city.
Walter Dang’s headquarters are located on the corner of Palazzo Priotti, an Art Nouveau palace designed by Carlo Ceppi in 1900, three blocks away from the Porta Nuova railway station. The building is in Corso Vittorio, an avenue that separates the city center from the San Salvario district, which has seen heavy gentrification and now hosts some of the most lively bars in town.
“I’ve always chosen to locate my stores outside of the city center,” says Dang. “I’m not like the other stores. I don’t follow the trends. So I don’t see why I should be close to those shops.”
Walter Dang was born in 1966 into a wealthy family in Lavelanet, in the Pyrenees. Being raised on the border between two countries—France and Spain—had a lasting effect on his formation. Even now that he is 50 years old, he still seems to be caught between different identities. He feels more Spanish than French, although he “reconciled” with his French identity last year, far away from the “grandeur” of Paris, in Perpignan.
He remembers his father, who passed away when he was 11 years old, as a very elegant person. “He was very refined. He had his suits—for the morning, for the afternoon, for the evening and for the garden,” he recalls. “I think I have the creation of clothes in my DNA, because of my dad.”
After he graduated from high school in Toulouse with a specialization in sartorial and industrial studies, he moved to Paris, where he began his career in several haute couture houses, landing a job as personal assistant to Italian-born designer Pierre Cardin, whom Dang called his “absolute maestro.”
But Parisian grandeur was incompatible with Dang’s self-image: He saw himself as simpler, more humble, than many in the Paris’s fashion industry. “Arrogant people make me sad,” he says. “We are just transiting in this world; we can’t waste our time by being arrogant.” He left Paris and the fashion business altogether; he moved to Nice, in the French Riviera.
A few years later, he felt the need to reconnect with his passion for clothing. He walked into a boutique and asked if they needed a tailor. Luckily, they did.
“I didn’t even have a printed resume. I hand wrote it on the spot,” he says. “When the owner of the store read it, he asked me: ‘What are you doing here?’ I told him, ‘I need to work. I don’t have money and for the first time in my life I don’t want to ask my family for anything.’”
When he began working there, he promised himself that in five years he would open his own couture house. He tattooed the deadline—June 17, 2003—on his back. And he kept the promise: he opened his first store a few months before his deadline in Turin, Italy.
“I visited Turin for the first time when I was living in Nice. [My partner at the time] was an architect, and he was called to Turin to renovate a building,” says Dang. His friends had been telling him that Turin was an “ugly, industrial city.” But when Dang drove into the city, he stopped by the Castello del Valentino and was struck by the castle’s resemblance to the Château de Moulinsart. The Château de Moulinsart itself inspired the castle of The Adventures of Tintin, of which Dang is a fan.
Turin strikes the visitor for being sober yet elegant. It was home to the Savoy royal family for centuries and served well as the first capital of unified Italy between 1861 and 1865.
The city seems like an unlikely place for an entrepreneur to find success. Although it sells itself as home to some of the best universities in Italy, such as the Polytechnic University of Turin, data from 2015 show that 30 percent of the local youth are unemployed.
But Dang fell in love with it. After splitting with his partner, he met a new man, an Italian living in New York. The two became a couple and started planning their next step. “I told him I wanted to open a fashion house in Italy, and he said, ‘No, let’s go to New York.’ I was not interested in New York, it’s too big for me … Turin was more interesting to me, so we both came here.”
Since that first opening in 2003, Walter Dang has moved his maison twice, finally landing at Palazzo Priotti in 2013. During his 14 years in the city, Dang has become a local institution thanks to his eclectic designs. Among his clientele are some of the richest ladies of the city; he regularly presents his eclectic, multicultural-inspired collections, and even the mayor Chiara Appendino is rumored to be a fan of his work.
“I love dressing women, and I like to see them smile when they look at themselves in the mirror—it means I did something right.” Dang describes the women who wear his clothes as “elegant, feminine, with strong personalities. They know what they want in life.”
Walter Dang does not dream bigger—the small empire he has built in Turin is all he needs. And at the core of his philosophy, hidden in a sea of luxury and elegance, lies simplicity. “Clothes do not represent luxury to me; they represent the art of appearing,” he says. “The greatest luxury in life is love. There is no elegance without love.”
As he puts it, all you need in life is love, a roof and a plate of pasta.