EMILIO PUCCI was fond of saying that he was the first member of his family to work in a thousand years, a claim less exaggerated than it at first sounds.
The Pucci di Barsento are a noble Florentine family with roots so deep and a pedigree so blue- blooded that his ancestors of the early 15th century might with reason have regarded Cosimo de Medici and his heirs as parvenus. By the late 19th century, however, the great days seemed nearly over. Their fortunes had dwindled with extravagance, the vast palazzo was falling down and Emilio Pucci's grandfather was obliged to supplement his income by disposing of furniture and pictures. According to family legend he paid for his honeymoon in America with a Botticelli, having it cut down to fit into his trunk and selling it on arrival to a New York dealer.
Though it is said of Emilio Pucci that he achieved success due to the fortunate accident of his birth, one of his greatest achievements was to succeed in turning this inconvenient aristocratic inheritance to positive contemporary account. He leaves behind a palazzo restored, refurbished and refurnished, a thriving family business and an outstanding reputation as a man who contributed in no small part to the dizzy success of Italy in the post-war decades. He was certainly the most important figure in Italian fashion during the 1950s and the 1960s.
The early part of his upbringing was conventional: the Liceo in Florence, summers at Forte di Marmi, a good part of the autumn in the country watching his father shoot pheasants and cinghiali, then a dilatory year at the University of Milan. Aged 21, however, he travelled to the US, where he studied at two out-of-the-way universities, doing casual jobs to earn a living and pay his tuition. This American phase of his education seems to have helped him discard, while still a young man, the profoundly anti-commercial prejudices of his landowning background. Returning to Italy he studied at the University of Florence, graduating in 1941.
He enlisted in the Italian Air Force during the war, serving as a bomber pilot and achieved the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Charming, handsome, a talented linguist and a good skier, he acquired a reputation as a playboy and socialite. It was on the ski slopes, strangely enough, that his career as a fashion designer really began. In 1948 Harper's Bazaar published photographs of Pucci at Gstaad modelling ski clothes of his own design. He was soon showered with orders from friends. In Capri the following summer he designed hats, shirts and slacks which became the rage amongst a small milieu and he began to be talked of, to his surprise, as the innovator of a new, casual chic, 'resort look'. His comfortable, becoming, vividly coloured clothes had an obvious appeal to a generation that had endured the rigours and drabness of the war and sought an alternative to the rather stuffy formality of the fashions that had preceded it.
In 1950, to the chagrin of his parents, he opened his own couture house and showed at the International Presentation of Italian Fashion in Florence. Soon the atelier occupied the splendid, if dilapidated, piano nobile of Palazzo Pucci, his range became more ambitious and his clients numerous. As a designer his strengths were as a colourist and as an inventive user of materials. He preferred soft, slinky silks and satins, while his favourite colours were always turquoise, acid yellows and almond greens. These were first inspired, he said, by the landscape of Capri and the sea around it.
Pucci's heyday was from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties, when his clothes were ubiquitous and considered the quintessence of style. His trademarks were sexy, narrow-legged slacks and comfortable loose blouses, sometimes nicknamed 'palazzo pyjamas'. In America he was the first Italian designer to achieve a considerable commercial success, winning the Neiman Marcus award in 1954. In these years he was seen everywhere - at parties in Rome and Paris and New York, where he had a Fifth Avenue shop and an apartment. Vogue in 1964 described him as the man who had 'personally invented the look of the moment'.
He once described himself as a man 'with lots of most important interests'. Certainly he did not think of himself as only a clothes designer. He stood for Parliament in 1964 on the Liberal list, and served as a deputy in Rome for nine years. He was also active in the city politics of Florence, leading the Liberal group in Palazzo Vecchio, a bold thing for an aristocrat to do at the time. These were the 'anni caldi' of Italian politics when the Communist Party held the initiative and the establishment was intimidated by the threat of assassination or kidnap. He made good wine on his estates, collected contemporary American painters in New York, commissioned rooms from avant- garde designers such as Gaia Olenti, and preserved through its purchase the Antico Setifico Fiorentino, a small firm in making silk brocade on 17th-century looms.
The beginning of Pucci's political career coincides with the stagnation of the business that made his name. In the 1970s and 1980s, the centre of Italian fashion moved from Florence to Milan, and new names like Versace and Armani emerged. Fashion design became more egalitarian, more metropolitan, more pop-inspired, and from these movements Pucci seemed isolated. The cycle of taste had turned full circle by the last year of his life, to make Pucci once again the epitome of fashion. The 1991 collections of Gianni Versace were little more than reworkings of Pucci ideas of the Sixties. This revival, however, seemed to give him little pleasure. He considered the Puccimania of the 1990s as at best the passing enthusiasm of a generation of designers that had already plundered everything else.
In recent years Emilio Pucci led an increasingly private life, leaving Florence only infrequently and then emerging rarely even from the palazzo. One of his last public appearances was in 1989, to inspect the teams playing calcio storico in Piazza Santa Croce. Astride a black horse, trussed in a velvet jacket, he seemed an immensely elegant and impressive figure, a proud part of a civic culture which he had done much to enrich.
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