Gucci is a renowned name in the world of luxury leather goods, fashion, watches and jewellery. The dynamism, creativity, artistic aesthetic and detailing in its products represent the pinnacle of craftsmanship.
Designers, therefore, see the luxury brand as the epitome of excellence, while patrons desire to flaunt its products.
However, the fashion house has had a share of public family squabbles, which no other brand of such stature may have had in its history.
Ridley Scott’s much-awaited House of Gucci will release on 24 November 2021. The film revolves around the murder of Maurizio Gucci, the former head of the brand, on the orders of his wife, Patrizia Reggiani. While Adam Driver plays Maurizio, the role of Patrizia is being essayed by singer-songwriter-actress Lady Gaga.
With the trailer grabbing headlines for the depiction of period-perfect dresses, jewellery and more, many are calling House of Gucci an Oscar hopeful. The buzz around the film has brought the focus back to Gucci’s history, which has its share of stories that inspire, enthral and might even leave one shocked. Concerned about the controversies, members of the Gucci family appealed to director Ridley Scott to respect their sentiments. In April this year, Patrizia Gucci, a second cousin of Maurizio, told Associated Press that the makers were “stealing the identity of a family to make a profit.”
“We can talk about everything. but there is a borderline that cannot be crossed,” she added.
Whatever be the fate of the film, the history of Gucci is certainly worth knowing about.
Foundation of Gucci and its early years
Like all other famous brands, the story of Gucci begins with the vision of its founder — Guccio Gucci.
Gucci was born in 1881 in a family of leather goods makers in Florence, Italy. In 1897, he started working as a porter in London’s Savoy Hotel. It was at Savoy where he found himself drawn to the artistically beautiful suitcases and trunks that the elite guests of the hotel carried with them. This inspired Guccio to return to his hometown in 1902 and work for a leather luggage maker, Franzi. He learned craftsmanship and fine-tuned his talent as a creator of outstanding pieces of luggage.
In 1921, Guccio left Franzi to found his namesake brand and opened the first Gucci store in Florence’s Via della Vigna Nuova and went on to launch another in Via del Parione.
In the early years of the company, Guccio sold leather products to the wealthiest in Italy. While making luggage was of course a part of his brand, he also made saddles for horses from some of the finest Italian leather. In fact, many of Gucci’s modern-day designs are inspired by the early equestrian equipment it made.
As its fame grew, England’s upper-class started taking note of the Gucci brand. Among the many things that Gucci subsequently added to its portfolio were silk goods, leather shoes and handbags.
World War II — beginning of an era
In 1935, the League of Nations, a predecessor to the United Nations which was formed after World War I, imposed sanctions on the Kingdom of Italy to force the country to abandon its war against the Empire of Ethiopia.
The League of Nations embargo against Italy harmed businesses in the country, and Gucci was no exception. But Guccio found a way to replace the imported leather and other materials with a locally made print set on woven hemp that came from Naples.
The print that Gucci created comprised a series of small, interconnected diamonds set in a dark background. It became Gucci’s first signature design, which was used in its highly successful range of suitcases.
In 1938, a year before the start of World War II, three of Guccio’s sons — Aldo, Vasco and Rodolfo — joined their father in the business, where his adopted son, Ugo, also played a key role.
Gucci opened another store in Rome’s Via Condotti the same year. The company would expand its footprint across the globe in later years.
The war was a critical time for the Florentine brand. Italy was in turmoil, as was most of Europe. Despite hardships, Gucci created unique products using alternatives to materials that were not available.
The iconic Gucci bamboo bag was created in 1947, two years after the war. While they were looking for new materials, the innovative Gucci artisans discovered that Japanese bamboo perfectly fits into their remarkable ideas for alternatives. Thus, Gucci used its patented burnished bamboo for bag handles and created a timeless product that defined and solidified its image as a luxury label.
It was also in the post-war years when Gucci started using pigskin, a house material which was introduced by Aldo Gucci, to make bags.
By 1951, Gucci adopted its colours — the famous green-and-red Gucci stripe. The same year, Rodolfo Gucci opened the brand’s first store in Milan on Via Montenapoleone.
Two years later, Gucci opened its first store in the US — at the Savoy Plaza Hotel on East 58th Street in New York. Since this was where Guccio worked as a porter, the store had an emotional significance for the brand.
However, just 15 days after the opening of the store, Guccio died at 72 in Milan. The business passed on to his sons. While Aldo took control of the operations in the US, Vasco handled the Florentine business while Rodolfo managed things out of Milan.
It was also in 1953 that the luxury brand created its iconic Gucci loafer with the metal bit that is used to control a horse. Among the most famous earlier products featuring the horsebit are the men’s loafers.
Gucci’s logo itself had an evolution of its own. When he was starting the business, Guccio created the brand’s first logo himself. It was a simple yet stylish, italicised version of his signature. After some time, and a couple of more alterations later, Aldo came up with the symbol of two interlinked Gs. In 1955, became a registered trademark and soon became a permanent fixture across many of the brand’s products. Although it has only undergone minor modifications since.
The 1950s marked the start of the golden era of Gucci. Its presence in the US drew the who’s who of the film world to Gucci. Stars such as Elizabeth Taylor were photographed with Gucci’s bamboo tote, of which Peter Sellers, too, was a fan.
In the Swinging ’60s
The popularity of Gucci kept growing through the 1960s with more and more from the wealthy class becoming its customers.
Among them was Jackie Kennedy, who famously sported a Gucci purse in 1961. It instantly turned the tote into a must-have Gucci product. The popularity of the purse led to it being later renamed and relaunched as ‘Jackie’.
Grace Kelly, the Princess of Monaco, was a regular Gucci patron. Following one of her visits to a Gucci store, Rodolfo commissioned a special floral scarf in her honour as a gift for the princess in 1966.
Designed by artist Vittorio Accornero, the scarf was printed with 43 different types of flowers, insects and plants in 37 colours. It came to be known as Flora and is one of the finest designs in Gucci’s history.
Among the other several prominent women who have since the 1960s sported Gucci products are Audrey Hepburn, Nancy Reagan, Princess Diana, Queen Frederica of Greece, Queen Rania of Jordan, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Michelle Obama.
The expansion of the leather and fashion brand continued through the 1960s. In 1961, Gucci opened its stores in Palm Beach (US) and London. Two years later, a store came up in Paris and another one in Beverly Hills in 1968. In the meantime, Gucci also shifted its New York store to Fifth Avenue next to The St. Regis Hotel.
While Gucci stores continued to open across the world, the house also continued expanding its product range. Thus, around the mid-1960s, items such as watches, jewellery and eyewear were added to its offerings. All of these are among the most sought-after products to this day.
The ’70s and ’80s
Aldo Gucci led the company on its expansionist spree, this time in the East. Stores were opened in Tokyo and Hong Kong in 1972 and 1974, respectively, while a new one was launched in New York for Gucci’s clothing line.
In 1975, the luxury brand launched Gucci No. 1, its first perfume that marked the company’s entry into the lucrative beauty market.
The first ready-to-wear Gucci fashion show was held at Sala Bianca, Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy, in 1981. Inspired by the Flora pattern, the show was a tremendous success and further established the brand’s reputation as a symbol of prestige and high society.
However, amid the rising fame of its products, Gucci was in turmoil triggered by an internecine feud among the Gucci family members.
It began with the death of Vasco Gucci in 1974, following which Aldo and Rodolfo divided the business equally between themselves.
But Aldo’s sons felt that their uncle, Rodolfo, wasn’t doing his bit in the growth of the business. Aldo then created a perfume company as a Gucci subsidiary and kept 80 percent of its share with himself and his sons. But the trouble in the family only intensified hereon.
Paolo, one of Aldo’s sons who served as vice-president of Gucci, rebelled and decided to create a Gucci brand of his own. A miffed Aldo went to court against his son and threatened suppliers not to associate with Paolo.
An enraged Paolo, who was sidelined from the business in 1980, filed a US$ 13.3 million lawsuit in 1982, accusing his father, uncle Rodolfo, his brothers Giorgio and Roberto, and cousin Maurizio of assault during a board of directors meeting. He also informed authorities of his father’s tax evasion, which eventually led to Aldo landing up in prison, albeit for a year, in 1986 after he pleaded guilty to evading over US$ 7 million in taxes.
The Italian fashion house was in shambles, internally.
In the meantime, Rodolfo died in 1983 and Maurizio inherited his part of the share. Maurizio then began an attempt at taking control of the entire Gucci business. Accused by his uncle and cousins of forging Rodolfo’s signature, Maurizio fled to Switzerland. He was convicted in absentia for evading taxes but was later cleared of all charges.
By 1988, Aldo and his sons’ share of the company was bought by Bahrain-based Investcorp. Maurizio subsequently took control of the Gucci group as chairman in 1989 with Investcorp’s nod. But by the time Maurizio gained control, the business had become a bloated mess largely because Aldo had decided to allow the licensing of the Gucci brand name by just about anyone.
Gucci needed a desperate revival strategy to be able to prevent itself from becoming history. Thus, Dawn Mello, president of Bergdorf Goodman, was appointed creative director of Gucci. She brought with her Richard Lambertson, Neil Barrett and Tom Ford, the last of whom would script the phoenix-like rise of Gucci in the 1990s.
Mello, on the other hand, didn’t last long, returning to Bergdorf Goodman in 1994.
Murder in the family
Rodolfo was a film actor before World War II. His screen name was Maurizio D’Ancora. He married Alessandra Leverkusen, a German actress known by her screen name Sandra Ravel. Maurizio, who was born in 1948, was the couple’s only child. Alessandra died when Maurizio was five and thus Rodolfo grew overprotective of him.
Maurizio married Patrizia Reggiani, a rich Milanese woman, in 1972 against his father’s wish. Both were 24 at the time. In an interview with The Guardian in 2016, Patrizia claimed that they had met at a party and that Maurizio “fell madly in love” with her.
The couple lived the high life, throwing lavish parties and going on luxurious vacations with their two daughters. According to Patrizia, she used to advise Maurizio on business matters but when the latter inherited his father’s share, he stopped heeding her advice. Amid the rising tensions with his cousins, Maurizio walked out of the marriage and the two got divorced in 1990.
However, Maurizio couldn’t manage the business and in 1993, Investcorp gained complete control of the company thus bringing an end to the Gucci family’s stake in the business.
In her book The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed, journalist Sara Gay Forden quoted Patrizia as saying, “I pushed him so hard he became president of Gucci. I was social, he didn’t like to socialise. I was always out; he was always in the house. I was the representative of Maurizio Gucci, and that was enough. He was like a child, a thing called Gucci that had to be washed and dressed.”
On 27 March 1995, Maurizio was shot dead on the steps of his Milan office. He was 46. For the next two years, no one had a clue who shot Maurizio. Then one day the Italian police got a tip-off about Patrizia’s involvement and they laid a trap. Phones were wiretapped, evidence collected and the police arrested Patrizia, her friend Pina Auriemma, and three others including the hitman. All five were held guilty of Maurizio’s murder.
Before his murder, Maurizio was planning to marry a woman named Paolo Franchi. In court, Auriemma revealed that Patrizia didn’t like the idea of losing her status, money and power to Franchi once the latter became Maurizio’s wife. The marriage would have meant that Patrizia’s alimony from Maurizio would have been halved to US$ 860,000 — an amount that was “a bowl of lentils”, according to Patrizia.
Patrizia had paid US$300,000 to Auriemma but maintained that it was not for murder. However, out of her intense hatred for Maurizio, she told the judge, “He wasn’t worth a lira more.”
She was sentenced to 29 years in prison, which was later reduced by three years. However, Patrizia was released after serving 18 years in 2016.
The 1990s and after
It was the 1990s and the Gucci brand was coming back from the brink of bankruptcy. The now legendary Tom Ford was made creative director of Gucci in 1994. The next year, he launched his first Gucci collection to a roaring success. Within months, Gucci was back in the driver’s seat of the high-end luxury fashion and accessories market. Several Hollywood celebrities started wearing its dresses both on and off the red carpet.
In 1995, Domenico De Sole, head of Gucci America, became CEO of the group. Sole overturned what Aldo had done about licensing to return the brand to its niche image. Sole also tried to ensure that Gucci does not fall in the hands of Bernard Arnault’s LVMH Moët Hennessy. Eventually, François Pinault of Pinault Printemps Redoute (PPR) became the majority shareholder. In 2013, PPR was renamed Kering. Gucci remains part of Kering to this day.
With Ford and Sole, the brand reaffirmed its place as one of the top elite brands, with a rapidly growing clientele of rich and famous. The ‘Jackie’ bag was relaunched in a new avatar and it, too, caught the fascination of everyone — from designers to customers.
In 2004, Tom Ford presented his last collection for Gucci before leaving the company with Sole. But Gucci had little to worry about. Sole had hired Fendi’s brilliant handbag designer Frida Giannini in the company’s accessories department in 2002.
After briefly working as the creative director of accessories, Giannini became the head of both men’s and women’s ready-to-wear design by 2006.
Instrumental in reintroducing the iconic Flora design on Gucci bags, she also launched her first fragrance for Gucci in 2007. Created for women, the scent named Gucci by Gucci was made in partnership with Proctor and Gamble by combining the essence of honey, musk, spider lily, patchouli, orange blossom and Tahitian Tiare flower. This led to Gucci’s first-ever TV campaign directed by David Lynch.
The next year, Giannini launched another scent — her first for men. It was named Gucci by Gucci Pour Homme.
While conquering the fragrance market, Gucci continued to expand its empire with flagship stores in Tokyo’s Ginza district, the Landmark Hong Kong, Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York, a pop-up shop in New York and had its Rome store renovated and reopened. It also made its foray into the Indian retail market.
Gucci launched the New Bamboo in 2010, which was a more contemporary version of the Bamboo bag and had a sportier appearance.
The same year, the company opened its Singapore Paragon store where Giannini was presented with a hybrid orchid, Paravanda Frida, named after her.
The Creative Director left the company in 2014 in an abrupt decision that came a month after the departure of the group’s president and CEO Patrizio di Marco. Former Bottega Veneta CEO Marco Bizzarri was brought in to succeed di Marco.
In 2015, Bizzarri picked Alessandro Michele as the new creative director. Michele had been working with Gucci for 12 years before his elevation to the commanding role.
At the time of his appointment, Michele was relatively unknown. However, he silenced the critics with the launch of Gucci’s men’s fall 2015 within a week of Giannini’s exit.
Michele has since had a rapid rise to the top of the world of fashion. He has not only helped Gucci remain at the forefront of design, fashion, luxury and style but also drawn younger customers to the brand and propelled Gucci’s profits manifold.
Michele reintroduced the GG logo as a central design on products, including loafers. Innovations, such as hand-painted logo bags and fur-lined slippers, have been made under his watch.
The brand also introduced its first unisex fragrance, Mémoire d’Une Odeur, in 2019, under the creative director’s mentorship. The same year, the company announced that it had become entirely carbon neutral and pledged its support to forest conservation projects around the world.
The following year, Michele declared that the label will be holding only two fashion shows instead of five every year.
On the 100th anniversary of Gucci in 2021, Michele unveiled the ‘Aria’ collection in partnership with Balenciaga. For the collection, he drew inspiration from Gucci’s most iconic products and designs, including Flora print, Bamboo bag, equestrian-inspired pieces and Tom Ford’s classics.
(Main and Featured images: Dima Pechurin/Unsplash)