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

Departures
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 2)

In a few short years, the company lost $60 million, and Maurizio himself was deep in debt. “Investcorp really freaked,” says Morante, who desperately tried to find a buyer but was told the brand was dead. Maurizio was forced to sell his shares, and after 72 years, Gucci was no longer a family-run business.

Ford, who’d been originally hired by Lambertson to design women’s ready-to-wear, became creative director. From the moment in 1995 when model Amber Valletta sauntered down the runway in a pair of blue velvet hip-huggers and an unbuttoned lime-green shirt, one thing was clear: the old Gucci was dead. As if that needed further clarification, a few weeks later, Maurizio was in fact dead—the victim of a hit man hired by his ex-wife and her close friend, a Neapolitan psychic.

During Ford’s eight-year tenure, he turned Gucci into one of the most exciting fashion brands in the world. “Gucci had never been sexy before,” says Mark Holgate, Vogue’s fashion news director. “That all changed under Tom. He understood the power of ’70s imagery. He blended the confident sexuality of New York, when Studio 54 was a sexual playground, with the freedom and the glamour of Rome in the glory days of Gucci. He did it with such wit and style and knowing winks. He was brilliant.”

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In just four years, Ford and Domenico De Sole, who was Gucci Group’s chairman and CEO, increased the company’s revenue from $250 million to $1 billion. “The brand became the turnaround story of the nineties,” says David B. Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business School, who discusses the company in his classes. And then, in 2004, Ford and De Sole quit after PPR, which had purchased Gucci three years earlier, refused to meet their demands. “Everybody was so in love with Tom,” says Morante. “But Pinault wasn’t in love. Pinault is a businessman.” Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour speculated that Ford’s leaving would be a “catastrophe.” But it wasn’t. “Gucci’s a hard brand to kill,” says Frasch. “Believe me, people have tried.”

I’m riding in a black BMW headed to Gucci headquarters, located in a suburb of Florence. Thirty minutes later, my driver, who is wearing the kind of super-chic glasses only Italians can get away with, drops me off at an industrial park in Casellina. I could be on the moon, or in a Michelangelo Antonioni movie. Where is everybody? The main building’s interior is bright white. There isn’t a speck of dust or dirt anywhere, even on the white floors.

Several artisans, all wearing beautifully laundered white lab coats, are waiting to greet me. I have entered Forever Land. Piled high on several long tables are huge reptile skins, all in the process of extreme makeovers. Speaking through a translator, the workshop supervisor lifts the remnants of a gigantic python, telling me that Giannini, when she isn’t directing the artisans to paint the skins gold or jade, likes them au naturel. Next we move on to the crocodiles. Did I know there were a number of different types? I did not and never really cared, but crocodiles, when dyed a fabulous royal blue, have a charm they don’t possess in the wild.

I’m passed on to an artisan who shows me how the reptile’s skin achieves its beautiful gloss. He takes a small piece of blue croc and, lightly tapping a foot pedal, polishes it with an agate-stone machine. Another craftsman, using a simple blade, slices a piece of mauve crocodile with the skill and dexterity of a surgeon. It will eventually become a New Jackie, with a price tag starting at $24,900. It can take seven to 13 hours to assemble just one bag, although only the prototypes are made in this workshop, with local subcontractors producing the rest. All of Gucci’s leather goods, shoes and ready-to-wear items are still made in Italy.

A few hours later, I’m in another black BMW on my way to the opening of Mario Testino’s “Todo o Nada” (“All or Nothing”) exhibition in Rome. Gucci, which has enjoyed a long relationship with Testino—he shot ads during Ford’s tenure—is a sponsor. If there’s anything that will make you think fashion minimalism is for the fainthearted, it’s standing around with a bunch of deeply tanned Roman women in tight dresses, sky-high heels and tons of gold jewelry. Why did I wear a plain navy suit? An image of Katharine Hepburn as the spinster school secretary in Summertime pops into my head. That’s the one where she goes to Venice, has an affair with handsome Rossano Brazzi, only to find out he’s married, and returns to Akron, Ohio. Alone.

The next day, as part of my research, I head to the Gucci store on Via Condotti. After I stop at a counter on the main floor to admire a Jackie bag in blue python, the saleswoman urges me to slip it over my shoulder. It isn’t me. I’m not sure the Jackie bag would have been Jackie either, but this is the New Jackie and maybe it’s the New Me. I hear a breathy voice whisper Buy the bag, buy the bag. It’s like being in the Garden of Eden, only the serpent is a python and it’s talking like Jackie with an Italian accent. I head upstairs, where the crowds have thinned out. I spot an elegant suede jacket that’s been marked down 50 percent. It’s a beautiful pale gray that is so impractical, it could only be worn in the World of Gucci. But I’ve found my Rossano Brazzi. I try it on. It fits beautifully. But I’m not a Gucci girl. Or am I? I take it off and return it to the sales rack. Another customer eyes it. I slip it on again, running my hand up and down the material. The leather is so soft and sensual that I feel practically weak at the knees. Now I’m Molly Bloom in Ulysses. Yes, I said, yes, I will. Yes.

Ten minutes later, I’m walking down Via Condotti with a huge double-G shopping bag. I was going to the Vatican Museum, but I think I’ll have lunch first. I order some pasta and a glass of wine. I normally don’t eat carbs and never drink during the day. But life is short, Rome is beautiful, and if I don’t spill red wine on my jacket, it should easily last Forever Now.

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