Gucci celebrates its history. Yet the fashion house’s image has been anything but fixed. Over Gucci’s century-long hold on the popular imagination, the Italian luxury empire has undergone a startling number of reinventions and rebirths.
100 years of reinvention
Driving these changes have been powerful personalities. Each differs radically in personal values and fashion philosophies. What unites them is a burning desire to make their mark upon the world. Over 100 years, these figures pushed Gucci to unseen heights of status and prestige.
Gucci’s dramatic transformations rarely resulted from choice. In fact, the fashion house’s most fertile periods have been born of necessity. Several times the brand has teetered toward bankruptcy. And worse, cultural irrelevance.
The decisive acts of those who have redefined Gucci are truly spectacular. What is remarkable is not only that the Italian fashion house has been so flawless in its re-invention. But that it has continued to embody the energies and excitement of the changing times.
The whimsical Gucci of Alessandro Michele
2021 marks Gucci’s 100th birthday. The fashion house’s ARIA and Gucci 100 collections pay tribute to this rich heritage. Gucci, however, has a secret. This past is an imagined one.
The architect of modern Gucci’s playful approach to fashion history is Alessandro Michele. Educated as a costume designer, Michele was born in Rome in 1972. He takes his first name from Italian master painter Alessandro Botticelli. And just this towering visionary of renaissance art championed the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome so too does Michele colourfully draw upon the past.
Under his creative direction, Gucci designs mix fact and fantasy. Michele’s Gucci is defined by beautiful, lyrical, provocative, and intellectual clothing. His whimsically frilly shirts, bold colours, and hippy garments cement Gucci as one of modern fashion’s greatest iconoclasts.
“Sometimes people think that fashion is just a good dress,” he has said. “But it’s not. It’s a bigger reflection of history and social change and very powerful things. If you want to produce something new, especially now, you need more languages… In the end you need to sell, but it’s like a big fresco. And the fresco speaks to everybody.”
A brash disregard for convention
Modern Gucci’s fashion vocabulary is a broad one. The brand’s present designs draw inspiration from pop music, the historical looks of Gucci and other fashion houses, streetwear, religious symbolism, the 1800s, Walt Disney and even works of fantasy worlds such as Alice in Wonderland. Or simply whatever else strikes the design team’s fancy.
Many reference themes of gender, modernity, and progressive ideals. Occasionally in ways that can be challenging. “I want to make things that are unbelievably fabulous or terrible,” Michele says. “I hate cute or nice.”
With a brash disregard for convention, this version of Gucci plays hard and fast with the popular understanding of fashion. Michele’s eclectic postmodern Gucci embraces the controversial idea that fashion can be art just as much as a poem, an opera, or master painting.
His true genius is not only in capturing the public’s attention. But their wallets as well. A 15-billion-dollar fashion empire, the modern Gucci of Allesandro is, like The Beatles, an embodiment of creative and commercial success. In achieving this Michele makes is no distinction between old and new. There are only beautiful things.
Sexy and slinky: Tom Ford’s Gucci
Alessandro Michele joined Gucci as a handbag designer for Tom Ford in 2002. And it is from Tom Ford that modern Gucci owes its larger-than-life approach to design. Ford not only reinvented Gucci in the 1990s. He reignited modern fashion.
Given creative control of a dusty Italian fashion brand, Ford bought sex and a cinematic quality to the fashion world. Rail-thin models and decadent runway events? These were all products of Ford’s influential vision of Gucci in the 1990s.
Beforehand, Gucci was famously associated with Jackie Kennedy and Fellini‘s La Dolce Vita. After assuming the role of Gucci’s creative director in 1995, Ford scandalized the world. His over-the-top shows and bold advertising campaigns were spectacles that demanded attention. His most notorious act was to create a magazine advert depicting a Gucci logo shaven into a ravishing model’s nether regions.
Ford also introduced a controversial colour to the Gucci palate, black. This broke a very longstanding Gucci taboo. When Ford had joined the company it was led by Maurizio Gucci, the grandson of the fashion house’s founder Guccio Gucci.
At this time black clothing designs were instantly rejected. Yet when a nearly bankrupt Maurizio was forced to sell his share in a nearly bankrupt Gucci in 1993, circumstances changed. Amid the chaos, Ford was given unprecedented freedom to explore.
What made Tom Ford’s Gucci unique?
“Nobody was worried about what the product was going to be,” Ford later said. “The business was in such bad shape that nobody really gave the merchandise a thought. I was left with a completely open door.”
Classicism was out. An ultra-glamourous sense of modernism was in. Heels went higher. Skirts shorter. Gucci was no longer a legacy brand. Under Tom Ford, it pushed to the vanguard of modern luxury. Gucci became edgy, sexy, feminine and, most importantly, trendy.
Each new fashion season Ford presented a different Gucci. Collections were built around a select number of hot-ticket items. They were not only connected by visual motifs. Tom Ford wove moods. He created a world customers wanted to be part of.
Ford’s dramatic black designs were complemented by a number of bold risks. These included pink suits for men, G-strings, sensual velvet, and mohair jackets. So stratospheric was Gucci’s rise with Ford as creative director, even Madonna advertised Gucci outfit at the 1995 MTV awards. Gucci runway shoes became red carpet events. Ford became a celebrity himself.
Tom Ford combined art and business
Ford had been inspired by Hollywood films. Now Gucci had become a blockbuster itself. His bold, decadent and controversial vision translated into financial success. The popularity of Ford’s designs transformed a borderline bankrupt Gucci into a $7.5 billion business.
Born and raised in Texas USA, Ford did not separate creativity and commerce. “A fashion designer’s job,” he once told writer Bridget Foley, “is to take a feeling that’s in the air and turn it into something people can buy. To be able to tap into the zeitgeist and figure out what sort of physical thing can be created that people can buy into.”
To this end, Ford’s partnership with implacable businessman Domenico De Sole set an enviable money-making standard for the fashion world to follow. Including Gucci itself, whose current pairing of Alessandro Michelle and CEO Marco Bizzarri mirrors the power coupling of Ford and Del Sole.
Frida Giannini returns Gucci to its Italian roots
Bridging Gucci’s eras of Tom Ford and Alessandro Michele is Frida Giannini. Working with Fendi in the ’90s, Giannini’s handbags became must-have items. This gave Tom Ford no other choice but to offer her a job. One Frida accepted in 2002. She took over as creative director when financial differences led Ford to leave Gucci in 2004.
Giannini had a very different set of values. Foremost amongst them was a love of European history. In the wake of Ford’s zeitgeist embracing Gucci, Giannini made the decision to place emphasis on Gucci’s Italian heritage. Born and educated as a designer in Rome, Frida had strong views on where the fashion house should be located. In a radical move, she relocated Gucci headquarters from London back to Florence.
Frida also championed the Gucci archives. More than a decade before the project began with a single shabby cardboard box. Its contents were a handful of celebrity photos. Throughout the ’90s Gucci had slowly begun to collect items and documents which gave a more complete picture of the company’s history.
Frida Gianna championed Gucci’s archival look
By 2004 the Gucci archives were brimming with hundreds of rediscovered designs. Inevitably many made their way into Giannini’s collections. In 2005 Frida revived Gucci’s Flora design. The long-dormant diamante Gucci canvas print as well as the red-and-green equestrian motif were also resurrected.
Gianna’s Gucci was different. Frida crafted a unique vision. One which drew on her love of ’70s glam rock stars such as David Bowie and childhood idol Madonna. At the same time, she paid homage to Gucci’s own past. She built upon Tom Ford’s minimalism though did away with his reliance on overtly sexual appeal. Lifestyle, cosmetics, and children’s clothing lines took a more prominent place in the Gucci image.
“Inspiration for a designer can come from many different sides and directions,” she once said. “You can be inspired by a place after a trip, or by an exhibition of art, or from music, or from films. You can also be influenced by an age, like the ’60s or ’70s… Of course, there are certain rules you have to operate by in terms of markets, and for summer and for winter. But at the end of the day, you are a person. You put a lot of yourself into the clothes.”
Her bold moves served as the springboard for the current Gucci designs of Alessandro Michele. However, Frida was not around to see the fruit of her efforts. After a dip in Gucci revenue, which some attribute to Frida’s distancing Tom Ford’s risque emphasis on sex, she left the company in 2015.
How Dawn Mello revitalized Gucci Glamour
Frida was not the only woman to play a significant role in Gucci’s story. In 1989, Dawn Mello was brought in to recreate the Gucci image. And, just as importantly, redirect public attention away from the highly publicised Gucci family drama of the 1980s.
These were not the only problems Gucci faced at the time. The rapid expansion of retail stores in the 1980s, alongside a number of poorly thought out American licensing deals, had diminished the brand’s prestige. Gucci was becoming cheap.
Mello sought to transform an old and dull Gucci into a new exciting one. She was not a self-styled creative visionary. In fact, she was very different to later iconoclasts Tom Ford and Allesandro Michele. Mello was an ex-model. One who had worked her way up the executive ranks in New York department stores.
Behind the scenes, she had become renowned. This reputation sprang almost entirely from a single act. Defying expectation Mello had restored New York department store Bergdorf Goodman to its once celebrated reputation for luxury and elegance. Like Gucci, Bergdorf Goodman had slid from prominence as a result of family bickering. This gave Gucci president Maurizio Gucci an idea. Surely, Mello was the perfect pick to revitalize Gucci.
Dawn Mello rebuilt Gucci’s prestige
Maurizio’s instruction to Mello was to reclaim the prestige Gucci enjoyed in the ’60s and 1970s. Mello’s Gucci was to be a model of glamour and exclusivity. The canvas bags and interlocking GG logos which had saturated the 1980s were out. So were sneakers. Mello sought to appeal to the elite New York customer.
Her instincts were impeccable. A back-to-basics approach saw the revival of three of Gucci’s iconic staples. First was the Gucci bamboo-handle handbag, first developed in the 1940s. The second was the gender-neutral hobo handbag design of the 1950s. The third was the Gucci loafer, which had become popular amongst men and women alike in the 1960s.
As someone with fond memories of Gucci’s golden era, Mello worked to promote a greater understanding of the company’s history. To this end, she sent staff scouring thrift stores and flea markets. Their task? To hunt down old Gucci bags and jewellery. Under Mello, Gucci began to build an extensive archive.
Dawn Mello recruits Tom Ford
Gucci’s reputation could not be saved by accessories alone. Vast resources were poured into the design and marketing of Gucci clothing. “It’s hard to create an image with a handbag and a pair of shoes,” she told author Sara Gay Forden. “I convinced Maurizio we needed to have ready-to-wear.”
To rebuild the Gucci image Mello pushed to recruit a large team of talented American designers and marketing executives. To make the most of Gucci’s Italian heritage the company needed modern American thinking. This led to one of Mello’s most critical contributions to Gucci. The hiring of the figure who single-handedly reignited the Gucci mystique, a young Tom Ford, in 1990.
Mello did not remain with Gucci much longer. A bankrupt Maurizio’s was forced to depart the company in 1993. Without her greatest ally, Mello resigned in 1994. Before returning to Bergdorf Goodman Dawn recommend Tom Ford replace her as creative director.
Maurizio Gucci created an interntional Gucci
Maurizio Gucci was the grandson of Gucci founder Guccio Gucci. When he inherited a half share Gucci the fashion house was still “a family business.” The informal way Gucci was run upset Maurizio. Amidst the innovative modern world of ’80s fashion, Gucci was stuck in the past.
The company’s greatest obstacle was the Gucci family itself. In Maurizio’s view, his uncle Aldo Gucci and cousins were managing a million-dollar luxury empire no better than an Italian pizza parlour. What is more, he viewed Aldo’s decision to license a cheaper line of products as tarnishing the Gucci reputation.
Maurizio had a powerful drive to modernize Gucci. One Aldo and his sons did not share. To solve this deadlock Maurizio partnered with a Saudi Arabian investment company. With millions of dollars at his disposal, he sought to force his family to sell their shares in Gucci.
They did not go down without a fight. Court cases and behind-the-scenes bickering abounded. And even turned violent. The media dubbed this frenzy “The Gucci Wars.”
Until they ended. In 1989 Maurizio had won. Luring Paulo Gucci to his side, Maurizio convinced his troubled cousin to sell his three percent share of Gucci. Turning Paulo against father Aldo, Maurizio won a majority vote in company affairs. “I am the new Gucci,” he triumphantly declared.
Maurizio Gucci rejected heritage
Maurizio’s desire to restore Gucci’s status led to many radical moves. His vision for Gucci was a modern and international company. One streamlined across all areas of design, production, marketing, management, and distribution.
Gucci founder Guccio had popularised the myth that his ancestors had made horse saddles for royalty. As a result, many Gucci designs referenced these equestrian roots. To Maurizio, this history was a lie. It was false and unacceptable. Anything resembling horse bridles, whips, saddle straps, horseshoes, and stirrups were out. As was Gucci’s horsebit print.
“We must do away with this noblige about our heritage,” Maurizio said. “People today want facts. They want deeds, not words. In my own family insist we do not carry on as if we came from some sort of kingdom.”
Maurizio had his own idea of what Gucci’s should be. He placed emphasis on classic Gucci designs of the ’60s and 1970s. “Maurizio had a very strong view of what everything should look like,” Tom Ford once told author Sara Gay Forden. “Gucci was round, brown, curved and soft for a woman to touch.”
Maurizio nearly destroyed Gucci
To achieve his modernization of Gucci Maurizio spared no expense. Unfortunately, he had little insight when it came to money. Maurizio’s decisions devastated the company’s finances. Gucci made millions of dollars each year. Yet it cost just as much run. Maurizio’s decision to cease production of Gucci logo canvas bags alone cost Gucci $100 million dollars a year.
Even Gucci could not afford losses on this scale. Maurizio’s far-sighted changes brought the company to the verge of bankruptcy. By 1993 product production was becoming paralyzed.
Maurizio had a privileged childhood and an overly protective father. As a result, he never had to face the hard realities of life. Let alone the business world. Until it was too late. Faced with mounting personal debts he sold his $170 million stake in Gucci in 1993.
The changes he set in place for the company, however, paid off. The ’90s saw Gucci multiply its profits in astounding ways. What Maurizio thought of this we will never know. He was assassinated by former wife Patrizia Gucci in 1995.
Aldo Gucci’s American Dream
Maurizio Gucci was mentored by his uncle Aldo Gucci. As Maurizio clashed with the “old-fashioned” Aldo in the 1980s, a young Aldo bickered with father Guccio Gucci in the 1950s. He had good reason to.
After the Second World War Italy had become a playground for American’s jet-set elite. Amongst the rich and famous were many Hollywood stars. The first stops on their itinerary were Gucci’s stores.
Aldo’s vision was not to wait for these customers to come to him. He championed the idea of bringing Gucci to America. Eventually, he had his way. With brothers Rodolfo and Vasco, Aldo travelled to New York and founded Gucci Shops Inc.
Without his father’s permission. In fact, Guccio strongly objected. This was a risky financial venture. He urged his sons return home. Their actions may even have contributed to a fatal heart attack. One Guccio suffered in 1953. 15 days Aldo opened Gucci’s first American store.
Based in New York’s Savoy Plaza Hotel, Gucci’s American store was an instant success. Aldo’s move led many Americans, especially New Yorkers, to feel a special sense of ownership over the Gucci name. New stores in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Palm Beach followed. A Hollywood boutique opened in 1968. Aldo’s expansion was not only to the US. He took Gucci to Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.
Aldo viewed Gucci as the ultimate status symbol
To Aldo, Gucci was the ultimate status symbol. One not limited to any country. “A status symbol is not born,” he said. “It becomes one when it is accepted by a certain elite. Then everyone becomes eager to buy it.”
Aldo’s views coincided with those of many Americans. Unlike in Europe, it was money that spoke the loudest. Not the privilege of birth.
Even in Italy Aldo had disliked royals visiting Gucci stores. Even future Queen of England Princess Elizabeth. “Royalty never spends money,” he once complained. “And expects you to make a present of anything they fancy.“
As with father Guccio, Aldo was committed to creating quality products. Under his direction, Gucci maintained exacting standards. At every stage of the production process, items showing even a hint of vulgarity or cheapness were thrown out.
Aldo’s desire for quality was not simply focused on individual products. One of his greatest contributions was an overall Gucci look and feel. United by “The Gucci Concept”, products became defined by a sense of harmony between styles and colours.
Aldo also put emphasis on the myth the Guccis were descendants of aristocratic saddle makers. To this end, horse-keeping and stable inspired designs abounded. Double stitching, green webbing, and straps resembling stirrups decorate many of the Aldo-led Gucci’s best-known designs.
Aldo crafted an elegant Gucci image, then went to jail
Aldo, however, never escaped many nasty old Italian habits. He snuck money away from the company. What is more, he was fond of dodging taxes. And even had affairs with Gucci store employees. Aldo’s actions eventually caught up with him. In 1989 he was found guilty of $11 million of US tax fraud and imprisoned.
With Aldo out of the picture, nephew Maurizio Gucci seized control. Aldo’s time as head of the Gucci empire came to an end. His loss was also personal. He had worked for Gucci since age 20. Powerless, Aldo soon retired. He lived out his final months in Palm Beach, Florida until his death in 1990.
Dishwasher Guccio Gucci founded a fashion empire
The Gucci brand takes its name from Guccio Gucci. His vision for Gucci came after travelling to London in 1987. Here the young Italian immigrant spent five years working at London’s prestigious Savoy Hotel. As a dishwasher, bellboy, waiter, and later maître d’, Guccio served Europe’s wealthy elite. As he did, Guccio saw the luxurious appetites of the rich and famous firsthand.
Especially for elegant leather goods. Returning home to Italy in 1902 Guccio joined local leather manufacturer Franzi. Here he learned the secrets of the trade. Leaving in 1921, he founded Gucci. Striking out on his own, Guccio became renowned for his masterfully crafted goods. Foremost amongst these were his travel cases and handbags.
Gucci’s profile quickly rose amongst European and Hollywood elites. As it did, Guccio began to amuse customers with fantastic stories. The linage of his Gucci family, he told them, was traceable to the Medicis. What is more, the Guccis once made saddles for Italian royalty.
Guccio put emphasis on quality
Celebrating this rich history a family crest was even created at great expense. To Guccio, some things were worth more than a dollar value. “Quality,” he enjoyed saying, “is remembered long after price is forgotten.” Putting actions behind his words, Guccio remained committed to Gucci’s reputation for quality in times of hardship.
When wartime material shortages pushed his company to the brink of ruin, he oversaw the introduction of Gucci’s iconic bamboo handle handbag designs. These proved to be one of his enduring contributions to modern fashion. These striking bags became a post-war status symbol for newly emancipated women.
Gucci’s dedication to high-quality luxury goods was very real. His stories were not. There is no record of Guccio ever working at the Savoy Hotel. In truth, the Gucci family is not of noble descent. Nevertheless, Guccio’s tall tales created a reputation for luxury that sold. If his story shows us one thing it is this. Gucci’s flair for reinvention started no sooner than the fashion house had begun.
Final thoughts on Gucci’s iconoclasts
The fact Guccio created so fluid a brand allowed for others to shape its story. Anything could be said of Gucci. Just so long as it satisfied the cravings for luxury and status held by those with money to buy its products. Behind the golden exterior, Gucci’s essence was never fixed.
Even the power of those crafting the Gucci story has been far from permanent. A former hotel dishwasher, Guccio invented himself as a distinguished maker of luxurious leather goods. Not even the Gucci patriarch himself could prevent his son Aldo from Americanizing the family business. Aldo in turn could not keep cousin Maurizio from pursuing a Gucci image very different from his own.
After Maurizio left the company, Tom Ford’s cinematic vision of Gucci captivated millions. It showed the world Gucci could be a vehicle for the fantasies of people other than Guccio’s descendants. Reminded of Gucci’s Italian heritage by Frida Giannini, Alessandro Michele now does likewise.
Today’s Gucci remains every bit as ephemeral. And this is one of the very secrets of its success. Few sum this up as succinctly as Tom Ford. “Fashion is all an illusion,” he once said. “Appearance is illusion. And this moment of beauty is what matters most.”