With A Family Like This

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In these days of niche marketing, it is rare to find a story that will be compelling to business leaders, their ladies-who-lunch wives and their fashion-obsessed offspring or so goes the conventional logic. But the saga of the Gucci family, as told in Sara Gay Forden's The House of Gucci (William Morrow, 351 pages), is that rare triple play.

The Gucci saga begins the way many histories of small businesses started before the days of the instant ipo: patriarch builds great business, firstborn scion with big dreams expands, third-generation heirs squabble and run business into ruin. But in la famiglia Gucci, this run-of-the-mill scenario took a turn for the seriously perverse when a son had his father arrested and eventually jailed for tax evasion and an ex-wife had her husband killed.

It is with the murder of Maurizio Gucci, the last family member to run the business, that Forden opens her book, subtitled A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed. When Forden started writing in 1997, the tale seemed perfectly geared to Judith Krantz fans love, jealousy, murder and vulgar displays of wealth. But then LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault last year began buying Gucci stock in what seemed a hostile takeover, and Forden had a business book on her hands. Suddenly the saga of Gucci was a hot topic on the trading floors of London, Milan and New York, as well as the Gucci shops of Sloane Street and Via Monte Napoleone. "The takeover event proved to be the perfect finale because it completed Gucci's evolution from Florentine mom- and-pop shop to a global luxury goods empire," says Forden. "It also proved that the business story is just as full of passion and drama as the family saga."

The opening chapter of House of Gucci would make the Krantz set salivate. It is a gripping description of the day of the murder (click here to read the chapter), as seen through the eyes of the doorman of Maurizio's building in Milan.

But Forden quickly takes us back to 1921, the year Guccio Gucci set up his leather shop in Florence. Guccio, son of a failed hatmaker, had briefly worked at the Savoy Hotel in London and there developed a taste for luxury luggage. His eldest son Aldo started working in the store when he was 20, and it was he who transformed Gucci into a world-famous brand.

Aldo opened Gucci stores around the world and was presiding over the company when the Gucci name entered the vernacular. So powerful was the company's image by the mid-1980s that Wall Street Journal reporters Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray titled their book about tax reform Showdown at Gucci Gulch, referring to a preponderance of the firm's costly loafers in the halls of power in Washington, D.C.

By that time there was another generation eager for a shot at running Gucci. The most logical choice seemed to be Aldo's hard-working and obedient nephew Maurizio. Aldo's son Paolo had his own ideas for the company a less expensive line called Gucci Plus but that was nixed by the family members. Frustrated with the lack of faith in his ideas, Paolo wanted to start his own business a mass-market line called PG Collection that would sell in supermarkets. The family would have none of it, firing him and telling manufacturers that they would blacklist anyone who worked with him. Paolo fought back, wresting control of the company away from Aldo by selling his shares to Maurizio.

Patrizia, Maurizio's wife, had credited herself with being the driving force behind Maurizio. Once he took control of the company, Maurizio began to rely on others for advice. Relations between the couple worsened until he divorced her.

Bad move. By the time she arranged his murder in 1995, Maurizio had lost control of Gucci. He proved to be a hopeless manager and, faced with crushing debts, sold out to Investcorp in 1993. But for all his failings, it was Maurizio who assembled the creative team responsible for Gucci's revival, hiring Dawn Mello, a former president of U.S. retailer Bergdorf Goodman, to be creative director. She in turn hired the designer who made Gucci hot again, Tom Ford.

The name Gucci continues to draw controversy. A great-grandson of Guccio Gucci recently told an Italian newspaper that he's upset over an upcoming Martin Scorsese film about the clan because it is based on a 1987 book by Gerald McKnight and not on interviews with the family. And last month, a court in Amsterdam ruled that the alliance between Gucci and Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, whose friendly offer for the firm saved it from the LVMH takeover bid, be re-examined by a lower court. "In the end it's all about strong personalities and high stakes," says Forden. And Gucci still attracts them.