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A fashion label that really is to die for ...

Andrew Gumbel reports from Rome on the latest murderous twist in the fortunes of the Guccis
You'd never guess by looking at their shoes, would you? Those trademark Gucci moccasins look so safe, so conservative, so respectable. Lined up in the shop windows of high-class fashion parades or shown off in the foyer of La Scala, those elegantly finished alligator hides and bamboo-handled handbags are the very expression of comfortable affluence.

And yet it seems the venerable House of Gucci has generated a more troubling product to be remembered by: designer dysfunctionality. Two years ago the last family member to run the business, Maurizio Gucci, was gunned down by a professional hitman at his office in central Milan. Now it appears that the architect of his murder may have been none other than his ex- wife Patrizia, who was carted off to jail last Friday along with an extraordinary oddball crew of alleged accomplices including her personal medium and a hotel porter known for his interest in dabbling in the occult.

This is the kind of tale one expects from New York mafiosi, or maybe the new generation of nouveau riche gangsters in Eastern Europe, but not from one of Italy's best-known dynasties. But then the Guccis have always been a bit different. The rows and family feuds were legendary long before Maurizio met his sticky end, as was the ruthlessness with which rival scions washed their dirty linen in public. One family ex-wife remarked that being married to a Gucci was worse than going to dinner with the Borgias. As recent events have proved, she was not exaggerating.

This is a family whose members have been known to resort to physical violence in company board meetings, and whose internecine struggles ultimately led to the business being sold out to a Bahraini consortium called Investcorp in 1993. 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 Aldo, to the US authorities for tax evasion.

The story of Maurizio's ex-wife and alleged assassin Patrizia Reggiani, nee Martinelli, provides an insight into the decadence and vile emotions that have conspired to smash the Gucci reputation. She is a classic example of the poor girl made good - or, in her case, made rich beyond her wildest dreams - whose 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 transportation magnate called Fernando Reggiani. Patrizia managed to have herself adopted and included in Reggiani's will just before the old man died in 1973 - a manoeuvre 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. By the mid-1980s they had succeeded, scattering Maurizio's cousins to the four corners of the globe and booting chairman Aldo Gucci out of his office without even 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.

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 am I 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 on March 27, 1995, 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. Her first act on hearing the news was to beat a path round to Maurizio's house to ask his fiancee, Paola Franchi, for the return of a sweater belonging to her daughter Alessandra. The two women were seen studiously avoiding each other at the funeral, and have had nothing to do with each other since.

The key to the alleged conspiracy was Patrizia's friendship with a Neapolitan medium called Pina Auriemma, whom she had met years before on the island of Ischia and subsequently helped set up two unsuccessful Gucci shops in Naples. Auriemma, prosecutors say, put her in touch with a Milan hotel porter called Ivano Savioni who in turn introduced her to two underworld types, Orazio Cicala and Benedetto Ceraulo, who allegedly acted as driver and gunman in the attack.

The plot appears to have unravelled in the past few months as the conspirators decided they wanted more money out of Patrizia - the initial fee is believed to have been 600 million lire, or around pounds 250,000 - and she refused to give it to them. Prosecutors say they caught up with the gang as they were plotting another murder, this time of Patrizia herself. It seems Messrs Savioni, Cicala and Ceraulo were not as well-versed in the ways of the Milan underworld as they might have been, and they ended up blabbing much of their story to a police informant. Patrizia denies the charges and claims that although she repeatedly said she wanted her husband dead, the gang acted entirely of its own accord and came to her afterwards to demand money.

Patrizia's reaction to her arrest was stone-cold. "You've come because of my husband's murder, haven't you?" she murmured through the entry-phone to the policemen waiting below. She packed her things in a Gucci suitcase - what else? - and drove off to San Vittore prison in a flamboyant fur coat. "I wouldn't wear that in jail if I were you," the arresting officer advised her. She heeded his advice, and paid him to give her his unassuming trenchcoat instead.

Patrizia once remarked how the Guccis have followed the well-worn pattern of many family dynasties: the first generation builds, the second consolidates, and the third destroys. Sure enough, the company is now in outside hands, and the family is a basket case caught in the full glare of publicity. The Guccis may have been instrumental in their own destruction but one thing is clear from the past few days: Patrizia gave them more than just a helping hand.