Hitmen and high fashion: The true tale behind House of Gucci

You've seen the film, but that's not the full story. Harry Shukman talks to fashion journalist Sara Gay Forden about the salacious saga that inspired House of Gucci...

In the dark ages of the 1980s, long before celebrities began consciously uncoupling, Maurizio Gucci walked out on his wife. The rising star of the Gucci dynasty told Patrizia he was away on business and never came back. Maurizio sent a friend round two days later to officially give her the heave-ho, then another pal arrived with the optimistic request that Patrizia pack up his clothes and put them in a waiting car. 

Had Maurizio known that his cold shoulder amounted to a declaration of war, he might have considered a gentler course of action. But the Guccis, who are more litigious than the Jarndyces and more internecinally aggressive than Cain, have a reputation for getting their own way. Whatever the cost.

Patrizia went through the roof. She had stayed with Maurizio for 13 years. They shared two daughters. They had married when he was still a coddled boychick, peeping out underneath the wings of his domineering father Rodolfo. To encourage him out of his shell, Patrizia urged him on with the mantra, “the era of Maurizio has begun”. Now she was being abandoned to an uncertain future of alimony. No more red carpet. No more ski chalet. No more yacht. Whenever friends told her about Maurizio’s new lovers, she would go ballistic. 

Then, after nine years in separation limbo, she heard that her estranged husband was getting married to Paola Franchi, a former model, which spelled divorce for Patrizia. What would this mean for her financial situation? She decided it was time to get her own back. 

So she hired a hitman, who shot Maurizio dead. Four bullets, as he was coming into work one morning.

Maurizio’s death closed a chapter in Gucci history — his was the third and last generation of the family to run the company. This November, the whole fiasco will be retold in House of Gucci, a film directed by Ridley Scott, featuring Adam Driver as Maurizio and Lady Gaga as Patrizia, a role that the promo footage suggests she was born to play. It is based on the 2001 book by the same name by Sara Gay Forden, an American fashion journalist whose reporting accounts for every hurled ashtray, every boardroom fistfight, every lawsuit launched by father against son that befell these magnificently awful family.

When we speak, Forden says she has not yet seen House of Gucci, although she is thrilled to see Gaga — a “terrific actor” — portray Patrizia. She consulted on the screenplay and was left with the impression that Scott’s film faithfully depicts the twists and turns of the Gucci business that she describes in her book.

Fashionistas and masters of the universe will find much to interest them in Forden’s narrative of how Gucci became the luxury conglomerate it is today, first with Maurizio’s abortive attempts to seize control from his dysfunctional relatives and streamline the firm in the early nineties, then as the legendary partnership of the designer Tom Ford and the manager Domenico De Sole bottled couture lightning several years later. 

But what captivated me was the exploration into the psychological havoc unleashed on a family that was cursed by the wealth of Crassus and the power of Caesar. Entomologists say successful queen bees achieve royal status because they hatch early and go around the hive killing unborn larvae who could compete with them. Brutal — but they’ve got nothing on the Guccis.

As Forden’s book describes, Gucci began as a Florentine leather goods shop in the early 20th century. It was founded by a man with a name so Italian it could onomatopoeically refer to the sound of two excessively coiffed youngsters yelling obscenities at women from a speeding moped: Guccio Gucci. It was Guccio’s three sons – Aldo, Roldolfo, and Vasco – who transformed the firm into a global powerhouse.

Their bamboo handbags and moccasins were the must-have designer pieces of the 1960s, sported by the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn. Forden tells me those shoes had a “star appeal – you wear them and feel like you’re part of the in-crowd”. It certainly helped that Aldo told reporters a clever white lie that his family were descended from saddle makers to Italian nobility. By the end of the decade, Gucci was selling 84,000 moccasins a year from just ten stores in the US.

There was no separation between family and business, and Guccio encouraged his sons to scheme against each other to make them more competitive. Whenever a grandchild was born, Guccio would say: “Let him smell a piece of leather, for it is the smell of his future.” Sadly this attention was not extended to his own daughter Grimalda. On account of her sex, Guccio did not allow her to inherit any part of the company.

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