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Dysfunctional Dynasty: Style’s Lethally Chic House of Gucci

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sara Gay Forden kicked off her caramel-colored Gucci sling-backs and settled in to talk about her favorite dysfunctional family: the Guccis.

She first became intrigued with Italy’s onetime first family of fashion in 1992 when the house was in disarray, beset by family infighting and reeling from the Gulf War’s devastation of the luxury goods market. Then writing for Women’s Wear Daily, she recalls “all this dirt I was getting” about Gucci in contrast to the rosy picture painted by the company.

The family that is as adept at self-destruction as at designing handsome handbags and signature loafers became the subject of her new book, “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed.” The title notwithstanding, Forden says she resisted pressure from publisher William Morrow to write just a “juicy, gossipy dynasty story.”

She held out for the book she wanted to write, the story of a famous and tragic family and of the rise and fall and rise of the company bearing its name. The book is the first by Forden, a journalist who lives in Italy with her Italian husband, Camillo Franchi Scarselli, and their 4-year-old daughter, Julia. It has been optioned by Warner Bros., which is shopping it around to the networks as the basis for a miniseries.

The most riveting of the Gucci scandals was the 1995 murder of Maurizio Gucci, arranged by his estranged wife Patrizia. But Forden knew she was hooked on the Guccis in 1993, when Patrizia called to tell her she’d arranged a $40-million loan for Maurizio, enabling him to hang on to the company by his fingernails. “She was telling me what a horrible person Maurizio was.” She bailed him out, Forden says, not for love--"she was already going around saying she wanted to see him dead"--but to try to save the company as an inheritance for the couple’s two daughters.

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In the course of the 80 years covered in the book, three generations of Guccis turned a mom-and-pop business into a high-fashion icon, married and divorced numerous times, staged boardroom battles with flying objects, ratted on one another, were jailed for tax evasion and, all told, bungled things so badly that the once-proud label hit bottom before making an extraordinary comeback in the ‘90s.

It was the star-crossed Maurizio, one of four grandsons of founder Guccio Gucci who, having erased Gucci’s “drugstore image” (plastic-coated tote bags), ultimately saved the company by selling it. Wallowing in personal and business debt, in 1993 Maurizio--the only remaining family shareholder--sold out, lock, stock and signature loafers, to Investcorp, an Arab company. For the first time, there were no Guccis at Gucci.

Despite his frailties, Maurizio is the sympathetic character in this drama. But the leading lady is Patrizia, who sits jailed in Milan, sentenced in 1998 to 29 years for plotting her husband’s gangland-style murder.

In happier days, she called him “Mau,” and he called her his “pocket-sized Venus.” A petite brunet who’d set her sights on marrying a rich and famous man, she was, by all descriptions, over the top. Forden says, “People wondered what he saw in her after she took off the eyelashes and stepped down off those high heels.”

Maurizio, by contrast, was to the manner born, schooled as a lawyer, raised in luxury. “More than a gentleman, extremely charming,” Forden says, and at the same time the ultimate “spin master.” His desperate ploys to save Gucci--once famous for its bamboo-handled handbag and Grace Kelly scarf--were largely financial pipe dreams, bolstered by “trust me” promises that increasingly fell on deaf ears.

Their differences aside, Patrizia and Maurizio’s marriage was a happy one for about a dozen years and produced Alessandra, now in her mid-20s and in business school in Lugano, and Allegra, five years younger, who studies law in Milan. Then one day in 1985 Maurizio walked out of their Milan apartment, telling Patrizia he was going to Florence for a few days. Always one to avoid confrontation, he sent a doctor friend the next day to tell Patrizia he wasn’t returning.

Where had things gone wrong? “The answer probably is power,” says Forden. “She wanted to be a real player in the Gucci empire. She was getting more and more pushy. She almost turned into his father,” Rodolfo, who had totally dominated the young Maurizio.

Patrizia, she adds, was a “smart, ambitious, driven woman,” who did not let it go unnoticed that by 1994, when their divorce became final, Maurizio had pocketed $120 million in the sale of his Gucci shares and was living in grand style. Recovering from brain tumor surgery, Patrizia renegotiated the divorce terms, demanding $846,000 a year for herself, a one-time payment of $550,000, lifetime use of her Milan apartment until it was deeded to their daughters and an $850,000 Monte Carlo apartment for her mother.

Still, Forden says, she had a “love hate” relationship with Maurizio. She seethed that he was free to enjoy his luxury yacht Creole, private plane, luxury residences and Ferrari Testarossas after abandoning her and their two young daughters. She wrote vile things about him in her diary and sent him a tape in which she called him a “monster” and vowed not to give him “a minute of peace . . . Maurizio, the inferno for you is yet to come.”

“She became obsessed with him,” says Forden, “and she was afraid of what she was going to lose because of him. In her mind, it was only by eliminating him that, in a way, she could have him back, she could become signora Gucci again.”

The morning of March 27, 1995, Maurizio Gucci, 46, was gunned down outside his Milan office. People speculated that it was a Mafia hit, or revenge for a soured business deal. Forden says, “It just seemed too horrible to be true” that Patrizia could have been involved. But two years later one of the accomplices confessed to a friend, who, desperate for money, informed on him. The plot: Patrizia had paid an unlikely lineup of four losers, including a hotel porter and a pizzeria operator, $375,000 to do the job.

Meanwhile, she had moved herself and her daughters into the elegant 13,000-square-foot apartment where Maurizio had been living with a girlfriend. Forden says, “She was sleeping in his bed and wearing his terry cloth bathrobe. In effect, she had again become Signora Gucci.”

There, on Jan. 31, 1997, she surrendered. When police took her away, she was wearing gobs of gold jewelry, a full-length mink--and carrying a Gucci bag.

Patrizia--dubbed by the Italian media as “the black widow"--still proclaims her innocence. Forden’s three requests to visit her in San Vittore prison were denied by authorities, but the two exchanged letters in which she told Forden details of her marriage.

All the while, the other drama, that of the House of Gucci, had been playing out. Staving off a takeover bid from a group that includes Louis Vuitton, the House of Gucci was able to buy time until along came French billionaire Francois Pinault.

In March 1999, Gucci chairman Domenico De Sole, an Italian-born lawyer brought in almost 20 years earlier in the midst of a family squabble, negotiated a multibillion-dollar deal in which Pinault bought 42% of Gucci, the controlling share. Eight months later, Gucci Group bought Sanofi Beaute’ and its Yves Saint Laurent label from Pinault for $697 million.

In a remarkable coup, Forden writes, “Gucci had gone from narrowly escaping the devouring jaws of [a takeover] to commanding a deal that valued the company at $7.5 billion.” Gucci was back on top.

And, thanks to Tom Ford, the young Texas-born designer brought into the Gucci fold in 1990, the once-staid Gucci label was hot again. Where Maurizio had “wanted everything to be brown and round,” says Forden, Ford “wanted everything to be square and black.” His look--a little flashy, a bit vulgar--"sort of disoriented the traditionalists” but resonated at the cash register. In January, Ford was named creative director for both Gucci and YSL.

Today in Italy, Forden says, the hot fashion tickets are Prada--quirky and minimalist--and Gucci--flashy and sexy. “Sex sells, and it always has.”

So, as the surviving Guccis watch from the sidelines, the House of Gucci endures and prospers. Among those Forden interviewed was the embittered Roberto, who was maneuvered by his cousin Maurizio into selling his Gucci shares and now, in his late 60s, runs a leather goods business in Florence. He told her, “The Guccis were a great family. I ask forgiveness for all their mistakes. Who doesn’t make mistakes?”

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Beverly Beyette can be reached at beverly.beyette@latimes.com.


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