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Dysfunctional Dynasty: Style's Lethally Chic House of Gucci

October 02, 2000|BEVERLY BEYETTE | 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.

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.

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