The man who was responsible some hundred years ago, for one of today’s world’s most coveted $ 3 billion mega-fashion brand-name Gucci, was an Italian by name Guccio Gucci, a humble owner of a saddle shop – a man probably to whom it never occurred in his wildest dreams that his atelier would grow into the world famous and highly successful, House of Gucci. It all started when he developed a great love and passion for expensive leather luggage, as he handled such pieces for the rich clientele of Hotel Savoy, London where he worked initially as an employee. This has been perceived to be the real reason the House of Gucci has been particularly associated with the production of very exclusive and expensive leather goods, normally within the reach of only the very wealthy.
Born in 1881 in a small merchant’s family, Guccio set up his own saddler shop in Florence in 1906 and engaged the best craftsmen to work under his expert supervision and great talent to produce quality goods. He made leather bags for horsemen besides saddles and other leather gear they required for horse riding but when means of transport graduated to horseless travel as modernization was wont to take place, he accepted the change and designed luxury luggage instead keeping the need and the trend of the day foremost in his mind to suit his customers. His business prospered and in 1938, he opened a new retail outlet in Rome and there was no looking back for Guccio Gucci after that!
He created many classic pieces that are talked of even today, like the leather bag with the bamboo handle that had his inimitable style written all over it. The creative genius in him, urged him on to make ties, shoes, handbags under the Gucci label and great success followed him at every step.
Guccio was married to Aida Calvelli and they were blessed with six children – two girls and four boys. It was the sons (Vasco, Aldo, Ugo, Rodolfo) who took control of the Gucci Empire when Guccio died in 1953 and as is often seen in family run business ventures, ugly disputes regarding inheritances, stockholdings, day to day running of the ventures, brought divisions in the family that eventually told on the well-being of the business empire as well.
Gucci opened boutiques in London, Paris and New York. Stores in Hong Kong and Tokyo also left an indelible impression on the fashion conscious shoppers of the Far East in the ‘60s and left them asking for more. Gucci products were so exclusive that names like that of Hollywood actresses Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy were widely known as ardent shoppers of Gucci ware. The Gucci Flora silk scarf was immensely popular because Grace Kelly loved to wear it and Jackie Kennedy’s favorite shoulder bag, Jackie O from Gucci became famous due to the former First Lady’s great preference for it. Gucci had no dearth of celebrities and stars among its clients. Today, Gucci products include leather fashions, perfumes, jewelry, scarves, exquisite time- pieces, shoes, ties and a host of other attractive items that mark the exclusive mark and quality of the Gucci label.
The House of Gucci stayed on its pinnacle of success as one of the luxury goods establishment till around 1970s when the rot started to set in thanks to family divisions and wrangles that sought to settle scores at the expense of their business house.
Guccio Gucci’s two sons, Aldo and Rodolfo controlled the company with equal share of ownership at this point but their mutual distrust of each other was their undoing. A few business decisions taken against this backdrop proved to be disastrous and hurt their financial and business interests greatly, resulting in huge loss for the company.
In order to cut his brother Rodolfo to size and sideline him, Aldo started the Gucci Accessories Collection (GAC) that consisted of small items, like cigarette lighters, pens, cosmetic bags and the like. This section was supposed to bolster the sales of the Gucci Parfums sector, managed by Aldo’s sons. At first the idea seemed to work well but then as the mass production and whole-selling of these articles took place, the sheen of the exclusive tag, Gucci designer products enjoyed so far was lost, proving to be a disastrously destabilizing factor that shook the Gucci dynasty like nothing before and brought about the beginning of its downfall. As Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair aptly put it, “Gucci had lost its appeal, becoming a tacky airport brand” from a very sought after and cherished brand for which the rich were willing to pay anything. Tarnishing the name of the company even further and plunging it into a financial low, the market was flooded with fakes of many kinds that claimed to be the original Gucci. This was the last nail hammered in the Gucci coffin, so to say.
Meanwhile back in Italy the gossip pages of the newspapers sizzled with stories of the quarrels between Rodolfo and Aldo. At one point when Aldo was arrested for evasion of taxes, exposed as he was by his own son, the headlines in the gossip columns attracted as much attention and interest among the people as when a sensational Gucci creation was unveiled in the past. Tragedy too struck the family, when Rodolfo passed away in 1983. The company underwent another shakeup when his son Maurizio Gucci stepped into his father’s shoes and took charge of the 50% of the business that he inherited. Backed by Aldo’s son Paolo and to rein in the Board of Directors, Maurizio started the Gucci Licensing division in Netherlands presumably for tax purposes but the move had all the family members opting out of the business, finally leaving only Maurizio at the helm as the President. He realized he had act quickly on a damage control exercise, stop the infighting in the company and boost its sagging financial health to save the business that had now solely become his. He decided to look beyond his own relatives and employees for people who could resurrect the House of Gucci and breathe new life into it, if that were possible.
By about 1989, Maurizio handpicked a team whom he hoped would perform the miracle of the Gucci fashion house revival. Dawn Mello, a star in retail business was persuaded to be the creative director. The creative team that had skilled designers from the Geoffrey Beene and Calvin Klein, also included a young man called Tom Ford. He had dropped out of the prestigious Parsons School of Design where he was studying to be an architect and instead decided his calling in life lay in fashion designing.
Despite all that he had gone through Maurizio really did not really learn any lessons from his past experiences. He still riled his distributors, undertook drastically wrong corporate decisions that made the company again totter and look at bankruptcy in the face. Though he was a man good at heart and meant well, his actions spelt doom for the company. His senior managers conferred with each other and agreed Maurizio had to bow out – there was no other way, harsh though the decision was. Maurizio did just that after being forced to sell his shares of the company he part owned, to Investcorp in 1993. This marked the end of the business involvement of the Gucci family in the company
Tom Ford and Dawn Mello were successful and gave the Gucci label a fresh lease of life with their hard work and innovative ideas. The newly appointed team ruthlessly reorganized the company, bringing down costs and streamlining the production line. Things began to look much better for the company immediately. When Tom Ford’s design of a snaffle clog became an instant hit, the writing on the wall was there for everyone to see- the House of Gucci was well and on the road to recovery.
The Gucci family drama was sadly yet to end. Just when one thought that good days were ahead for them, Maurizio died, murdered by his wife in 1995 and she was convicted for the crime and is now serving a 29-year sentence as punishment.
Tom Ford was given the position of creative director of Gucci just when he was 32 years old. Dawn Mello preferred to return to her previous job at Bergdorf Goodman, a year after Maurizio sold his portion of his ownership in the company and withdrew. Ford had many daring, inspiring dreams for Gucci that could not have been translated into reality when working under Mello or Maurizio. De Sole, the CEO of Gucci was willing to take the gamble and give Ford a chance to prove himself. He knew that if the company had to rise again like never before, a brand new image was necessary and bold, unconventional measures were indeed the need of the hour.
Tom Ford was given a free hand thereafter and lived up to his dreams, taking Gucci from strength to strength, enabling the house of fashion to rise from its own ashes like a phoenix.
Ford was a disciple of America’s top designers, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. The latter especially created a brand of clothes that were known to be the symbols of ‘eternal youth and adolescent sexuality’ that appealed to Ford a great deal. While Lauren’s clientele belonged to a world of their own, where the big mantra spelt wealth, whether it was the luxurious houses they lived in or the swank cars they drove. Making a mix of all these concepts together Tom Ford created a ready-to-wear line for Gucci that had the fashion world swarming in frenzy at the doors of the stores. The rave reviews claimed the designs were ‘hot’ as well as ‘sexy’. That was exactly what Tom Ford had intended the clothes to be. His creativity and spunk succeeded in making Gucci once again a name to reckon with.
An interesting fallout of this was the star status that was bestowed on Ford by the glitterati of the fashion world. He was at all the important social events that mattered, splashed on the glossy pages of fashion magazines and some even voted him among the most beautiful people of the year. He came to represent Gucci’s ‘sex factor’ while the store only appeared too happy with everything that was happening and to have its cash registers ringing! Tom Ford continued with his signature style of high hemlines and equally low necklines. This dare and bare manner in which clothes were stylishly presented gave Gucci a distinct advantage and its rivals a run for their money.
Tom Ford refused to renew his contract with Gucci after it came to an end in 2003 and many saw it as a result of a dispute he had with Gucci’s parent group, Pinault-Printemps-Redoute. The conventional wisdom was that with the exit of Tom Ford from Gucci, it would mean only doom and gloom. Alessandra Facchinetti, Frida Giannini, Queena Le and John Ray who had all worked under Tom Ford in the Gucci creative team stepped into his shoes and held the fort.
Today, Ray and Facchinetti have left Gucci for other pastures and its Giannini who is the creative director for the entire Gucci brand. Her Spring 2006 Collection was an instant hit and the ready-to-wear creations caused an unexpected stir, taking one back to the years when Tom Ford first introduced such a line.
Gucci has become a multi-brand group from a single brand store over the years, with outlets worldwide – the Fifth Avenue Store in New York is the largest Gucci Store internationally. It is well worth a visit for those who take pleasure in beautiful things.