The Roller-Coaster History of Gucci, One of Fashion’s Most Iconic Brands

Stories from Departures.
Jan. 3 2012 6:58 AM

How Gucci Got Its Groove Back

The roller-coaster history of one of fashion's most iconic brands.

(Continued from Page 1)

Giannini, who is 39, is wearing a long silk dress in a brilliant burnt orange that evokes the films of Luchino Visconti at his most sumptuous. (Gucci donated money to help restore the director’s epic drama Il Gattapardo.) She tells me that Gucci has two souls, one aristocratic and elegant, the other rock ’n’ roll. Today she’s channeling the former. Tastefully made up, with minimal jewelry, she has a pretty face, with dark eyes, beautiful plump skin and a rich, musical voice. Nathalie Massenet, the founder of Net-A-Porter, says Giannini is “the embodiment of the modern Gucci woman”—someone who creates clothes that fit her “glamorous, jet-setting, successful” life. Yet Giannini, like the brand she represents, has a more traditional side. “She loves nothing better than to go to her beach house, ride her horses and play with her dogs,” says Olivia Mariotti, a communication and brand advisor who has known the designer since her days at Fendi. “She’s not a party animal.”

Born and raised in Rome, Giannini is the only child of an architect and an art history teacher. She credits her maternal grandmother, who had a clothing boutique, with inspiring her love of fashion, and her uncle, a DJ, for introducing her to music. After studying fashion design, she was hired by Fendi, where she worked on iterations of its popular Baguette bag. In 2002, Tom Ford tapped the then-29-year-old to design handbags at Gucci—not an insignificant job, given that leather goods account for 80 percent of the company’s business. Two years later, when Ford left after a contract dispute with PPR, which was then run by French tycoon François Pinault and now by his son, François-Henri, she was eventually named his successor.

What was Giannini’s reaction when she learned the news? “I was screaming,” she says—and then, because of mounting stress, she developed stomach ailments and dermatitis and had trouble sleeping. It was not the easiest of transitions. A newlywed, she also faced the burden of knowing she’d be compared to the man who was then the biggest superstar in fashion. She lacked Ford’s charisma, ego and theatricality. She was shy and didn’t like speaking in public. Her appointment had the earmarks of a disaster, except that retailers and customers liked her mix of rock-chic and classic luxe. “I thought she was strong right from the beginning,” says Ron Frasch, president of Saks Fifth Avenue. Critics, however, were cool, if not outright hostile. In 2008, Robin Givhan, then of theWashington Post, penned a withering review in which she criticized Giannini for turning the brand “into just another company hawking handbags and shoes.” Gucci, Givhan wrote, “had lost its panache.”

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Giannini admits it took time to find her way. “I didn’t want to imitate Tom,” she explains, “but at the same time, I didn’t want to cancel what he’d done, because Tom had redesigned Gucci in a brilliant way. But the aggressive sexiness wasn’t part of my DNA. I wanted to move from sexiness to sensuality. I was criticized at the beginning. I was a critic of myself as well. I didn’t know what direction was right for the company.”

After a period of trial and error, Giannini found it. “She has made Gucci young and spirited,” Moore says. “She loves music, and all of a sudden in the men’s collections you had these cool rocker dudes. It was brilliant, because everybody’s listening to their iPods. She has given Gucci something that was part of her heart and soul, yet she still maintained the level of luxury.”

Today she’s happy being the woman behind the brand, unlike Ford, who was ultimately bigger than Gucci, which is why, in part, he’s no longer there. (Ford declined to comment for this article.) “After almost ten years, it’s difficult to divide myself from Gucci,” she says. “I love this company, and I have such respect for its history.”

The company’s history is riveting, filled with jealousy, betrayal, murder—and lots of shoes and bags. The story begins in 1921, when Guccio, the original GG, opened a small leather-goods shop on the Via Vigna Nuova, in Florence. After confronting a leather shortage during the war, he developed woven hemp printed with small interconnected brown diamonds. It became Gucci’s first signature. In 1953, Gucci and his son, Aldo, came to New York and leased space in the Savoy-Plaza Hotel, which was then a popular Mad Men hangout. (The General Motors building took the hotel’s place.) With Don Draper’s talent for self-invention, Aldo spun a tale that he hailed from an illustrious line of noble saddlemakers and began incorporating equestrian themes.

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was released in 1960, and Gucci, the first status label to come out of Italy, became synonymous with the hedonistic world of Rome’s café society. To enter that world, Americans needed one thing: the Gucci loafer. Growing up in Oklahoma City, Jim Gold, the president of specialty retail for the Neiman Marcus Group, thought they were the “ultimate symbol of European cool.”

By the ’70s, Gucci had three boutiques on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, where its haughty salespeople earned the ire of New York magazine, which dubbed Gucci “the rudest store in New York.” Equally irritating was Gucci’s insistence on shutting its doors between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. “It was mystifying,” says Frasch. “All I kept thinking was, Don’t people shop on their lunch hour?”

A decade later, Gucci received its comeuppance when Aldo created a line of cheaper products, like lighters and keychains, that tarnished the brand’s image and encouraged counterfeiting. Meanwhile, Aldo’s son, Paolo, implicated him for tax evasion, and Aldo wound up in a Florida prison. With Aldo out of the way, Paolo conspired to get rid of his cousin, Maurizio, who had gained control of the company. Tired of dealing with his scheming relatives, Maurizio arranged with Andrea Morante—now CEO of Pomellato, the Italian jewelry company, but at the time at Morgan Stanley—to find an investor to buy out the rest of the family. After Bahrain-based Investcorp stepped in, Maurizio lured Bergdorf Goodman president Dawn Mello to Florence. “When I first heard, I thought, She’s going where?” says Frasch. It was not a happy marriage. Mello attempted to modernize the brand, creating the Gucci loafer in a multitude of pastels. “But whenever anything got too fashion-y,” says Richard Lambertson, the director of Tiffany’s Leather Collection, who was then Gucci’s design director, “Maurizio got very upset.”

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