Bringing the brand from the brink of ruin to stardom.

1981-2006: Enter the Americans

In 1981, Gucci staged a runway show in the Sala Bianca, a white stuccoed room in Florence, famous for holding fashion presentations.

The clothes were splattered with the Flora print, a pretty and cheerful floral motif, designed for Grace Kelly in 1966. The brand also upped its accessories range with broader theme-based collections.

Fast-forward to 2005. Frida Giannini — Tom Ford’s successor, first in accessories and later in all categories — revived the Flora print from the archives for spring 2005 bags and cruise 2006, generating instant success.

But the span between the first Flora print and the next was a long trek that took the iconic house from the serenity of an English garden path to the perils of the financial jungle.

In 1984, Aldo Gucci, who nurtured the brand’s worldwide expansion, passed the torch to his nephew, Maurizio Gucci, igniting a slew of family squabbles, lawsuits and soap opera back-stabbing worthy of the Medici family. (See related box, page 30).

Also that year, Domenico De Sole was appointed chairman and ceo of Gucci America. De Sole had been an attorney for Rodolpho Gucci (Aldo’s brother and Maurizio’s father).

When Maurizio took control, Gucci was overrun and overexposed, its famous logos splattered on dozens of products and more fit for duty-free shops than tony boutiques in the heart of major international cities.

At the time, Maurizio blamed it on the fact that for decades there were too many Guccis going in too many directions. “What I am trying to do now is undo all the damage that was done, consolidating the company and image,” Maurizio said in the mid-Eighties. Back then, his goal was to return Gucci to the prestigious luxury brand it once was.

In 1989, the Anglo-Arab holding company Investcorp acquired 50 percent of Gucci. That year, as Gucci built a staff, Maurizio lured Dawn Mello, then president of Bergdorf Goodman, who was credited with bringing Italian designers to New York and with revitalizing the image and merchandise of the specialty retailer. Richard Lambertson, who headed up Bergdorf’s accessories department, also joined Gucci, as design director.

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

Mello worked with Lambertson toward restoring the brand’s quality image.

In 1990, Lambertson hired Tom Ford, a Texan who was working for Perry Ellis. (Ford took on more design responsibility when Lambertson left in 1992; Ford was promoted to creative director in 1994.)

Spearheaded by Maurizio Gucci, the trio of Americans revised Gucci’s icons. In an era when backpacks were must-have accessories, Gucci’s suede style with bamboo handle in a rainbows of colors shared the spotlight with Prada’s black nylon number. Lambertson also revised the classic loafer, offering it in slipper-soft suede with metal bit in all colors.

Maurizio’s extensive restructuring plan took longer than expected and costs ballooned by the day. His plan to break even in 1992 didn’t happen. The company’s debt at the time was estimated between $80 million and $100 million. Its bankers were calling for repayment of loans, and the company was on the brink of liquidation.

Maurizio stayed until the end of 1993, when he lost a yearlong battle for control and finally sold his 50 percent stake to Investcorp, giving it full ownership. His duties were taken over by Investcorp point man William Flanz. In 1995, Maurizio was murdered.

Meanwhile, the seeds of the Tom Ford era were being planted. Some observers have said Mello overshadowed Ford because it wasn’t until she left in 1994 to return to Bergdorf’s that his design vision emerged. In February 1994, Ford did Mod with a Beatles-era swing via Nehru jackets, A-line jersey dresses and logos.

In 1994, for cost-cutting reasons, Investcorp relocated the bulk of the offices and staff back to Florence. Of about 45 employees working in Milan, only a small number moved to the Tuscan headquarters.

In 1995, Gucci started trading on the New York Stock exchange. The share price bid rose 22.2 percent on the first day of trading. But what rocked the fashion world was Ford’s fall winter 1995-1996 collection, an editorial feast of velvet hip-huggers, unbuttoned satin blouses and fuzzy mohair coats, topped with metallized patent leather accessories.

The models, led by Amber Valletta, clamored to take the clothes home.

Restocking the store shelves with its hot-selling wares became Gucci’s next challenge.

A year later, Ford sealed his status as designer of the moment with decadent sex goddesses that mixed Seventies nostalgia, Eighties flash and Nineties steam.

In 1995, Domenico De Sole became Gucci Group’s chief executive officer, and the pair would lead the company through a decade of dramatic transformation.

After that, as Ford swayed from hippie to glam diva, from military to disco fever.

And while in the Mello era, Gucci erased such staples as the red-and-green web, the canvas bag and logos in general, Ford catapulted them back into the hip stratosphere.

Pointed stiletto loafers, the red-green-red web sewn onto rolled-up jeans hems, modern renditions in all colors and materials of the Jackie O bag (first worn by Jackie Onassis in 1979) triggered the must-have fever.

In 1996, due to the explosion of Gucci’s fashion in only four seasons, Mark Lee was hired from Jil Sander to be worldwide director of Gucci’s ready-to-wear business and promoted to worldwide merchandise director in June 1997.

To boost growth in Japan, Gucci named Toshiaki Tashiro president of Gucci Japan in March 1997. It opened its first two stores in China, in Beijing and Shanghai.

Gucci Group overall sales in 1998 hit $1.04 billion.

But the shining moment started to dull in 1999 when war of the M&A kind broke out on the continent. Gucci battled a hostile takeover attempt by the French giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and teamed up with Pinault Printemps Redoute, now known as PPR. (See story, page 9).

In September 2001, PPR and LVMH brokered a peace deal ending the bitter takeover struggle.

Between 1999 and 2001, Gucci’s name morphed into Gucci Group when the strategic investment of PPR began focusing on building a portfolio. Gucci started shopping around for other luxury brands that included Bottega Veneta and Sergio Rossi. (See pages 24-28.)

In March 2000, Ford took the creative helm at YSL, while Gucci Group continued on its acquisition spree and bought Boucheron International SA.

PPR bought out nearly all the remaining Gucci shares in 2004, lifting its stake to about 99 percent. That ignited another saga, one that with a melodramatic twist of fate culminated in the exits of De Sole and Ford on April 30. The team that had led the brand to renewed heights of luxury on the international fashion scene could not come to terms on their contracts with PPR, mainly over issues of autonomy in running the business.

As a stunned fashion world absorbed the news, the speculation bulldozer of who would replace Ford was set in motion. Potential candidates included YSL’s Stefano Pilati, Alexander McQueen and Narciso Rodriguez. In February 2004, Ford showed his emotionally charged last show for Gucci. Making a grand exit, the Texan-born designer outdid himself. “I wanted it to be amazing, my best collection ever,” said Ford after the show.

Mark Lee, previously ceo at YSL, was named ceo in October 2004. And while the media were going bonkers trying to solve the “who will replace Tom Ford” riddle, PPR surprised everyone by appointing a foursome: Facchinetti, head of women’s apparel; Frida Giannini, accessories director for men and women; John Ray, men’s wear designer, and Stefano Pilati, creative director for Yves Saint Laurent.

Though all four designers were Ford-trained, they faced the arduous task of walking in his loafers. The only two who succeeded were Pilati, who took the reins at Yves Saint Laurent, and Giannini, who was appointed sole creative director in March 2006, following the Facchinetti and Ray departures.

Meanwhile, after two polar opposite fashion shows for spring and fall 2006 — pretty babes with tomboy spunk first and David Bowie-esque glam rockers next — Giannini has continued to hone her fashion wit.

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