The House of Gucci
Gucci is a well-known Italian luxury fashion house based in Florence, with product lines including luxury handbags, makeup, accessories and footwear. Named after its founding family, the House of Gucci acquired superstardom during the 20th century. But the history of one of the most successful family businesses of all time is tainted by family feuds, envy and even murder.
The Gucci family has deep roots in Florence itself, spanning back at least to the beginning of the 15th century. The family had also historically been actively involved in the city’s unique and well-known mercantile culture for ages. At the end of the 19th century, however, a young Guccio Gucci, whose father’s straw-hat business was in dire straits at the time, left Florence for London, where he would work as a bellboy, loading and unloading the luggage of the high-end clients of the Savoy Hotel. Every day at work he would be intrigued by the luggage he was handling: trunks and suitcases made from fine leather, neatly embossed with crests and flourishing initials. His experience with upscale luxury travel was further enhanced when he left his position at the Savoy, returning to Italy to work at the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits, a luxury railway company, until the outbreak of the First World War, when he was ordered to report as a driver for the Italian army. Directly after the war he started working as a maker of luxury luggage with the Italian luxury leather bag manufacturer Franzi, eventually managing the company’s Rome tannery until 1921.
But on one Sunday evening of 1921, while on a stroll around Florence with his wife Aida, Guccio noticed a shop for rent on a narrow side street. Guccio rented the small shop, moved back to Florance, and started selling leather luggage as a sole proprietorship, Azienda Individuale Guccio Gucci, the first Gucci company. Producing and selling the same luxury leather goods that he had been handling since he was a boy, his entire family worked at the shop. The family would also be very tight-knit, even if Guccio ruled his house both strictly and sternly. Family and business, however, were his only two priorities in life. By 1924 however, Guccio was in dire straits, not having enough cash to pay his bills, and was only saved thanks to a generous loan from his son-in-law. Despite the financial predicament, there was nothing wrong with the quality of his products and they sold relatively well. He focused on durability and it is even said that during demonstrations he would jump up and down on a suitcase to prove its sturdiness.
In 1935 Gucci would suffer another major setback. He had produced all of his luxury luggage from fine imported leather, but when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia on October 3rd 1935, the League of Nations imposed a trade embargo on Italy, which meant that Guccio could no longer import the leather required for producing his exclusive bags and luggage. And so he improvised, both introducing other fabrics such as linen and hemp into his products and also gearing up the factory to produce shoes for the Italian army. He continued to source as much leather as he could from within Italy itself, and around this time he began using leather produced from fattened veal calves raised in the Chiana Valley in central Italy. Smaller leather accessories such as belts and wallets also generated a welcome income by attracting a broader consumer base. During this tumultuous time, the Gucci family business also launched his first suitcase with the now famous Rombi design, this suitcase would become a bestseller. Two years later, Gucci launched their first handbags. Through diversification and innovation, the company not only managed to survive the trade embargo, but started to flourish.
Guccio’s son Aldo now pressured his father into expanding the business beyond Florence. Reluctantly, a cautious Guccio allowed Aldo to purchase a shop in Rome, which opened for business in September 1938, just 12 months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Aldo had identified Rome because of the large number of wealthy tourists the city attracts as one of the playgrounds of the world’s elite. Despite the economic impact of the war, the Gucci’s managed to keep their business profitable, launching a new range of luxury bamboo bags in 1947, and by 1951 opening a third shop in Milan. During this time, as the Gucci brand was attracting more wealthy international customers, Guccio and Aldo devised a backstory, based on a presumed ancestry from Florintine saddlers to medieval nobility. This myth gelled perfectly with their equestrian-themed line of products they were marketing to wealthy upper-class clients at the time, and they cleverly upgraded the Gucci insignia to include a noble knight in armour. During this time, Aldo also came up with the ingenious interlocking double G- horsebit design — in honour of his father Guccio Gucci — which famously decorate those quintessential Gucci shoes, and which has become perhaps the most iconic element of the Gucci brand.
At the start of 1953 Guccio, the patriarch of the family business, passed away in Milan. But this did nothing to stop the incredible momentum of the business. Gucci made its way to the Big Apple. The first store on American soil was opened in 1953, with a second one opening in the luxurious St Regis Hotel in 1960, both on 5th avenue in Manhattan, leading locals to baptize the area “Gucci City”.
The start of the 60s saw Gucci further expand to Palm Beach, London and Paris. By the end of that decade, celebrities and royalty had become infatuated with everything Gucci. The opening of a store in Hollywood in 1968 drove many Hollywood stars to endorse the brand, which now ensured Gucci worldwide fame as a well-established luxury fashion house, and enabled expansion to Asia in the 1970s. Gucci’s fame had become so renowned, that president John F. Kennedy famously referred to Aldo Gucci as the “first Italian Ambassador to the United States.” In addition to luggage, Gucci now launched a series of perfumes and luxury watches.
But despite all of this success, cracks in the Gucci family unit started to appear. When their brother Vasco Gucci died in 1974, Guccio’s sons Aldo and Rodolfo had become 50/50 stakeholders in the company. But conflict ensued between Aldo and his nephew Maurizio upon the death of his father Rodolfo in 1983, when Maurizio inherited half the company’s shares and started a legal battle aimed at gaining full control of the House of Gucci. Maurizio, the only grandson of Guccio Gucci not to have received any shares until then, resented his uncle. In the midst of this legal battle, another conflict between Aldo and his son Paolo resulted in Paolo ratting out his father to the tax authorities, which led to Aldo being sentenced to one year in prison at 81 years old in 1986. A year before his death in 1989, Aldo finally sold all of his Gucci shares to Investcorp, with Maurizio becoming the company’s new chairman.
However, Maurizio was in over his head, and overspending on his part meant that by 1993, Gucci was in serious financial trouble. This led to him in turn selling his remaining shares to Investcorp as well, thus ending the Gucci family’s association with the business.
But finally letting go of the family business did not bring an end to the relentless feuds that were tearing the Guccis apart. Maurizio’s divorce with his wife, Patrizia was finalized in 1994. It had been a long time coming. They had already separated in 1985, and despite Patrizia’s attempts to woo him back, he began dating former model and childhood friend Paola Franchi in 1990. The divorce meant that his now ex-wife, born Patrizia Reggani, was no longer legally allowed to use the Gucci surname, but continued doing so anyway, declaring that “I still feel like a Gucci — in fact, the most Gucci of them all.” Soon after the divorce it was announced that Maurizio planned to marry Paola Franchi in 1995. On the 27th of March 1995, Maurizio Gucci, then only 46, was gunned down in broad daylight on the steps of his Milan office. In 1998, Patrizia was convicted and sentenced to 29 years in prison for arranging her husband’s killing — his marriage to Franchi would have cut her alimony in half and meant her losing any significant control of the Gucci estate. On the day of his killing, Patrizia had written only a single word in her diary: “paradeisos”, the Greek word for paradise. The hitman hired by Patrizia had been a debt-ridden pizzeria owner Benedetto Ceraulo, who also received a life sentence.
Perhaps shockingly, Patrizia is still receiving money from the Gucci fortune, after a judge ruled in 2017 that she was still entitled to £900,000 of her husband’s money annually. In November of this year, acclaimed director Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated film The House of Gucci, largely based on Patrizia’s marriage to and murder of her husband, and starring Lady Gaga as Patrizia, is set to be released.
And the company itself? Very much unlike the family, it has continued to grow from strength to strength, reaching sales of over £7 billion in 2019. Currently a subsidiarity of the French luxury group Kering, Gucci continues to successfully operate nearly 500 stores employing over 17 000 people around the globe.