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Dressing down the Guccis
In 'The House of Gucci,' author Sara Gay Forden chronicles the 'haute' story of Italy's contentious fashion firm
NEW YORK (CNN) -- As with all great dramas, "The House of Gucci" opens with "A Death" in the first chapter, namely the March 1995 assassination of Maurizio Gucci, the last scion of the Gucci family to control the tottering fashion conglomerate.
Maurizio's murder forms a neat dividing line between the company's past and present. Within a few months, the once entirely family-owned company (taken over by Investcorp in 1993), was floated on the New York Stock Exchange. Within a few years, Gucci, reorganized under new CEO Domenico de Sole and featuring the stylish new collections of creative director Tom Ford, would survive a brutal takeover attempt from LVMH to team up with Sanofi (owner of Yves Saint Laurent, among other labels) to become one of the premier multinational fashion conglomerates in the world.
No small achievement this, considering that under family leadership the company had been brought to the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1990s.
The legendary family feuds and shady business tactics became the stuff of fashion industry legend. Sara Gay Forden, a reporter for Women's Wear Daily, decided to combine the two in telling Gucci's story in "The House of Gucci" (William Morrow).
"My struggle was to weave the dramatic family saga and the business story together," she said in an interview. "People kept asking me if the book would be about the family or the company. I said that the strength of the story is the interconnection between the two, and if you just had a family story you ended up with gossip and sensation, and if you focused on the business, it would just be a business story. My gut feeling about this is that there's passion and fashion and finance woven together. And I think in the end it worked out."
Forden was well qualified to work both sides of the story, having worked at the Dow Jones News Service prior to her employment at WWD. Gucci family control was just breaking down when she wrote her first WWD story, and she established a relationship with the ill-fated Maurizio, the last family member to run the firm.
"I continued to cover the breakdown of the relationship, the war that forced Maurizio Gucci out of the company, Investcorp taking control and taking the company public," Forden said. "Then there was the murder a few months before the company was floated on the NYSE. As I followed the events associated with this company and this family I came to realize this story had all the elements of a real-life novel. You couldn't have made it up, the plot twists were so outrageous at times. ... This seemed to have all the qualities of a saga."
The family name
The company's history began in 1921 with patriarch Guccio Gucci, a Florentine dishwasher turned leather merchant, who began selling leather travel bags. Surviving both the Depression and WWII, the family business prospered on its use of a distinctively flawed leather called "cuoio grasso," the ruffled surface of which, superimposed with the twin Gs of the family name, became a global sensation in the years after the war.
The family schism began with Guccio's sons. Aldo, the sharp-minded businessman, expanded Gucci's business into new markets, shrewdly identifying its merchandise with distinct markings like red-and-green webbing. He relentlessly pushed for expansion, opening stores in Paris, New York, even Tokyo. By 1974, Forden writes, "The Gucci empire ... numbered fourteen stores and forty-six franchised boutiques around the world. In just twenty years Aldo had built Gucci from a $6,000 corporation and a small shop in the Savoy Plaza Hotel into a glittering empire spanning the United States, Europe, and Asia."
But Aldo wasn't completely above board. He also wound up in a $7 million tax fraud scandal, which ultimately enabled his nephew Maurizio to take control over the company board of directors.
Maurizio, son of Aldo's brother Rodolfo, had already crossed swords with his father over his marriage to Patrizia Reggiani, a truck driver's daughter whom the elder Guccis saw as a gold-digger marrying her way to wealth. A fiery feud followed Rodolfo's death, after which Maurizio produced documents signing Rodolfo's shares over to Maurizio, which both saved him from massive inheritance taxes and made him a primary shareholder.
That brought him squarely into conflict with Aldo. The legal battles that followed culminated with Aldo's son Paolo squaring off with Maurizio, Aldo having been sent to prison in 1986 at the age of 81. The family was disintegrating; boardroom meetings were punctuated by flying ashtrays and screamed obscenities.
But there was a silver lining even in acrimony. "Ironically, the fighting helped fuel the notoriety of the name," Forden said. "It was a rare case where negative publicity wasn't necessarily a bad thing. At one point I interviewed Luigi Pirovano, who was Rodolfo Gucci's driver, and later Maurizio's. He said the family would fight and fight, and people would pour into the stores and the sales would grow, and it was as though there was a connection between the two."
Money, blood takes its toll
Fighting between the relatives (and across generational lines) took its toll. By 1989, nearly 50 percent of the business had been bought out by Investcorp, a group of investment bankers angling for shares of the business. Maurizio was ostensibly in charge, but Investcorp was in the driver's seat. But Maurizio put together a top-notch team: Gucci America CEO Domenico de Sole, creative director Dawn Mello, and head designer Tom Ford. It was an attempt by Maurizio to realize his forward-looking vision of Gucci as a modern corporate fashion entity.
And, like many visionaries, he failed.
Embroiling himself in a spectacular divorce from Patrizia, Maurizio proceeded to run up unprecedented debts. He was considered a visionary leader but a poor manager by colleagues, which, coinciding with plummeting sales in the early '90s, caused Maurizio to be edged out of the company by Investcorp.
De Sole and Ford advanced to the top tier of Gucci under Investcorp's leadership, with Mello returning to Bergdorf Goodman. Ford began churning out racy, groundbreaking new designs, like stiletto pumps and G-strings, which would never have seen the light of day under the Guccis. They were exceedingly popular, and the Gucci name became more valuable than ever.
Meanwhile, Maurizio Gucci was gunned down. His ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani, was charged with arranging his murder.
Forden was forced to resort to the old-fashioned means of letters to interview Reggiani.
"I made three requests to the Italian penal system to interview her," Forden recalled, "but in Italy they're not really into protecting the rights of free speech of inmates. So I started a correspondence with her. I wrote to her in jail and she wrote me back, and in her letters she gave me rich personal details about her relationship with Maurizio."
Forden's proposal received immediate attention in the book industry. The author compared it to Gucci's own appeal among financiers: "There's something about the Gucci name all along that made people's ears prick up. At one point, you've got this investment banker from Morgan Stanley who's just made contact with Maurizio Gucci, who goes into the Monday morning meeting and says, 'Hey guys, we've got a chance to do something with Gucci.' And everybody snaps to attention.
"On the one hand, there were raised eyebrows because people knew this was a family that was fighting all across the board, but on the other, people seemed really interested in doing something with this company," she continued. "So it definitely had some sex appeal, from the family to the fashion to the business story."
Gucci puts on fresh coat for fall
William Morrow: 'The House of Gucci'
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