The Undeniable Legacy of Gucci
The Undeniable Legacy of Gucci
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date April 09, 2018
Some brands just have it. An x-factor that makes them synonymous with luxury for the entire spectrum of customers. From teenagers who aspire to one day wear the brand, to Wall Street execs shelling out thousands for loafers and even celebrities privy to an exclusive tier of luxury, everyone wants a piece. Gucci, founded as a small family-run business in Florence, is one such label—recognizable to even the most entry-level customer, but not overlooked by the seasoned fashion cognoscenti. That wasn’t always the case, though. Since the label’s inception in the early 1920s, Gucci has undergone numerous changes, transforming from a premium leather goods maker to one of the largest—and most recognizable—luxury brands on the planet. Through hardships, corporate mergers and a slew of creative directors, Gucci is now part of an elite group of brands—Louis Vuitton, Hermés, Chanel—that not only boasts billions in sales, but concurrently demand worldwide respect.
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Born in 1891 to a middle-class Florentine family Guccio Gucci—talk about a name—was part of a long line of leather workers. While his father made a living as a craftsman and milliner, he fell on hard times in the mid 1890s, prompting a young Guccio to leave Italy in search of a job. By 1877, Guccio was working at Central London’s prestigious Savoy Hotel as a lift attendant privy to upscale tenants intimate conversations. With leather in his blood—and on his mind—Guccio kept a keen eye on the wealthy patrons’ luggage. Considered a seminal moment in the brands history, Guccio’s time at the hotel had a profound effect. Mesmerized by the intricate details and refined finishing of high-end leather bags, Gucio was inspired to start his own label. At the same time, near constant discussions of polo and racing convinced Guccio that adding an equine touch was necessary in order to succeed in the luxury market.
Over the next two decades, Guccio would continue to baste in luxurious leather travel goods, growing particularly infatuated with British company H.J. Cave & Sons and plotting out how best to enter the industry. In 1921, the House of Gucci was introduced to Florence as a small, family-owned equestrian goods and luggage store on via della Vigna Nuova. For Guccio, it was the culmination of a vision he had since his time in London, but for Gucci the brand, it was only the beginning. Adjacent to the small boutique, Guccio also ran a workshop that employed some of the most skilled craftsmen in Tuscany. In the years that followed, the House of Gucci developed a reputation for its unwavering commitment to quality as the label expanded into handbags, shoes, patterned knitwear and silk.
Through the 1930s—despite a war-ravaged economy—Gucci continued to evolve. The eldest of Guccio’s six children, Aldo (b. 1905) joined the family business in 1933. Aldo’s first mission was to address a glaring need: in the twelve years the company had been doing business, it had lacked an official logo, relying instead on the family’s coat of arms. Inspired by his father’s slightly redundant full name, Aldo designed what is now one of the most instantly recognizable logos in the world: the interlocking double-Gs.
As the Second World War broke out, Italy, under its fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, aligned itself with Nazi Germany. The League of Nations, precursor to the United Nations, imposed strict sanctions and embargoes on Italy prior to the war, which, coupled with material shortages caused by the conflict, made leather increasingly hard to come by. For a leather goods brand like Gucci, it was a dilemma of epic proportions. Rather than fold, though, the company opted to continue to make their products sans leader. Instead, Gucci used a range of textiles sourced from Italy—Jute and hemp canvas became favorites. As the canvas was relatively tame, Gucci developed a special pattern to distinguish itself from competitors. Combining an interlocking diamond all-over print and a grossgrain stripe composed of the Gucci family colors (green and red), the “diamante” pattern was born. Today the diamante is a label hallmark on par with Aldo’s double-G logo.
When the war ended, Gucci resumed manufacturing leather goods, but, thanks to their temporary substitutions sustaining the business, no longer solely relied on animal hide. By the early ‘50s, Gucci transitioned from Florentine mainstay to an Italian power player. In 1938 the set up a ship in Rome, followed by a store on Milan’s prestigious via Montenapoleone (1951) and by 1953, Aldo was in the midst of opening the first international Gucci store in United States. Located at what the Savoy Plaza Hotel, the store was a nod to the London location namesake where Guccio worked a half century prior. A mere two weeks after the store opened its door, Guccio Gucci passed away, leaving the future of the house uncertain.
Despite Guccio’s death, the company continued its momentous rise, with Aldo and his brother Rodolfo taking the reins. While Guccio was the label’s patriarch, Aldo arguably had the biggest impact on turning Gucci into the luxury titan it is today. Apart from the iconic the double-G logo, Aldo is credited for the Horsebit Loafter, a house calling card if there ever was one. While the shoe’s origin is slightly convoluted, with some claiming that Guccio designed a men’s loafer with a snaffle in 1932, it is the 1953 signature that is to this day a core part of any collection. That being said, Guccio’s obsession with adding an equestrian touch to the family’s leather goods had a profound influence on Aldo’s loafer design. Crafted in Gucci’s Florentine atelier, the leather loafer was simple, but, remembering his father’s equine inclinations, Aldo added one small, but important, detail to the loafer: a metallic snaffle bit inspired by a horse’s mouthpiece that gave the shoe added flair.
The rise of the Horsebit loafer coincided with the brand’s efforts to rework the diamante print by incorporating Aldo's double-G. The resulting print—the one familiar to us today—was soon applied to luggage, canvas bags, scarves, and accessories. Parallel to rolling out the new diamante and the Horsebit loafer, Gucci continued to add more stores abroad throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. New boutiques opened in London and Palm Beach, while the New York outpost was relocated to Fifth Avenue. At the same time, fuelled by post-war travel, a booming economy, and its popularity amongst prominent musicians and movie stars, Gucci became a bona fide status symbol. Worn only by those who were affluent enough to travel to Italy or to shop the brand’s flagships in London, New York or Palm Beach, the brand was a signifier of both wealth and taste. The interlocking Gs became commonplace among socialites—from Jackie Kennedy to Sammy Davis Jr.—and solidified Gucci’s status as an international luxury brand on pair with Louis Vuitton and Chanel.
After a decade of continued growth in the ‘70s—during which Gucci opened its first store dedicated solely to clothing—the label’s fortunes took a drastic turn amidst a generational power struggle. The son of Rodolfo, Maurizio Gucci joined the family business in the early seventies, working alongside his uncle Aldo in New York. When Rodolfo died in 1983, Maurizio, who in effect ran the company throughout the ‘70s, was the natural heir, with ties to both Aldo and Rodolfo. After taking control of the company, however, Maurizio fired Aldo, removing the man who had helped shape Gucci’s visual identity over the last fifty years.
Maurizio was not a shrewd businessman or marketing whiz like his father or uncle. In fact, he was downright awful for Gucci and in 1988, with the company floundering under his leadership, Maurizio sold a controlling stake in the brand to Bahraini holding company Investcorp. With Aldo’s children kicked out alongside their faither, Maurizio’s subsequent liquidation of his shares in 1993 meant that the Gucci family was completely divested from the company that bore its name.
Flush with cash, and desperate to turn the fate of the storied Italian house around, Investcorp recruited Dawn Mello, then President of Bergdorf Goodman, as “editor” and designer. Mello brought some of Bergdorf’s best and brightest with her to Gucci, most notably by appointing Richard Lambertson to be the brand’s design director, having previously overseen Bergdorf’s accessories. Mello and Lambertson’s most important decision came in 1990, when the duo hired a young Texan designer named Tom Ford.
While today it would seem commonplace for a designer of Ford’s ilk to join Gucci, it was a drastically different scenario in 1990. Ford, for one, had told a few white lies to get his start in the fashion industry: he would omit the fact that his degree from Parson’s was in architecture and that his stint at Chloé was at the PR firm of the same name, not the French label. Cathy Hardwick, who would eventually give the young Texan his big break in design, could tell he knew nothing about fashion, but hired him anyways. Ford was not the revered designer he is today, but Gucci was not a dream job at the time. “The brand was going through its hardest phase […] the sales were dropping [and] Gucci hardly had a story to tell,” said Ira Solomatina in Sleek. In 1994, Tom Ford was appointed Creative Director because he may have been the only person in fashion who wanted the job.
The reaction to Ford’s debut collection was tepid at best. “I could have sent anything down that runway, [and] there was a moment where nobody was looking at anything I did,” said Ford. But, Ford’s ‘70s-inspired Gucci Fall/Winter 1995 collection would literally come to reshape the fashion landscape. Ford presented (and conceived) menswear and womenswear collections as one, helping to explain looks that were at the time relatively androgynous. Cropped trousers for men were meant to expose bare ankles and showcase a sporty take on the Horsebit loafer, while the womenswear contained a wide array of power suits. Mens’ suits were cut from velour, with strong shoulders and lapels offered alongside satin shirts, silk neckties, and overly ostentatious belts. By all accounts, it marked the dawn of a new era for Gucci. "The next day you could not get into the [brand’s] showroom,” says Ford. The fact that ford went unpunished for breaching contract and stepping out to take a bow after the show is evidence enough of the overwhelming response.
The Gucci by Tom Ford era was tremendously influential, both for the Florentine brand, and for luxury menswear as a whole. From Fall/Winter 1995 through Spring/Summer 1997, Gucci grew at an unprecedented pace under Ford’s guidance, doubling revenues to the tune of $342 million. The tight pants that figured so prominently in Gucci’s Fall/Winter 1995 collection—hip-huggers, they were dubbed—became a staple of menswear in the late nineties and early aughts. The Ford decade, stretching from 1994 until 2004, was punctuated by Gucci’s evolution into a critically-acclaimed “sexy” brand. The Spring/Summer 2001 collection ranks among Ford’s great coups at the Florentine house. Filled with satin shirts, billowing trousers, eclectic prints, and unconventional suiting, it offers a snapshot of the Ford era at Gucci: bad boy luxury, oozing sexuality and challenging the industry’s status quo. Clair Watson, couture director at Doyle New York, an Upper East Side auction house, perfectly understood Ford’s new-found popularity at Gucci. “The early years of this century [were] all about sex in the abstract, and Tom Ford mastered the ‘about to have sex’ look at Gucci,” she said to New York Magazine.
Ford’s strong tailoring and luxurious fabric choices—now definitive of his menswear—were not the only contributing factors to Gucci’s rise. As important, if not more so, were Ford’s partnerships with stylist Carine Roitfeld and photographer Mario Testino, who turned his collections into eye-catching campaigns that channelled Ford’s vision for the brand. It is hardly exaggeration to claim that Ford “ushered in a new ultra-glam age of Gucci,” in his decade in charge—he transformed a brand whose appeal was based on those who wore the brand, into a house that became synonymous with glamor.
By 2004, many expected Ford to continue as creative director, while also taking over for Domenic De Sole as CEO of Gucci Group—at this point GG owned Yves Saint-Laurent, which Ford also designed. The Group had been acquired by French luxury conglomerate PPR —which would later become Kering— and, amid stagnating negotiations, Ford stepped aside in 2004. PPR claimed that Ford was simply asking for too much money, but the designer told WWD that it was more of a power struggle, saying that “money had absolutely nothing to do with it at all. It really was a question of control.” It was a bitter break up that the brand only recently got over. In fact, when the Gucci Museum was inaugurated in 2011, the entire Tom Ford decade was curiously omitted from the various exhibits, something that only changed in 2016, at the urging of current creative director Alessandro Michele, a noted fan of Ford.
Prior to Michele, Gucci lived under the stewardship of designer-CEO power couple Frida Giannini and Patrizio Di Marco. Giannini had joined Gucci from Roman fur purveyor Fendi in 2002 and worked under Ford’s guidance until his departure. In the immediate aftermath, Alessandra Facchinetti oversaw Gucci’s creative direction and John Ray was tasked with directing menswear, but Giannini was quickly tapped to pick up where Ford left off. Giannini took over Gucci’s gender-fusing creative direction without any prior experience in menswear, relying on her womenswear and accessories acumen to land the position. It’s not that the Giannini-led years were bad, per se, but they were varied and unpredictable from season to season. From a consumer standpoint, it was hard to pin down a “Gucci identity” during the decade Giannini led the label.
Apart from Giannini’s inconsistencies, Gucci may have been a victim of their own popularity, with Gucci bootlegs flooding the market and diluting the brand’s value. Between 2003 and 2012, a span that includes Ford, Giannini, and interim creative directors, the brand laid off its use of Aldo Gucci’s double-G logo. In the United Kingdom, that presented a problem: trademarks can be rescinded if they aren’t used frequently enough over a five year span. By 2013, the UK Intellectual Property Office deemed that Gucci’s trademark was limited to soaps and fragrances—where the logo had figured prominently since 2003—allowing companies apart from Gucci to sell clothes and bags bearing the Florentine house’s logo. Considering the abundance of fake goods flooding the market, and the disintegration of the Gucci name, Giannini may have been doomed from the start.
The Giannini era wasn’t without its achievements, though. In 2013, Gucci unveiled a capsule collection with stylish Italian automobile-heir-turned-playboy Lapo Elkann. Lapo’s Wardrobe, as the collection was dubbed, was unveiled to christen Gucci’s debut menswear store on Milan’s via Brera. The partnership with Elkann was a play towards two markets at once. First, he was an heir to the Fiat fortune and symbolic of Italian wealth, class, and a love of classical tailoring. Second,, his [hard-partying ways]9https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2016/09/how-lapo-elkann-rebounded-from-rock-bottom-to-build-his-own-business-empire) and stylish, exuberant outfits made him extremely popular among menswear-inclined internet users. Lapo’s Wardrobe was thus used to seek out customers in both the traditional luxury demographic, and emerging customers that were the future of the industry.
In 2014, with sales stagnating—they dropped 2% over the end of 2013 and early 2014—Giannini and Di Marco were fired. Promises were made for Giannini to stay on through 2015—to ensure that the collections shown in early 2015 had a coherent direction—but that idea unraveled in January 2015, when Giannini suddenly left, leaving Gucci in the lurch a few weeks before the brand’s Fall/Winter 15 collection was to be unveiled at Milan Fashion Week.
In her stead, Gucci asked their accessories designer Alessandro Michele to completely overhauling the collection Giannini had put together. Michele was uniquely qualified to take over at Gucci. While he had worked alongside Giannini at both Fendi and Gucci, he was poached by Ford to work at Gucci and saw the Texan designer as a role model and mentor. Michele, like Ford, sees the 1970s as Gucci’s spiritual halcyon, telling Wallpaper that the brand’s “soul is really that 1970s moment, that jet-set. It’s something that lets you dream.” Michele’s debut collection for Gucci, designed and produced in a matter of five days, was an unequivocal success on par with Ford’s breakthrough exactly twenty years prior.
Michele has pushed Gucci in a direction that is both new and familiar, delving into the brand’s archives in search of textiles, photos and garments to inspire his collections. In the short time that Michele has been at the helm of Gucci, the menswear collections have been centred on an extensive use of colourful prints, retro tailoring, loungewear, and androgyny. Like Ford, Michele chose to show men’s and women together, a comment on both his aesthetic and his reverence for his former mentor.
The collections thus far have been well-received by critics and consumers alike, if a bit repetitive. Industry media have reported whopping increases in Gucci’s sales figures, while Michele’s collections are featured prominently in print and online editorials. Ironically, what’s helped Gucci has been the proliferation of ostentatiously branded goods—akin to the bootlegged versions of which arguably hurt Michele’s predecessor—and a shift towards a new breed of luxury customer. Gucci has introduced a new take on its iconic Horsebit loafer, a fur-lined mule known as the Princetown, while also rolling out a range of products aimed at a decidedly younger clientele: tracksuits, embroidered jackets, and even the Rhyton sneaker.
In Fordian fashion, Michele does not limit himself to Gucci collections, but has also focused on changing the culture and aura around the brand. If anything, Michele has turned Gucci into the populist luxury label. The brand has been commended for stellar digital campaigns—tapping into “meme culture”—that modern equivalent of the iconic Ford-Roitfeld-Testino campaigns, while also drawing attention for its work with legendary Harlem tailor Daniel Day, aka Dapper Dan. Not only the star of Gucci’s latest AW17 campaign, Dapper Dan is also Gucci’s partner inHarlem’s first ever designer boutique, a made-to-measure collaborative endeavour.
All of this—the memes, the Dapper Dan collaboration, the tracksuits, the logo-mania—is representative of Gucci’s new ethos: “faux-real.” It is almost a self-deprecating assessment of its own existence and luxury as a whole: Alessandro Michele’s iteration of the storied Florentine leather goods house is fixated on doing what was once seen as unfathomable or unbecoming of a luxury label. But, above all else, this might be the Gucci’s coming of age moment when it finally comes to grips with pop culture’s view of the brand. For years, Gucci was an aspirational brand—a sign of wealth and social status. Suddenly, with a new visual identity and a commitment to younger customers, Gucci is both wearable and aspirational.
Looking back on the brand’s history—almost a century’s worth—Gucci is a chameleon, adapting to the market to survive and thrive. Perhaps, then, Frida Giannini’s run at Gucci was not such a drastic break from Ford and Michele. Gucci has never had a singular identity: it has been the understated leather accessories purveyor under Guccio, the sexy and risqué menswear pioneer under Ford, the seasonally shape-shifting chic label under Giannini, and the ultra-contemporary king of “faux-real” under Michele. Most importantly, though, Gucci has gone from the verge of bankruptcy and irrelevance under Maurizio Gucci to being Business of Fashion’s Hottest Brand in the span of 25 years. Perhaps Aldo Gucci knew that the label would eventually grow out of what his father envisioned for the brand, with the double-G logo being his way of ensuring that Guccio’s legacy is eternal.