By  on May 17, 2007

FLORENCE — Emilio Pucci was a man of many faces — a womanizer with fine manners, he flew torpedo missions in World War II, traveled the globe and excelled at sports. But, above all, he was a fashion innovator.

And the design house he founded, which is now owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, is recapping 60 years of innovation this year. The festivities begin on Saturday when the late designer's daughter, Laudomia Pucci, co-hosts a dinner at Palazzo Pucci with Delphine Arnault (her father, Bernard, couldn't attend). Guests expected include Kylie Minogue, Elizabeth Hurley, Prince and Princess Michael of Kent and Gilles and Luziah Hennessy.

Pucci-esque beams will rev up the façade of the 14th-century palazzo and guests will be greeted by two installations: one by Gerard Cholot that consists of colorful miniature hot air balloons and the other a re-creation of Pucci's store inside the palace in the Fifties.

On Sunday, at Il Granaiolo, the family's country estate on the Florentine hills designed by Gae Aulenti in the Seventies, a lunch will be served to celebrate the launch of Vivara, Pucci's first fragrance in decades. Though the house would give few details, a jellyfish inspired the translucent bottle and top.

The celebrations come even though the Marchese Emilio Pucci di Barsento never expected to be a designer — but fashion became both a mission and vision for him. Born in Naples in 1914 to Orazio Pucci and Augusta Pavoncelli, Pucci was dubbed the "Prince of Prints" thanks to his vivid graphics, lightweight silks, jerseys and stretch fabrics.

"Pucci started Italian ready-to-wear in 1947, when Italy was living a postwar renaissance based on fashion and film," said Jaqueline Ceresoli, who teaches fashion history at the fashion and design school IED and at Milan's Politecnico. "He represented all the Italian codes that the Americans thrived for: more accessible prices compared to couture, color, quality, innovative fabrics and craftsmanship. Not to mention his noble roots."

Laudomia Pucci painted a similar picture of her father, who died in 1992 at age 78. "The historical period is fundamental for my dad's success," she noted. "No one really talks about the Fifties, but they were the strongest years in Italy from the movies on. They summarize the story of people that had survived the war and lived through anything. They were happy to start up again. It was an explosion of youth, towed by America and its Marshall Plan."Pucci's endless variations on the print theme derived from his many journeys to Bali, India and Africa, where he drew from nature and architecture.

"He loved a woman's body, his inspiration was the architecture of a woman's body," recalled his daughter. "Fittings with him were delirious, because if a shoulder or hem were half a centimeter off, he tore the dress and restarted."

His roster of famous clients certainly knew that. When Marilyn Monroe spied an intricately printed, waist-defining blouse in a store window in Los Angeles, she bought it and wore it braless. The sex symbol counted some 25 Pucci pieces in her personal wardrobe, which fetched more than $500,000 when Christie's auctioned them off in 1999.

Lauren Bacall was photographed in printed sheaths hanging out with Humphrey Bogart and Ernest Hemingway, while Jackie Kennedy ordered a Pucci maternity dress when she was pregnant with John Junior. Jacqueline Susann owned 30 silk jersey dresses, while Princess Irene Galitzine bought 19 Pucci shirts and 21 pairs of slacks.

But if the designer carefully thought out every detail of his collections, his initial foray into fashion was accidental.

An avid skier, in 1947 Pucci designed his own ski ensemble — sleek tapered pants and a hooded parka — that was shot by Harper's Bazaar photographer Toni Frissell in Zermatt, Switzerland. Frissell asked him to design more and the following year the images ran in the magazine. Subsequently, Lord & Taylor commissioned Pucci to design an exclusive ski

collection for the store.

"He started out of necessity. Before the war the family was quite well off, but after the war, they had nothing and my dad was jobless. He lived off his aviator officer salary," said Laudomia.

In 1949, while on military leave in Capri, Pucci noticed his jet-set friends had few apparel choices for the resort. So he came up with an easy fashion mix of brightly colored blouses over matching Capri pants. "His first looks were stiff and sturdy, sort of mannish, because dad knew his closet and military clothes," said Laudomia.

In 1950, the designer opened a store in Capri called La Canzone del Mare ("The sea's song"), where tony tourists could buy his resort-perfect getups: straw hats, pedal pushers and open-toed sandals.In the beginning, Pucci's label was simply "Emilio" out of respect for his aristocratic heritage, since his family would frown on having a fashion designer in its midst. "I am the first member of my family to work in a thousand years," Pucci once told Life magazine.

In 1951, he held his first fashion show in Florence with other Italian designers such as Fabiani, Shubert, Sorelle Fontana and Jole Veneziani. Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Marshall Field's all wrote orders.

In 1954, he introduced the famed silk jersey dress. The designer — who during his lifetime mingled with the likes of Malcolm Forbes, Baron Thyssen, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Prince Charles and Lady Diana and Jackie Kennedy — had found a formula that melded color, sensuality and innovation via languid dresses, sexy swimwear and palazzo pants.

In 1955 and for the next decade, Pucci continued to innovate with prints inspired by the Palio of Siena, Moorish mosaic designs and Africa, and NASA-inspired elasticized materials.

In its glory days in the Sixties, more than 200 workers worked at the company's headquarters inside Palazzo Pucci, while scores of women sewed from home.

But as the Seventies began, Pucci's colorful world started to fade. Fewer women bought the bold, swirling prints and Saks Fifth Avenue dropped the line in 1978. To make matters worse, Milan supplanted Florence as Italy's fashion capital and fashion became more corporate. For a man who called himself an artisanal tailor, chatted with Andy Warhol at parties and was hopeless at putting a price list together, the change was drastic.

"There was a new generation of women. It was after 1968 [the student's revolution in Europe], jeans and [women's] liberation," said Laudomia. "My father understood that period, he had no complex to a strong woman, but the result of that liberated woman was not his woman. He had a problem with anything that didn't exalt a women's femininity. Minimalism, black and power dressing weren't up his alley."

Pucci stayed in Florence and veered toward softer tone-on-tone combinations, beadings and ballgowns with a nod to couture. Upon his death in 1992, Laudomia Pucci rolled up her printed sleeves to make sure her father's brand would prosper. While the brand retained many fans, things remained difficult and, finally, in February 2000, Laudomia Pucci sold 67 percent of the company to LVMH.That wouldn't stop the turmoil, however. In April of that year, Catherine Vautrin, a Louis Vuitton veteran, joined Pucci as chief executive officer and tapped Julio Espada as creative director. He would last two years before being replaced by Christian Lacroix. After several hit-and-miss collections, Lacroix stepped aside when LVMH sold his eponymous house and was replaced by Matthew Williamson in October 2005. Williamson so far has had mixed success and has yet to establish a firm imprint at Pucci. Vautrin left as ceo in March and was replaced by Didier Drouet as general manager.

But while LVMH doesn't break out results for Pucci, the brand is said to be profitable and industry sources estimate it has annual sales of about 60 million euros, or $81.6 million. This is about four times the level of revenues in the year 2000. Pucci currently has 31 stores worldwide. In 2005, Pucci went back to its ski roots with a licensing agreement with Skis Rossignol SA for skiwear and just signed with Marchon for eyewear. Over the past three years, the brand has actively embarked on one-off stints, including special packaging for Veuve Clicquot Champagne, colorful tights with Wolford, an Adidas sneaker, ink pens by Omas and color cosmetics with Guerlain.

Despite having sold a majority of the company, Laudomia Pucci remains involved in the business, from editing color charts to proposing archival prints, from checking out the competition to charting retail growth. And she is optimistic Pucci is on the right path for growth. "The management, which has always been very clear on why we are doing something or why we're not, thinks I have a view and I know the customers," she said.

"I like prints but I like solids," Pucci continued. "What we're doing today, though not clearly understood by the American press, is very clever. We hadn't seen black and white at Pucci for some time, and I think that for spring Matthew did it in a modern way with silver. It's the Pucci DNA brought into today. It's sexy, young, fun and chic."

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