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.

Frida Giannini.
Gucci creative director Frida Giannini attends the Gucci Museum opening in Florence, Italy

Jacopo Raule/Getty Images for Gucci.

This piece is reprinted from Departures.

I catch my first glimpse of Frida Giannini, Gucci’s creative director, at the Venice International Film Festival, where she’s attending a screening of Madonna’s new film, W.E. Giannini is wearing a one-shouldered black dress, her deep tan contrasting with her perfectly blown-out blonde hair. She is not, however, the most bronzed designer at the Palazzo del Cinema, or the most meticulously coiffed. That honor belongs to Valentino, who is two seats—and several worlds—away from Giannini, who cites among her eclectic muses both Jackie Kennedy and Iggy Pop. Keeping his back to the Gucci contingent, Valentino spends the next 15 minutes whispering to his longtime partner, Giancarlo Giammetti. It’s fun to imagine what he might be saying. Valentino dressed Jackie when she mourned JFK and, later, when she wed Aristotle Onassis. He knew and loved Jackie, whereas Gucci’s “Jackie” has two fringed tassels and comes in exotic skin.

The Jackie is a bag, but not just any bag. In Gucci lingo, it’s an “icon” and now has a place of honor, along with the horse bit, the bamboo handle and the double-G, at the company’s new museum in Piazza della Signoria, in Florence. Tourists can walk from the Uffizi directly to Gucci Museo, where instead of contemplating spiritual icons they can meditate on earthly ones. The museum opening is part of the fashion house’s yearlong 90th-anniversary celebration that kicked off with its “Forever Now” campaign. “Forever” is represented by black-and-white stills of Gucci artisans from the 1950s, while “Now” is about the latest collections, expressed in airbrushed photos of sultry blondes clutching status bags. “Forever” is heritage; “Now” is what’s hot and new.

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While one might think that balancing such disparate worlds might be tricky, like satisfying a wife and a much younger mistress, nobody does it better than Gucci. Today it is the second-largest luxury brand in the world (Louis Vuitton holds the top spot), and in 2010 it had $3.61 billion in sales. Owned by the French conglomerate PPR, also home to Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Alexander McQueen, Gucci has 345 stores internationally, including 40 in mainland China. Gucci entered the China market early, in 1994, and today it accounts for 21 percent of the company’s revenue. “What happened in Japan in ten to 15 years is happening in China at an incredible pace,” says Patrizio di Marco, Gucci’s president and CEO. “You have nouveaux riches that want to show their status, and the first step is to have a canvas bag with the original ‘GG.’”

The initials stand for Guccio Gucci, the company’s founder, but the familiar logo, which has adorned both bags and bottoms—remember Tom Ford’s thong?—is all about living la dolce vita. That Gucci can still ignite such retro fantasies is a testament to the brand’s seductive appeal. Once you’ve been lured into its red-and-green web, it’s hard to resist its temptations. Like James Franco, the face of Gucci Pour Homme, who is a film director, screenwriter, author, artist and professor, as well as an Academy Award–nominated actor and a daytime soap star, Gucci is hard to categorize. It’s a little bit country, with its equestrian motifs, a little bit rock ’n’ roll—Giannini loves ’70s rock stars—and it’s a lot glamorous, in a flashy, look-at-me way.

Befitting a brand with multiple personalities, Gucci has always attracted a varied clientele. Princess Grace of Monaco was a customer, as were Sophia Loren, John Wayne, Samuel Beckett, Ronald Reagan, Raisa Gorbachev and, of course, Jackie O, whose hobo-style bag has been updated and renamed the New Jackie. The hip-hop crowd has been a fan since the ’80s. “On any given day in the Gucci store on Fifth Avenue, you can see Donald Trump or Jay-Z types, along with conservative investment bankers,” says Jim Moore, the creative director of GQ. “Gucci is its own lifestyle.”

And I’m not sure I belong in it. Even though I’ve been living in a double-G world for several months now, I am not a double-G girl. Even worse, my husband isn’t a double-G guy, which ordinarily wouldn’t be an issue, but we’ve been invited to the Gucci Award for Women in Cinema dinner. (The prize went to actress-of-the-moment Jessica Chastain.) Gucci mentioned it was black tie only after we’d arrived in Venice. I’d packed a pair of black silk pants and a dressy blouse, which I’m hoping will be okay, but my husband didn’t pack a tuxedo, because he doesn’t routinely travel with one. We’re at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection when we get the first of a steady stream of e-mails from a Gucci PR woman. She needs my husband’s size. We’re inside the Church of Santa Maria Della Salute when my cell phone rings. She wants to know what I’m wearing. I tell her. Long pause. “Do you have jewelry?” she asks.

Ultimately I get to wear my own clothes, but Gucci sends my husband to the San Marco store, where he’s fitted into a black suit. (It will later be returned and perhaps used as a VIP suit for a future fashion emergency.) My husband, whose love for clothes begins and ends on a ski slope, is suddenly infatuated with his new suit. “I feel like James Bond,” he says. Clearly Gucci’s got him.

The next morning I meet Giannini at the Cipriani Hotel, where a PR executive sits in on the interview. A digital recorder rests on the table, and it’s already running. Nothing about Gucci is spontaneous. Everyone stays strictly on message, endlessly reciting the words “heritage,” “craftsmanship,” “artisan,” “legendary” and, yes, “iconic.”

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