Bloody end of a fashionable affair

Andrew Gumbel charts the rise and fall of the house of Gucci, a dynasty whose success sparked fierce sibling rivalry

Maurizio Gucci really had it all. He was rich, he was good looking, he had a fabled name and a charmed lifestyle. He had houses in New York, Connecticut, St Moritz and Milan, a fabulous 200ft schooner and a string of glamorous mistresses. If he hadn't been heir to one of Italy's most prestigious fashion houses, he would surely have had to be reinvented as a character in a glossy American soap opera. So why would anyone want to do away with him?

Maurizio's murder in the lobby of his Milan office building by a professional hitman on Monday morning promises to provide Italy with one of its most intriguing mysteries for years. As police cobble together an Identikit portrait of the killer, nobody knows who or what could have motivated this most high-profile of fashion-world crimes. And yet, to anyone who has followed the extraordinarily turbulent tale of the Gucci dynasty over the years, Maurizio's violent end will come as an unpleasant but not altogether unexpected surprise.

Throughout his rocky career, in which he wrested control of his grandfather's firm only to lose it to a Bahraini investment bank, he managed to alienate virtually everyone with whom he came into contact. His cousins, who fought with him for much of the Eighties, have not spoken to him for years.

One of them, Roberto, said yesterday that Maurizio had been spoiled and did not live in the real world. Maurizio's feisty ex-wife Patrizia Reggiani, who left him in 1985, once described him as a man consumed by the "paranoid exultation of power", whose incompetence as a business manager was single- handedly responsible for forcing Gucci to sell out to the Arab group Investcorp in 1993. Reacting to his murder, she said: "On a human level, I'm sorry, but from a personal point of view I can't really say the same thing."

With relations like that, who needs enemies? Especially in Italy, where most successful businesses, from squeaky-clean Benetton to the murky criminal underworld of the Sicilian Mafia, are based on a cohesive family structure. But the Guccis, rather like that other famous Tuscan dynasty the Medicis, have bred only division and rivalry.

It was a family argument that brought the fashion house into being in the first place, at the turn of the century, when Guccio Gucci fell out with his father, a Florentine straw hat-maker. In response, he ran away to London where he worked as a factotum and waiter at the Savoy Hotel.

This was the golden age of the luxury hotel - among the Savoy's other employees at the time were Csar Ritz and the chef Auguste Escoffier - and the young Guccio Gucci fell in love with the atmosphere of genteel elegance and effortlessly displayed wealth. In particular, he was struck by the leather bags he was often asked to take to and from guests' rooms.

So, on his return to Florence in 1904, he set up a leatherware shop in the Via della Vigna, concentrating at first on making saddles for the aristocracy. It was the First World War that gave him his big break, when he managed to corner the Florentine leather market thanks to a shortage of tanned hide from Scotland, and in 1922 he formally set up the "Azienda Individuale Gucci".

Guccio became prosperous in business and had six children by his wife, Aida, but, like many self-made entrepreneurs, he proved mean and tyrannical. One of his favourite habits was to encourage his sons to sneak on each other for minor offences, then punish the guilty party by whipping him with the knotted end of the dining-room tablecloth.

Two of his sons, Aldo and Rodolfo, became protgs and competed for the right to take over his business. The atmosphere soon proved too tense for Rodolfo, however, and he quit the business to become a film actor under the pseudonym Maurizio D'Ancona.

Aldo was soon in the driving seat, itching to push the ambitions of the firm beyond the narrow horizons established by his father. He defied Guccio's will to open the first Gucci branch in Rome in 1938 and, after the interruption of the Second World War, expanded all over Europe and as far as New York.

The death of the old man in 1953 gave Aldo - by now married to a former lady's maid to the Queen of Greece - the chance to push Gucci's international reputation to the full, catering to an enviable range of customers including Grace Kelly, John and Jackie Kennedy, Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn.

This was the period when Aldo conceived of Gucci's famous entwined double G logo, and pioneered many of its most famous products, including the trademark moccasin shoes and bamboo-handled handbag, both of which have since found their way as exhibits into New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Although completely out of the running of the business, Rodolfo never sold his allocation of shares and towards the end of his life took a keen interest in possible successors among the next generation. Rodolfo had only one son, Maurizio, while Aldo had three - Paolo, Roberto and Giorgio. Maurizio therefore had an in-built advantage over his cousins because he had three times as many shares to start off with.

At a notorious family meeting in Florence in July 1982, Rodolfo and Maurizio tried to launch a takeover bid. Paolo, meanwhile, announced that he wanted to sell out his shares and set up a rival design company. The meeting started badly and ended in a fistfight. Paolo was hit on the side of the face by a tape recorder, and he still bears the scar, though it is not clear whether the offending object was thrown by Maurizio, Rodolfo or his own father.

When Rodolfo died in 1983, Maurizio tried to lure each cousin into lending him their support. He finally made a cash offer that Giorgio could not refuse, and became the new proprietor of Gucci. Aldo, by now nearing 80, was booted out, his files and office paintings thrown into a packing box for him to pick up off the street.

Meanwhile, Paolo, black sheep of the family, delivered a series of incriminating family documents to justice officials in Italy and the United States as revenge for failing to obtain the rights to the Gucci logo. Aldo wound up serving 18 months in a Florida jail for tax evasion.

Maurizio, meanwhile, was put on trial and convicted of forging his father's signature to evade inheritance tax. He fled to Switzerland to avoid spending time in jail, but his right-hand man, Vittorio Pilone, ended up briefly behind bars.

The sentence against Maurizio was quashed in 1988, but by that time Giorgio had withdrawn his support and was himself laying claim, along with his brothers, to the family firm. For a couple of months there was a complete schism, with rival boards each insisting they were in charge, but Maurizio eventually managed to divide the rest of the family and put himself back on top.

It was to be a short-lived victory. Gucci had been losing money, partly because of thefeuding and partly because of Maurizio's extravagant lifestyle. He bought a three-masted schooner, the Creole, for an undisclosed sum from the Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, and then spent several million dollars redecorating it.

By the late Eighties the Bahraini company Investcorp had begun buying shares in the ailing Gucci, and by 1993 was in a position to stage a complete takeover. Maurizio's last hurrah was the satisfaction of seeing President Bill Clinton sporting a Gucci tie with a hunting horn motif at the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. Two months later he had sold his 50 per cent stake for a rumoured 270 billion lire - more than £100m - and settled down to a quiet life looking after his private investments.

Nobody knows exactly what Maurizio was up to at the time of his death; there was talk of building luxury golf courses in Argentina and the Far East. According to his ex-wife Patrizia, Maurizio was a typical product of the third generation of a successful family: the first generation builds, the second consolidates, the third destroys.

No doubt the murder investigation will shed light on his present and past activities. But it seems that with him the Gucci family dynasty has truly died. The business may go on, but its historic Florentine roots have been lost for ever.

The upside: Italian branding, American design (by 32-year-old Tom Ford) and, most importantly, American marketing. In 1985, there were 2,500 outlets worldwide (not including the ones selling fakes), flogging shoes and handbags to everybody who could afford them, typically wideboys, status-dressers and flash trash.

Then fashion whizz Dawn Mello was brought in from New York's lite department store Bergdorf Goodman to refine and update the label's image. By cutting back to an exclusive 300 outlets and cutting down on gaudy detailing, the label now stands for classic but groovy luxury style.

The downside: The Gucci family fortunes are shrouded in mystery. However, the company has grown leaner since 1990, thought to be the year of its worst performance (a loss of 340 billion lire), when it had some 10,000 products on the market.

In 1993, the group is believed to have made a loss of around L200bn, and has since been drastically cutting costs in an effort to return to profit. The company said that in 1994 its 150 trademark shops registered a 25 per cent rise in turnover. It gave nothing else away.

Best-sellers: There is always a waiting list at Gucci for the season's cult item: currently the patent-leather Barbie doll shoe (£145). This season's hottest non-cult item is a mini-rucksack, £295 in suede or £325 in calfskin.

Other must-have items for spring/summer 95: cropped cashmere twin-set, £620; silk organza flowerpot print skirt, £650; red patent flip-flops with horse-bit, £155. Perennially popular are the classic loafer (£170) and watch (£189-£8,400).

Celebrity customers: Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Ava Gardner, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Monica Seles, Mickey Rourke, Sting, Sigourney Weaver, Rajiv Gandhi, Bill Clinton.

Andrew Gumbel and Tamsin Blanchard

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