When Diana, Princess of Wales, decided to walk through a minefield in Angola, she knew she had to watch her step; so she wore her favourite pair of J P Tod's shoes. When Kristin Scott Thomas walked on to the set of her latest epic, The Horse Whisperer, she made sure her feet were clad in a pair of specially made J P Tod's riding boots. When Ethan Hawke attempts to woo Gwyneth Paltrow in the new film of Great Expectations, he does so in J P Tod's loafers. Great expectations were what the man who came up with J P Tod's always had in mind when the concept was born in 1979. But there are two myths immediately worth debunking about that success story: there is no such person as J P Tod and the style behind the footwear (and now the bags) is Italian, not American. Diego Della Valle is a third-generation shoemaker from Italy's Marches region, although to classify him as a cobbler is on a par with referring to Concorde as a biplane. Della Valle knows all about Concorde, as it happens. He likes to fly supersonic when he is not travelling on his private jet, so that he can count the quota of passengers wearing his J P Tod's designs; it's always a satisfactory number. And it is increasing. Back in 1979, Della Valle wanted to create an international product which was a happy marriage between quality (his favourite word) and tradition. 'I wanted to think, not of a name, but of a sound,' he says, 'a sound that it is possible to pronounce around the world. 'I started when I was young but I thought even then that this product could be famous everywhere.' So the snappy initials J and P mean nothing: they are simply part of a whole marketing concept which has added up to a significant something. Della Valle is 44, sleek, thoughtful and has been interested in footwear since he was a child. He declares that although his father's house was filled with shoes he only ever had one pair at a time. So the old saying that the children of the shoemaker always go barefoot is really true? He laughs ruefully. 'When I was young, yes. I started to wear the English look, very traditional, when I was 16 but this was at the end of the 60s, shoes then were large, and I wanted to make skinny shoes like these . . .' He gestures to the J P Tod's on the feet of the two gentlemen from his company who have accompanied him to Hong Kong. He himself is wearing a pair of high-laced boots. 'These are for next winter,' he says, glancing at them with an assessing eye. 'We have already done all the technical tests, now I put them on my feet and we see.' Such sole-searching has been the hallmark of his professional life. His father, Dorino, didn't encourage Diego's interest in the family business and sent him off to study law at Bologna University. 'My father thinks this business is very tough, that you don't have time for a private life. But I love it. Sometimes when I look back on my business life, I think that today was what I dreamed of.' Today, indeed, his father is still working for the company ('When he speaks, I listen, he is my best consultant'), as is Diego's brother, Andrea, who effectively runs it. 'He controls it because I want to put all my time into studying new materials. I want to stay close to the product.' That product had always been high-quality Della Valle shoes but it was the launch of the J P Tod's label which projected the company out of the discreet wardrobes of select Europeans and into the limelight of Hollywood. The story goes that the original J P Tod's, with their rubber grips, were designed so that Fiat supremo Gianni Agnelli could drive with greater ease. Now those hand-crafted rubber nibs are more likely to scorch along the great shopping avenues of the world on such well-heeled feet as Princess Caroline of Monaco, Sharon Stone, Cindy Crawford and Catherine Deneuve. As a result, two years ago Della Valle decided to discontinue his eponymous line of couture shoes to give J P Tod's his full attention. By the end of 1998, it seems likely he will float the company on the Italian Stock Exchange. 'But for us, the philosophy of the company doesn't change if we go public or not. We work all day to think about the quality, to think of what our 2,000 shoemakers do in Italy.' The advertising campaign, however, is unashamedly Hollywood rather than Milan: Audrey Hepburn, in her Funny Face incarnation, Andie MacDowell, Cary Grant. 'We use stars to show a special person with a normal life. We like it that Andie MacDowell is a good mother and Audrey Hepburn was a good ambassador for our taste and philosophy. Our world is chic with a friendly face.' It is also rapidly expanding. Now the company has launched Hogans, a type of sneaker which suits the casual but high-quality lifestyle espoused by Della Valle, and which is set to continue the movie-star relationship: Hogan was a sponsor of the Sundance Film Festival last year. And under the J P Tod's label, Della Valle has introduced a line of bags for ladies who lunch, work, fly Concorde and want to look stylish all at the same time. The bags are made with leather which has been buried underground for three months to tan naturally, and then hand-sewn. They have been such a big success (with MacDowell, Crawford and Stone, of course, as well as many less-twinkling stars) that the company is about to open another factory to cope with demand. 'At the moment, the waiting list is about two to three months,' remarks Della Valle with quiet satisfaction. 'I like that the market waits.' He has two sons who may continue in the family business. The eldest is 23 and is studying marketing in London (some readers may have already encountered him - he spent last summer working in the Giorgio Armani shop in Hong Kong); the younger is three months and has not yet expressed any career plans. Della Valle grins at this and says he wants to spend more time with his family during 1998, to take time off to satisfy his curiosity about the world. 'At the end of this year, I will be 45 and this is the best time for a man. It's a big mistake if I don't do this.' He laughs again. 'Then I want to come back into the business when I'm 65. 'And the best thing will be when I sit on a chair and everyone comes to see me so that I don't have to do any more travelling.'