Guess who's still feeling flirty at thirty...

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The French brothers who sold denim to the Americans – and the world – are celebrating a big birthday in style, says Rebecca Gonsalves

We've all been on one of those holidays – a two-week break in a place so idyllic that talk of never leaving is only half in jest.

The Marcianos know all about finding that sense of belonging – after visiting Los Angeles in the late Seventies for a family holiday, the four brothers (Georges, Armand, Maurice and Paul) from the South of France decided to make the city their home.

Falling in love with their new environment, and also with the very idea of Americana, the Marcianos decided to put their energy to use, creating a denim brand which combined the glamour of Hollywood with a dash of French chic. And so Guess was born. The name was taken from a billboard advertising slogan "Guess what's in the new Mac?" that they passed frequently on the way to their Olympic Boulevard headquarters.

For four Frenchmen, deciding to create jeans for Americans was a risky venture – akin to selling ice to the Eskimos – but the brothers persisted and in 1981 created the Marilyn jean, a slim-fitting, stonewashed, three-zip ankle style named after one of America's most iconic blondes. Aligning their product with Monroe proved a shrewd move that would presage the long relationship the brand would grow to have with some of the world's most beautiful, and sexy, women.

At first, the Marcianos struggled to find an outlet for their product, largely because of the stonewashed denim – which at that point was still a rarity in the US market – as well as scepticism about French gentlemen making such a symbolically American product.

But after sending a pair of jeans and a handwritten note to selected department stores they received their first order for 24 pairs from Bloomingdales in December 1981, which reportedly flew off the rails. By the close of its first year of business in America, Guess was stocked in all of the major department stores in the country. This was no small feat at a time when the average jeans wearer was a blue-collar American worker, but by offering innovative cuts and washes Guess became one of the pioneers of designer denim.

From relatively humble beginnings with a single stockist, over the past 30 years Guess has grown exponentially to become a lifestyle brand with more than 1,500 stores in 87 countries to date. It's still headed by the Marciano brothers; Paul is chief executive officer and creative director while Maurice is chairman and Armand works for the company, though Georges may be better known for his unsuccessful campaign to become governor of California in 2010.

"When we started Guess," Paul Marciano says, "we knew that we had to follow our instincts and sell what we felt customers wanted. We had the passion and the drive to follow our dreams; however we could not have imagined just how big our company would become. I'm really proud of this level of all that we have achieved. We are proof that if you have a vision and stick to it, dreams do become reality."

And Paul Marciano knows about vision – the youngest brother had control over advertising the brand, which began in 1982, featuring Estelle Lefébure, at that time an unknown French model, as the first "Guess Girl". Since then supermodels Claudia Schiffer, Eva Herzigova, Naomi Campbell and Carla Bruni and actresses Anna Nicole Smith and Drew Barrymore have taken on the role.

Paul Marciano's vision of the glamorous world of Guess that these women would inhabit was so firmly fixed that he had no need of an agency – winning prestigious industry awards for his concepts. Of course the photographers that have been called into action to translate that vision to the page, or billboard, have played no small part in that success, whether they be established talents such as Ellen Von Unwerth, Herb Ritts or the student Daniela Federici, who Marciano found in 1992 to shoot Anna Nicole Smith's campaign.

Of the stellar beauties who have fronted the campaigns Schiffer has had one of the most lasting relationships – she featured in six campaigns between 1989 and 1991 and has now been chosen to star in the brand's 30th anniversary campaign. She recently told Womens Wear Daily: "Guess will always have a soft spot in my heart, and I'm excited that 23 years later we can still work together so successfully. Shooting the campaign was like going back in time. It brought back so many great memories."

Shot by Ellen von Unwerth, the latest campaign celebrates "30 sexy years" – a tagline scrawled in red. The brand has never been afraid to be seen as sexy – drawing on the capital of its campaign's stars with exposed flesh, yes, but also smouldering looks and carefree, playful attitudes.

Jeans may be the most instantly recognisable of Guess's offerings but it is now much more than a denim brand, with 11 separate collections including handbags, footwear, watches and fragrance contributing to an estimated turnover of $2.7bn for the year ending in January 2012. "Of course we dreamed of success," says Paul Marciano. "But never on the scale that we are experiencing now. Guess started with one pair of jeans and is now a global lifestyle brand with complete lines of clothing and accessories for men, women and children. I consider myself lucky to still be able to live my dream after 30 years. The funny thing is that I never tell myself that I have arrived."

To celebrate that continued dream, a capsule collection of 15 pieces is being released – which sees the flower-print jeans that Drew Barrymore and Eva Herzigova modelled in the early Nineties, Herzigova's black and white sleeveless shirt and Schiffer's cropped corset from the late Eighties reissued for the present day. Key campaigns from years gone by adorn lightweight jersey T-shirts while a limited edition T-shirt is embellished with Guess's triangular logo and that celebratory phrase "30 Sexy Years".

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