Guccio Gucci

A leather lineage

Deirdre Pirro
June 18, 2009

Family, fame, feuding, passion, litigation and homicide. All the ingredients of a successful Hollywood soapie like are, instead, the backdrop to the story of one of Italy's best known luxury label clans: the Gucci family. The patriarch of this dynasty was Guccio Gucci. A native of Florence, Guccio was born into a modest family on March 28, 1881. After his father's hat business went bankrupt, Guccio left Florence, first for Paris and then London, where he worked at the elegant Savoy Hotel, the place where royalty and the wealthy liked to stay. Observing their refined baggage, he decided to create his own line of leather goods when he returned to Italy. In 1920, aged 39, he moved back to Florence and, in 1923, opened both a luggage and equestrian shop in via della Vigna Nuova and a small workshop where he employed the finest craftsmen to work for him. By 1937, he had added handbags to his line and relocated to a bigger shop on Lungarno Guicciardini. In 1938, he opened his first shop in a chic part of Rome.

 

When traditional raw materials like leather were scarce during the period of fascism and World War II, Guccio creatively used materials like hemp, linen and jute to make his goods and accessorised them with the horse's bit and stirrups that symbolised the company's origins. In fact, the pieces that established the reputation of the brand were a bag with his signature bamboo handle,  created in 1947; his men's moccasins of 1952-1953, featuring a horse's bit (today on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York); and the Flora scarf, created in 1967 by his son, Rodolfo, for Grace Kelly. After the war, as Guccio's clients grew in prosperity and sophistication so did his business. Apart from Rodolfo, Guccio Gucci and his seamstress wife, Aida Calvelli, had three other sons-Vasco, Aldo, and Ugo-who all eventually played an active role in the company. Before World War II, Rodolfo became a movie actor (as Maurizio D'Ancora) and married a German actress, Alessandra Leverkusen, known on the screen as Sandra Ravel. However, by the time of Guccio Gucci's death in Milan on January 2, 1953 Rodolfo had returned to the business and, based in Milan, went on to successfully manage its Italian interests while Vasco supervised operations in Florence.

 

In the meantime, Aldo moved to New York, where he opened Gucci's first boutique, pioneering Italian design in the United States. He also led the company's lucrative assault on new international markets in the Far East. Lamentably, by the 1980s, the Gucci family became almost as famous for its infighting as for its stylish merchandise. In 1980, one of Aldo's sons left the group and attempted to launch a line of products under his own Gucci name. This provoked a series of lawsuits by other family members that eventually blocked his plan-but not before Aldo Gucci had been reported for tax fraud in the United States. As a consequence, in January 1986, Aldo pleaded guilty to evading more than $7 million in taxes and served a year in the Eglin Penitentiary in Florida, nicknamed the ‘country club'.Prompted by these serious rifts and by the commercial disarray in which it found itself, Gucci became a public company in 1982. Maurizio Gucci, Rodolfo's son, was made chairman of the group in 1989. More court cases and squabbling among the kith and kin followed when Maurizio was accused by his cousins of forging his father's signature on papers transferring 50 percent of the company's shares to him.

 

With the business in dire economic and creative straits, in 1993, Maurizio Gucci resigned and sold his interest to Investcorp, his Arab corporate partner, effectively taking the business out of family hands. In a tragic epilogue, Maurizio Gucci was shot dead outside his office in Milan in 1995. His ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani, dubbed the ‘Black Widow' by the Italian press, was sentenced to 29 years in prison for commissioning his murder. The couple's two daughters, however, still believe in their mother's innocence. Between 1989 and 1994, an American, former president of the New York Bergdorf Goodman department store, Dawn Mello, became Gucci's new creative director. She worked hard to rebuild Gucci's reputation by revisiting and revamping its past triumphs. But, it was not until another two Americans-top manager, Domenico De Sole, who previously managed Gucci America, and the groundbreaking designer, Tom Ford-arrived at the helm of the company in Italy that Gucci surged back from the brink of bankruptcy to renewed profit-making and global recognition for its edgy and aggressive image. But, once again in 2004, stylistic direction of the fashion house changed hands. Three designers-Alessandra Facchinetti and Scottish designer John Ray (both of whom had worked under Tom Ford) and Frida Giannini-now shared this responsibility.

 

But with Ray's resignation and Facchinetti's (albeit brief) move to Valentino as the great designer's successor, Giannini remained as the group's creative director. In November 2006, she was named one of the Wall Street Journal's 50 women managers in the world ‘to watch'. Following a Herculean battle over control of the group during the De Sole-Ford interregnum, the Gucci group has, since 1999, been part of the influential French holding Pinault Printemps Redout (PPR) and now has its headquarters in Amsterdam. With its distinctive double G logo (in honour of its founder) stamped on its merchandise, a status symbol of luxury, craftsmanship and glamour, the house of Gucci continues to dress the rich and famous. It is not only one of the biggest-selling Italian brands in the world but also one of the most illegally copied. Yet, despite a credit crunch that has seen the profits of other important labels plummet, the Gucci group reported a 5 percent sales increase to 855 million euro for the first quarter of 2009.

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