Setting the Retail Stage

Gucci's stores have always been about elegance, exclusivity and service.

From the first shop in Florence to grand

boutiques in New York, Beverly Hills and Milan, the Gucci retail format was always meant to evoke an aspirational world that exuded luxury, glamour and sophistication.

From Guccio Gucci’s tuxedoed salesmen to Aldo and Rodolfo Gucci’s white-gloved porters and lavish packaging, and Tom Ford’s security guards at the door wearing headphones and dressed in black, every detail of this exclusive world has been carefully orchestrated.

“A store is a stage set where you can create something that’s better than reality,” Ford told WWD in February 1998, when Gucci’s creative director unveiled the iconic concept store, conceived with New York architect Bill Sofield.

“The aim is to make the customer think life will be better if she just buys that bag, those shoes or that suit,” said Ford. “No one actually needs another pair of shoes from Gucci, so we have to get people to aspire to them. We wanted the stores to be aspirational, too, and now they finally are.”

In much the same way, in the Sixties and Seventies, Aldo and Rodolfo Gucci went out of their way to present their merchandise with intricately detailed and choreographed windows. They would take the time to personally sell pieces on the floors. “The Guccis used to say that to sell is an art,” recalled Franco Gittardi, a veteran Gucci employee who directed a series of boutiques around the world, including the Chicago and Milan doors. “You should have seen Rodolfo or Aldo hold and show a handbag as if it were a precious jewel.”

So unique were the window displays that, more than once, customers bought the props in them.

“[Fiat’s] Umberto Agnelli bought a yoke from the 1800s that was in one window,” said Gittardi. “On another occasion, in the Sixties, a customer purchased everything we had put in the windows to re-create a jungle.”

He said the first stores were all green carpeting, walnut or oak wood, with crystal and wood displays. From 1975 to 1985, the stores had a Neoclassic style, with rosewood and brass details. Gucci’s former chief, Domenico De Sole, said that when Maurizio Gucci became chairman in 1984, he opted for a more elaborate and conservative format.

This story first appeared in the June 5, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“Tom [Ford] and I thought it was too classic and too dark,” said De Sole, “and it was way too expensive. Maurizio and I had endless discussions about the costs.”

In 1994, once Maurizio Gucci sold his shares to Investcorp and left, De Sole and Ford started making significant changes at the company. Retail was becoming theater, with designer palaces going up around the world. Being financially strapped, they decided to simply repaint.

“We called that the Milanization of the stores,” De Sole explained, making the stores more in line with the style of the city. “We had no money at the time [Gucci was heavily in debt], but we wanted to upgrade the stores, make them more contemporary and more exciting. Our motto was, ‘Everything is done a week ago’ and we had a great sense of urgency. So everything was done in a month. Everybody thought we had refurbished and redone the stores, but we had just painted them a little for more impact.”

In 1998, Ford and De Sole unveiled a retail format that was meant to reflect Gucci’s booming $1 billion business and the brand’s redesigned, modern and sexy image. The first of the new-style boutiques bowed in January 1998 on London’s Sloane Street, with a limestone front and stainless steel doors with G-shape bronze handles. “The idea was to have the sense of a bank vault,” said Ford at the time. Ford had worked on the new store design with Sofield for two years. Other fixtures included steel mesh rugs, columns covered in limestone, travertine marble floors, glass shelves, and glass and stainless steel or dark rosewood cases. The changing rooms featured rosewood, mohair-padded walls and mohair chaise longues designed by Vladimir Kagan. Gucci went on to convert all its stores accordingly.

However, in 2002, Ford wanted to go “less slick,” and refurbished some of Gucci’s main boutiques, including units on New York’s Madison Avenue and in Milan and Paris. In September of that year, Ford told WWD that he wanted to “update that look without obliterating it. The architectural vocabulary we’ve developed for Gucci, which is very long, low and horizontal, is a strong one. I didn’t want to date all of our other stores around the world.”

Ford added a few touches to the design, while maintaining its core elements: dark-striped wood paneling, poured concrete displays and pebbled concrete floors. “At the five-year mark, I looked at our stores and I thought that we had done something potentially iconic,” he said. “If we hang onto it, it will become a modern classic.”

Indeed, Ford’s store concept was so “successful, but…also unbelievably copied,” according to Gucci’s current chief, Mark Lee, who last year started expressing the need “to move on.” In July 2005, Lee told WWD he was developing a new store concept with Sofield, “a state-of-the-art concept conceived for the next 10 years.” Gucci’s directly owned stores currently contribute 77 percent of the brand’s revenues. The first stores of this generation will open later in the year in Asia, in Nagoya, Ginza and Hong Kong (see sidebar). However, last fall, the Milan flagship offered a first glimpse of this format, with a more spacious and lighter center aisle furnished with a white lacquer and steel showcase.