PrimeTime: Gucci, Glamour and Greed

ByABC News

Feb. 15, 2001 -- Boardroom brawls, executives tossing thousand dollar handbags at each other in fury, boatyard exorcisms, high-speed motorcycle escapes across the Swiss border, a socially ambitious wife, and a hit man who leaves two witnesses to his crime.

It could have been a best-selling novel, although people might not have believed it.

But The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed is a true story based on years of reporting and interviews by author and journalist Sara Gay Forden.

And despite Patrizia Reggiani's 1998 conviction for killing her ex-husband, former Gucci CEO Maurizio Gucci, the saga continues. Next week, Reggiani takes her case to Italy's Supreme Court, where she will be fighting her conviction once again.

A Darker Side

But it wasn't the sensational 1998 murder trial that drew Forden to the Gucci family saga. It was the ill-fated fashion heir Maurizio Gucci himself.

She became enthralled during a 1991 press conference.

"He was so charismatic," she said. "He had a contagious enthusiasm, he was handsome and looked like a movie star. He also had this great mission to bring back the luxury image of his family's business because at the time it was no longer special to have a Gucci handbag. You could get them almost anywhere."

After the press conference, Forden — the Milan bureau chief and business correspondent for Women's Wear Daily — started hearing that everything was going wrong for the struggling company.

Soon, she learned that company woes were usually family woes and the family was notoriously dysfunctional. In terms of high drama in the world of fashion and finance, the Guccis were hard to beat.

A board meeting in New York ended in a fistfight. A family member then stomped through the busy store below nursing a bleeding scrape on his face. In another well-publicized argument, family members threw Gucci handbags at each other and out a window at one of the company's Italian offices. Gardeners found the bags the next morning and called police, suspecting a robbery. Maurizio Gucci and his wife, Patrizia Regianni, once summoned a psychic to clear their newly purchased boat of evil spirits. Another time, Maurizio escaped Italian police by racing to the Swiss border on a motorbike.

Story of an Empire

Guccio Gucci, once a dishwasher, started the Gucci empire in Florence in 1921 along with his wife Aida, who opened their first store in the Tuscan city selling handmade luggage and bags.

But it was their eldest son Aldo, Maurizio's dynamic uncle, who built the brand into an international powerhouse with major snob appeal. Aldo expanded Gucci to major European cities and then to New York and beyond.

At first, Gucci's three sons divided the business among them. But when one of the brothers died, Aldo split the company 50-50 with his youngest brother Rodolfo.

However, Aldo and his three sons resented Rodolfo’s share. They felt Rodolfo, a former silent film actor, hadn't contributed enough to the company's growth.

To remedy the perceived imbalance, Aldo set up a perfume subsidiary, and kept 80 percent of ownership for himself and his three sons in an attempt to hoard profits.

From that point on, family rivalries and the struggle for ultimate power drifted into obscure boardroom maneuvers, legal battles and all-out warfare.

For example, Aldo's son Paolo tried to start his own Gucci brand, but the rest of family rallied against him. Aldo sued his son and threatened to cut off any Gucci supplier who signed on with Paolo.

Seeking revenge, Paolo ratted on his own father for Aldo's decades of tax evasion. Aldo, then in his '80s, ended up in prison.

Eventually Maurizio managed to unify the business, but Forden says he lacked the necessary business savvy to run things.

Patrizia came to feel her husband had changed for the worse after he took control of the company. After a 13-year marriage, they divorced. Patrizia felt she was the one who had made Maurizio a success and deserved a greater share of their assets for herself and their two daughters.

"I pushed him so hard he became president of Gucci," the book quotes Patrizia as saying. "I was social, he didn't like to socialize. I was always out, he was always in the house. I was the representative of Maurizio Gucci, and that was enough. He was like a child, a thing called Gucci that had to be washed and dressed."

Italy's 'Black Widow'

Forden interviewed Patrizia in 1993, just after she had helped her husband bail the company out of trouble, and was struck by Patrizia's "intensity."

"She was a little scary," Forden says. "She called me to her penthouse in Milan to tell me the story of how she helped Maurizio. She told me how she survived a brain tumor and he hadn't come to see her — how wounded she was by that. It was very much a love/hate thing. She is a very complex woman. She seemed to feel that Maurizio had taken everything from her that she had achieved."

Maurizio Gucci, 46, was shot dead March 27, 1995, on the steps of his Milan office.

In November 1998, Patrizia was convicted of taking out a contract to kill her estranged husband. Her four co-defendants — her psychic adviser, the doorman of a seedy hotel, a debt-ridden pizzeria owner and a mechanic — were also convicted the same day.

Patrizia had her sentence reduced from 29 years to 26 years this spring because a psychiatrist diagnosed her as having a "narcissistic personality."

Gucci's New Image

The company only regained success after all the Gucci's lost control of their family business. First it fell to a private investment company and then to public shareholders.

In the past decade, designer Tom Ford has revamped the Gucci image from gentile to sexy.

Ford "used to cringe when he saw the [trademark] bamboo handle handbags and the loafers," said Forden.

"Maurizio's vision was described as beige and round, but he [Ford] said he wanted to make everything square and black. And he has."

If The House of Gucci has any larger message at all, it is probably that even the most successful large family companies can't survive without professional management and outside capital, said Forden.

But, she added, the family's ups and downs have only added to the mystique of the Gucci name.'s Claire Moore contributed to this story.

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