Today, Gucci, Italy’s top design house, synonymous with quality, Italian ingenuity and grace, is part of a French company that also lays claim to luxury entities like British Alexander McQueen, Spanish Balenciaga, French Saint Laurent, and lifestyle brands like Puma.
But it was once a family business, founded in Florence in 1921 by Guccio Giovanbattista Giacinto Dario Maria Gucci. He was a page at London’s Savoy in its late 19th-century heyday, then apprentice-to-director at Milanese leather goods-maker Franzi, then founder and owner of G. Gucci & Co., a small shop near the Arno river which then advertised itself as specializing in “English travel cases.” Guccio’s creed: family and commitment to the business were to come above all else. To deliver his wildly popular leather luggage he recruited his two eldest sons — a task which his firstborn, fourteen-year-old Aldo Gucci, took to with particular zeal.
By the time he was twenty, Aldo was ready to do business alongside his father. His steadfast, obsessive work ethic outmatched even that of Guccio, whom he pushed to open a store in Rome in 1938, days before the launch of World War II, and in Manhattan in 1953, during the United States’s triumphant emergence from that conflict. The expansion proved successful beyond obstacles and expectation, and when the founding Gucci passed away suddenly in 1953, his first son took over the family business, as well-dressed, ambitious, and hardworking as his father had groomed him to be.
It was at the Rome shop, frequented by stars like Ava Gardner, Joan Crawford, and Clark Gable, that Aldo met his other great passion: in 1956, eighteen-year-old Bruna Paloma walked in and applied for a sales clerk job. She would become his life partner and the mother of his only daughter, Patricia. In the wings was Aldo’s first family, a wife to whom he was married in name only and three adult sons who would ultimately bring about his downfall.
Now, more than two decades after her father’s death, Patricia Gucci has written the story of Gucci’s heyday; the family ties that bound, then lost, the Gucci business; her role as the new face of Gucci in the 1980s; the true lives of both of her parents; and the love that kept them together, allied against scandal, betrayal, and rapidly changing times, from Bruna’s first day in that Roman shop to Aldo’s final breath in a Roman clinic in 1990.
We spoke with her by phone about being the daughter of Aldo and Bruna.
SIGNATURE: You have quite a legacy, one that extends beyond your father’s empire, to a time in Italy where the notions of quality and elegance used to build Gucci were very real things that often transcended class. Do you ever think about your links back to this long-gone world?
PATRICIA GUCCI: Oh gosh, yes, it’s something that I’m very happy I came from. I find it doesn’t continue on the same level at all, it’s a different consumer and media now. Basically style has become homogeneous, not as original, and my father definitely set the tone in that department, he made a global phenomenon. It’s definitely not something I see in these days: looking back, you don’t see that elegance anymore, even the way women would dress to go out and buy groceries. Everyone wants to be extremely comfortable and not worry about aesthetics. I think traveling has changed so much even in the past ten years, too. It’s a Samsonite era; traveling with a beautiful suitcase, you’re lucky if it even arrives. But I think think it’s a good thing to still try and it’s important to make that effort; people do judge you by how you look. My father, when I was around him, I always had to be quite impeccable. He comes from that generation, he was quite impeccable, he would never go out without his suit and tie and that’s an era that is no longer with us.
SIG: The 1980s were a pretty eventful time for you. Boarding school in Switzerland, London and New York City, becoming part of Gucci the company. What was this whirlwind like?
PG: It was an incredible time, I never expected things to evolve as they did when I landed in New York [in the 1980s], but slowly and surely my father reeled me into the company because he wanted me to be near him. I enjoyed it; I dressed up, I met wonderful people — Gucci in those days, too, it was a family company, and I was part of that and it was incredible. Before I knew it my acting situation didn’t evolve the way I wanted it to and then I was going into the business and learning all the time. [My father] was an incredible inspiration, the way he multitasked, and dictated his incredible amounts of letters, his words would flow out so easily and he was always on target with how he had to project his statements.
I started doing the windows. I thought they could use a little shakeup, and he agreed. He would come and point out, This is how you have to lay a wallet and this is how you have to show a bag. Because of course he’d come from a different school, so I would learn that, too. I had my own personal style and it was interesting for the company to have a younger image, and it led to creating the fashion shows with youth and music. The collection was created with more of fashion in mind when I started, now it had many many models and music, so it evolved. I was meeting people from around the world who were happy to meet a younger Gucci. Then I got married and was having a child and my father was going through this major upheaval and then everything was different so fast.
SIG: What was it like to be Aldo’s daughter?
PG: Well, first of all, age-wise, he was a lot older than a father would have been. He was in his 70s and 80s when I was with him and the company. He had a different way of being a father than other, younger fathers. You didn’t interrupt him, and you didn’t answer back, there was a certain respect that was expected. But at the same time I was his daughter so I got away with a lot more than his sons did who were also from a different generation. He was proud of me. When he looked at me when I was doing whatever I was doing, there were these moments I wouldn’t have changed for the world. When I was younger he was always running around, I was always happy when he praised me, it was about being his daughter; I had to learn how be a Gucci. People would watch everything I did as his child and his daughter; there was a fine line I had to learn, how to deal with employees and customers. It was a wonderful learning experience.
SIG: You write that you and your mother knew the real man. What were the difference between how other people saw your father and how you and your mother did?
PG: We had a special little world of our own, we were lucky enough to have that. He relaxed with us, took off his jacket, he joked, he would doze off and watch TV. He loved my mother to dote on him, he loved to be able to finally be taken care of which my mother did so wonderfully. I loved to watch them, seeing my parents have their moment, seeing my mother relaxed and at ease, which wasn’t often, because life was so turbulent. There was so much going on. When I had my daughter, my mother said she had never seen him like that, never irritated, always patient and indulgent. For him to show that side…I’d never seen it even with me. Of course he softened with age and he also realized how important family was at a much later time in his life when he wasn’t going through all these horrible moments. He wanted to be with the people who were were there for him and hadn’t let him down, just to be happy and relaxed. We had this incredible last vacation on a boat and he’d never had a holiday like that. He had so much fun with the simplest things, watching them open the sea urchin, seeing my daughter in the sea, I always wish we had had more chances of those kinds of moments. But then again he couldn’t have created the company he did. He at least got the chance that he had to love being around us. The realizations of life: you hope you don’t have to wait as long as he did to get to that.
SIG: You write that “for mamma and me he was the glue that bound us together.” Can you talk about this?
PG: He was the glue for her more than for me, [she and I] are very different people. My mother was very dependent on him. For my mother, the glue part was him reinforcing or reassuring her, or resolving issues for her. Knowing that he was present in her life was everything for her; she felt she didn’t have tools to survive a life without Aldo Gucci. But at the time he was in her life he was definitely the center of her universe. It kept us together: if my father said, We’re going to have a holiday, we would all get together. But during a normal routine of life, my mother was not always present in my world. But she was always present in his; he wanted her around when she was able to be, to travel together, or just take care of him where they were. When we all came together, it was him that created that scenario. When I became a mother she was around more, but she was definitely catering to his needs. He made the family as a unit more consistent.
SIG: In your book, your mother reads very much as if she’s from another time: she’s vulnerable, strong, enigmatic, and as your father described her, an “exemplary woman.” What has it been like to be her daughter?
PG: She was definitely from another time. I was in her life, but yet I wasn’t in her life, too, because she was in her own world, she was always very anxious and worrying about my father or worrying about her relationship with him. I would wonder, Why can’t you just be happy and enjoy the simple world with me. Looking back now, I realize that we missed out on many opportunities to be a mother and daughter. She is exemplary. She’s very high-moraled, she’s very funny, she’s ironic; I enjoy her now in a way I didn’t before. I grew up, too, and when she finally opened to me because I asked her to — she was always a bit of an enigma — I looked at her as, Wow, you’re incredible and I feel for you and boy do I respect you. Also the dynamic between us has changed, things do evolve.
SIG: You write about your father’s final letter to your mother, which is to you, his “dono divino,” as well; and of his visits with your first daughter. And who knows, maybe there is some way in which his presence was felt by your second daughter who was born shortly after he passed away twenty-six years ago. What are the ways in which Aldo is still in your life?
PA: By writing this book; it’s how I’m trying to keep him in our lives. My middle daughter read the book and said, Now that I’m reading it in such detail and emotion and getting to know Donna Bruna, it’s incredible. I wanted to write the book for a legacy for my daughters to know their grandfather. I wanted them to know him and my mother a little better, and me as well. It’s for the future as well as for the past. And I wanted for my mother to realize how lucky she was to be in his life and how amazing she was and that he couldn’t have done what he did without her. I said, Mother, everyone’s underestimated you on so many levels, you deserve the recognition and for people to understand the significance and the importance of what you did for him.
SIG: The love story between your parents reads as timeless as well. How has he remained in your mother’s life?
PG: All the memories, also talking about him years ago when we started this process, it brought to life in so many ways how amazing the life she had with him was. The last years of his life were such madness and the pain to see him go through [the trial and the loss of the company], and of course when he left this life, in her mind she couldn’t see what the future could be. When I was able to make her open up, she said, My goodness, what a life I had, what a man, I was so lucky. It brought tears to my eyes. And obviously she recognizes that she was a very lucky lady, the good memories remain. Now she says, My goodness, I was so caught up in dilemmas. I missed the beauty around us. He took me to the most beautiful places in the world, and I was always so worried. That’s all he ever did, he was always trying to show beauty to everyone around him, to the family, and of course to the world.