Gigi Rizzi and the Riviera playboys of ’68

A decade after his death, we look back at the myth and majesty of Gigi Rizzi, Italy’s last playboy, king of Saint-Tropez, and the man who captured the heart of Brigitte Bardot

An aficionado of the good life – clothes, cars, drinks, and beautiful women – Gigi Rizzi was never going to follow into his family’s brick business. Instead, he left Piacenza and gravitated towards Saint-Tropez where, in the mid-1960s, Negroni in hand, he made history as part of a nightlife loving group known as ‘Les Italiens.’

The charming Rizzi seemed to have an orbit all of his own, drawing men and women alike into all night parties resplendent with caviar and champagne. With his linen shirts unbuttoned, necklaces and vintage watches on display, Rizzi would lead from the front. “I was dancing barefoot on tables, always out to win, never worrying about tomorrow,” he once wrote.

Tray of champagne glasses

“They were the most good-looking, suntanned Italian playboys,” socialite Pilar Crespi Robert told Vanity Fair of Rizzi, and his crew which included: Beppe Piroddi; Franco Rapetti, known as The Prince; and Rodolfo Parisi. “They ruled the scene on Capri,” Robert continues.“They were straight. They always had beautiful American girlfriends. Very glamorous. Leather pants, open shirts with chains.”

Black and white photo of Brigitte Bardot
Brigitte Bardot wearing a headscarf

In 1968, Rizzi’s reputation had spread to such a degree that Newsweek named him as one of the notable people of the year, alongside Che Guevara. But it wasn’t just knowing how to have a good time that made Rizzi’s renown, but his courtship of the then most desirable – and famous – woman in the world, Brigitte Bardot, then 44 to Rizzi’s 34. Together, they cut a swathe from villa to villa throughout the Riviera, stopping off at parties and nightclubs in impeccable style – occasionally sporting matching pirate bandanas.

Despite his place in the upper set, ‘piratical’ perhaps best describes Rizzi’s approach to life. “We had to fight against the multimillionaires to conquer,” he once said. “All I had was my face, and that made the challenge even more exciting… we were poisonous.” Without the family history – and coffers – to back him up, Rizzi had to make his own way, had to write his own myth as he went along.

Black and White picture of Gig Rizzi in unbuttoned polo shirt

In a decade of protest and revolution, in his own way, he saw his infiltration of the elite social scene as a form of rebellion. “While French students burned flags and occupied universities in ’68, we were engaged in our own battle against conformity,” he wrote in his memoir, Io, BB, e l’altro ’68.

“I had no Ferrari or Rolls,” he wrote. “I often went by train, and would make my way home as best I could when the money ran out.”

For a while at least, the money flowed. Rizzi opened Milan’s legendary club Number One, an Italian disco in the style of the French Riviera. There, models danced barefoot on the tables and the music blared until 8am. But like a flash of diamonds under the disco lights, the magic was to be short-lived; the club was closed three years after opening, following cocaine being discovered on the premises.

Deciding a change was needed, Rizzi escaped to Argentina in the mid-70s. Life there on his farm was slower, calmer. Probably less glamorous. But, after 20 years, Rizzi felt the pull of his homeland again, returning in 2004 with his Argentinian wife and two children. He died in Saint-Tropez, in 2013.

Gig Rizz and Brigitte Bardot

Today, we remember him for his style, the way he embraced life, and his playboy attitude that helped define the late-60s. We also remember him as part of one of the most famous couples on the planet. His relationship with Bardot may have only lasted three months, but it is clear that some trace of what they had stayed with Rizzi throughout his life.

“Dear Brigitte, I am Gigi and I am writing to you from another world, another city and another life,” he wrote on Bardot’s 70th birthday. “If I look back I see the nights of Saint-Tropez, the confusion of the Esquinade, the magical and endless nights between the Escale and the Papagayo, and that night when we saw each other for the first time. Happy birthday, happy birthday. I still remember where you live, because I was there a long time ago, too, when we were full of joy, we kids with a big dream.”

Want more icons of culture? Here, Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone magazine, turns back the clock…

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