Gucci at 90: Still hitting the G spot

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Gucci is 90, and to mark its birthday, the luxury label is paying homage to the classic designs that made it great, says Susannah Frankel

Gucci is 90 and, given that the luxury goods industry is rarely backwards in coming forwards where the promotion of a big brand is concerned, if you didn't know about its birthday already, you soon will.

Festivities have so far included a standout women's ready-to-wear collection harking back to spirit of the label in the jet-setting Seventies. That era was all about "Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci", of course, as Sister Sledge and the entire guest list at Studio 54 understood only too well. Then there is the recently unveiled Gucci Fiat 500 to consider – retailing at around $19,000 it's perhaps the ultimate run-around, complete with signature green-red-green go-faster stripe. This week, meanwhile, the Gucci 1921 collection arrives in store, featuring a new trademark – G Gucci 1921 – and drawing on the name's heritage for all its worth. Frida Giannini, Gucci's creative director since 2005, says that "with this special commemorative collection I wanted to pay homage to the icons, craftsmanship and luxury materials for which the house has become renowned since its founding by Guccio Gucci... Each item in the collection tells a story, representing a chapter within the house's narrative history."

With this in mind, 1921's New Jackie and Horsebit Chain handbags more than nod to an eponymous Gucci-loving First Lady at the height of her fame and to Gucci's equestrian roots respectively. The original Gucci green (a little brighter than racing, a little darker than emerald) lines moccasins and loafers. A pair of Gucci loafers has formed a staple part of the wardrobes of men and women of style for decades. They are worn by everyone from the wealthy European frequent flyer who wouldn't be seen in anything but the first class cabin, to the young and too-cool-for-school contingent. Jodie Foster once rode a skateboard in a pair. Then come watches, bangles, wallets and more, all with an emphasis on the fine leather and exotic skin with which Gucci originally made its name, and in all the colours and textures a Gucci-phile could wish for.

Today, and despite the recently rocky economic climate, business is booming here – Gucci's parent company PPR (Pinault, Printemps La Redoute) posted double-digit growth for the label everywhere but Japan in the first quarter of this year. In a recent interview with the fashion trade paper Women's Wear Daily, Giannini said: "After experimenting with fashion's many facets and drawing inspiration from [everything from] David Bowie to Russia, I feel that over the past couple of years I have synthesised, edited and cleaned up my act."

Her secret? An elegance with its roots in the classic bourgeois fashion tradition, most gloriously upheld by Yves Saint Laurent, but with an Italianate sense of sexuality that loosens that up somewhat, makes it more at ease with itself: expressive over and above repressed. Gianinni's signature is indeed steeped in Gucci's own story. "I was so fascinated the first time I visited the archives, which are full of incredible objects, and it's great fun to bring them back to new life."

When the imaginatively named Guccio Gucci, the son of a Florentine craftsman, opened a leather-goods store in his native city in 1921, he could surely not have foreseen that he was laying the foundations for what would go on to become one of the world's most powerful and instantly recognisable luxury brands, one of very few to appeal to all age groups and classes alike. Signore Gucci had worked at the Savoy Hotel in London and was therefore, it is said, well versed in the luggage requirements of European aristocracy, which he duly supplied with travelling paraphernalia including luggage and saddlery, all distinguished by its horse bit and stirrup iconography. As with the majority of Italy's most high-profile luxury goods empires, Gucci was a family-run concern. In the decades that followed, Guccio was joined by his sons Rodolfo, Aldo, Ugo and Vasco, who introduced printed canvas as a low-cost substitute for leather during wartime, the bamboo-handled bag (a version of the same appears in the 1921 collection), the interlocking "G" logo and the aforementioned stripe. In the early Sixties Gucci expanded into clothing and, in 1966, a "flora" print scarf was specially designed for Princess Grace of Monaco.

Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s Gucci expanded across the globe, diversifying and licensing a burgeoning and increasingly accessible range of products. Such ubiquity comes at a price and the label's allure, until then associated with elitism, began to tarnish. In 1983 Rodolfo died and his son Maurizio took over. Gucci was not only over-exposed, it was also beleaguered by family in-fighting and intrigue, and on the verge of bankruptcy, too. Maurizio sold half of the company's shares to a Bahrain-based investment group at the end of that decade and the rest in 1993.

Gucci's spectacular reversal of fortune is, famously, attributed in the first place to Tom Ford, brought into the fold by Gucci creative director Dawn Mello, who employed him to design womenswear in 1990. Five years later, Domenico De Sole took over as CEO and, with Ford as creative front man, set about re-launching the label. De Sole and Ford, dubbed fashion's dream team, bought back any licenses and the latter's openly decadent, sex-fuelled collections and equally suggestive advertising campaigns courtesy of Mario Testino did the rest.

Boot-cut velvet trousers teamed with skinny shirts worn open to the navel looked back to the Seventies and made that era fashionable once more. Later, techno-stretch tailoring and talon heels in gleaming metal saw the birth of a 1980s revival from other people's catwalks down. Crash barriers were erected to contain the crowds at Gucci's Milan shows. Sales figures, meanwhile, were the envy of the industry, so much so that, in 1999, the French powerhouse LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) attempted a hostile takeover of Gucci, only to be pipped to the post by arch rival PPR, which owns the label today.

At the height of their careers and in a blaze of publicity in 2004, Ford and De Sole parted company with Gucci and a year later, following her successful relaunch of the "flora" print on a money-spinning range of bags, Frida Giannini, relatively unknown and who had worked on accessories alongside Ford, stepped into his shoes. If, by her own admission, Giannini took time to adjust, then that is not surprising. At Gucci, Tom Ford was perhaps the ultimate superstar designer and Giannini, conversely, was very much an insider, although a talented one. It is to her credit that she rose to the none-too-easy challenge of multi-tasking that was Ford's blueprint and was swiftly made responsible for menswear, moved into fragrance and oversees advertising. Under her watchful gaze, the company continues to flourish.

As for the birthday... Celebrations are due to culminate in the mother of all parties to be held in Florence (where else?) in the autumn of this year. Everyone who's anyone will doubtless be there, acknowledging both the longevity and ongoing success of this, one of designer fashion's most famous names.

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