Gucci: Hell for leather

The name means flash, cash and black shiny bags. It also means violent family feuding, boardroom intrigue and now - with Patrizia Gucci's conviction for the contract killing of her former husband - murder
Maurizio Gucci gave his wife everything that a spoiled, thrustingly ambitious woman like her might crave: wealth, status, one of the classiest, most instantly recognisable names in fashion, an array of homes dotted from New York to St Moritz, and two beautiful daughters.

Well, not quite everything. He also cheated on her, messed up the family business, got a little tetchy when she told him his luxury yacht wasn't luxurious enough, and then divorced her in favour of a taller, blonder woman. Who wouldn't get a little mad under the circumstances? Who wouldn't be tempted to fly into a jealous rage and cook up a wild murder plot against such an errant husband? Who wouldn't want to put a bullet in his brain and have done with him once and for all?

Not a lot of people, perhaps. But then Patrizia Reggiani, for all her faults and her propensity for making enemies, could never be accused of being like a lot of people. As she was hauled off to jail to begin a 29- year murder sentence on Tuesday, she still clung to her protestations of innocence, and insisted that the emotion consuming her was not hatred for Maurizio, but overwhelming love.

From the outside, it was hard to know whether to feel Patrizia's pain, or laugh at the absurdity of it all. Here she was, an overtly respectable figure in Milan society, consorting with an assortment of oddballs and criminal lowlifes so incompetent that they probably couldn't fare-dodge on a bus without getting caught.

There, sitting next to her in the dock, was her erstwhile spiritual counsellor, a Neapolitan medium called Pina Auriemma whom she first asked to arrange the crime. Then there was Auriemma's friend Ivano Savioni, a hotel porter seemingly more interested in devil-worship and the occult than the mechanics of first-degree murder; Orazio Cicala, the driver of the getaway car, who pocketed most of the 600 million lire (pounds 226,000) bounty money offered by Patrizia, and promptly lost it all at the gaming tables; and finally, Benedetto Ceraulo, the gunman who cut Maurizio down in the foyer of his office building on the morning of 27 March 1995, and who subsequently so terrified the rest of the gang that they decided to confess to the police rather than risk his wrath.

Most incompetent of all, though, was Patrizia herself who, according to the trial testimony, was haughty enough to believe that she could let these lower-class minions take the fall for her. When her friend Pina Auriemma was already in custody, Patrizia sent her a note urging her not to name names. "Leave me out of it, and I'll shower you with gold," she wrote. Auriemma, shocked by her benefactor's utter lack of concern for her well-being, made a full confession that led straight to Patrizia's arrest.

The whole sordid affair seems a million miles from the comfortable, understated world of Gucci moccasins and bamboo-handled handbags. Then again, the Gucci family has a long history of self-destructive dysfunction, a weakness for feuding that Maurizio's and Patrizia's generation pushed to such a limit that they lost control of the company altogether.

The bitter rows became legendary long before Maurizio met his sticky end, and the ruthlessness with which rival scions have aired their dirty linen in public has been a never-ending source of gossip for the Italian press. One family ex-wife once remarked that being married to a Gucci was worse than going to dinner with the Borgias. Recent events have shown that she was not exaggerating.

This is a family whose members have been known to resort to physical violence in company board meetings. One of Maurizio's cousins, Giorgio, once provoked a family schism by setting up a rival Gucci company; Giorgio's late brother Paolo took a blunter tack during the ensuing chaos by shopping most of his relatives, including his own father, to the US authorities for tax evasion.

The story of Patrizia Reggiani, nee Martinelli, provides as instructive an insight as any into the decadence and vile emotions of the Gucci family. She is a classic example of the poor girl made good - or rich beyond her wildest dreams - whose total fascination with her new lifestyle made her selfish, vindictive and unfathomably crazy.

She owed her first encounter with serious wealth to her mother, who ditched her impoverished first husband in favour of an Italian transport magnate called Fernando Reggiani. Patrizia conveniently managed to have herself adopted and included in Reggiani's will just before the old man died in 1973 - a manoeuvre that her half-brother Vincenzo is convinced she accomplished through foul play.

The Reggiani social set soon netted her another catch, the highly eligible Maurizio Gucci, who did not lack for money or status, but was not yet in an obvious position to take over the family firm. The couple had two children, and then, with the help of Maurizio's father Rodolfo, set about claiming the Gucci succession for themselves. By the mid-Eighties they had succeeded, scattering Maurizio's cousins to the four corners of the globe and booting the most distinguished chairman in the company's history, Aldo Gucci, out of his office without giving him so much as a chance to clear his desk.

All this was not enough for Patrizia, who felt excluded from many of Maurizio's power games, and furious at the string of mistresses he insisted on parading around New York, Milan, Rome and St Moritz. Insisting that he prove his love for her, she forced him to buy a fabulous three-masted schooner he could not afford, the Creole, and then made him spend millions of dollars redecorating it according to her extravagant tastes.

Shortly afterwards she left him anyway, complaining that he was consumed by a "paranoid exultation of power". Over the next decade, she played the role of carping bitch, poisoning her children against their own father and complaining endlessly about the intolerably puny terms of her divorce settlement. "How I am supposed to live, with only three trillion lire in the bank, a house in Rome, and one in New York?" she once lamented on an Italian chat show. "I do have two daughters to take care of, you know."

When Maurizio was murdered, her reaction was less than tender. "On a human level, I'm sorry, but from a personal point of view I can't really say the same thing," she told reporters besieging her at her sumptuous home in Milan. She then beat a path to Maurizio's house to ask his fiancee, Paola Franchi, for the return of a sweater belonging to her daughter Alessandra.

The idea of killing Maurizio had evidently been haunting Patrizia for some time. Her lawyer said that, several months before the crime, she had asked him some very strange questions about the maximum sentence for murder. The joke

in family circles was that Patrizia's head had been scrambled by an operation she had to remove a brain tumour. Nobody seriously believed that she would hire professional killers to turn her thoughts into action.

Were it not for her friendship with Auriemma, whom she had met years earlier on the island of Ischia, and effectively put on her payroll to act as her spiritual adviser and necromancer, she probably wouldn't have found the means to go through with her plan. Fooling around with professional killers proved an unwise social manoeuvre, however, as the conspirators first decided they wanted more money and then, according to the police informants who eventually netted them, hatched a plot to kill her, too.

Patrizia barely noticed what they were up to as she put the finishing touches to a rambling, almost unreadable memoir of more than 500 pages about her life with Maurizio. Her trial lawyers subsequently described it as a moving testament to her love for her ex-husband. But she devoted whole pages to a demolition of Maurizio's character, calling him selfish, inconsiderate, mediocre and, in the early part of their marriage, sexually impotent. "The classic weakling who decides to play the bad guy and becomes insufferable", is how she summed him up.

In her dealings with the police and the courts, Patrizia has been unwaveringly cold and emotionless. "You've come because of my husband's murder, haven't you?" she murmured through the entry-phone when the police came to arrest her 18 month ago. She packed her things in a Gucci suitcase and drove to San Vittore prison in a fur coat - she later swapped it for a dirty rain-jacket on the advice of her arresting officer.

During the trial, she showed no convincing signs of regret or grief. Much of the talk in the courtroom revolved instead around money. Her family stayed well away from the proceedings, showing such rage to any journalist who interviewed them that they appeared to be in a state of near-total denial.

Patrizia once remarked how the Guccis have followed the pattern of many family dynasties: the first generation builds, the second consolidates, and the third destroys. Sure enough, the company is now in the hands of a Bahraini-led consortium of investors, and the family is a basket case caught in the full glare of publicity.

On the day of Patrizia's conviction, the flagship Gucci store in Florence had the spirit to put a pair of silver handcuffs on display in its window - a sign, if one were needed, that the world of high fashion has no use for ugly family feuds, except as a source of dark, sardonic humour.