Curse of the Gucci family continues to haunt the heirs

 

IT'S the curse of the Gucci family that even when they're dead they make those left behind suffer. That comment on the troubled life and times of the famous Florentine family, whose name is synonymous with fashionable luggage, was offered by Jennifer Gucci, sister-in-law of Patrizia Gucci, the woman arrested yesterday on suspicion of having hired professional killers to murder her ex-husband, Maurizio Gucci, in March 1995.

In its way, that comment provides the key to understanding the bitter, sometimes violent and often public family rows which have kept the affairs of the famous Florentine fashion house in the media limelight for much of the last 20 years. At the centre of the feuding has been one thing - the family fortune, or its divvying-up among the heirs of Guccio Gucci, the man who founded the dynasty in Florence in 1904.

It was while working as a porter at London's Savoy Hotel at the turn of the century that old man Gucci had an inspirational insight. Called on to haul the hotel guests' luggage, he sensed that there might be a future for someone who could make travelling trunks that were smart, yet practical.

On his return to Florence, he set up his own business making the type of trunk that could be easily (well, relatively easily) hauled up and down from horse-drawn coaches and carriages. From those beginnings was born the Gucci fashion house which, despite diversification, remains best known for its designer leather goods, such as shoes and handbags.

From that beginning was born a story of family rivalry, jealousy and greed which culminated in the arrest of Patrizia Gucci.

For more than a decade, Patrizia has been motivated by one obsession, the inheritance due to her and her two daughters from Maurizio Gucci.

Patrizia, nee Reggiani, used to say that the story of her marriage to Maurizio Gucci in October 1972, both aged 24, was "similar to that of the Capulets and Montagues". Maurizio Gucci, grandson of Guccio Gucci, was the only son of Rodolfo Gucci and his father did not want him to marry Patrizia. (Two strands of Gucci lineage survived Guccio Gucci - Rodolfo with just one son, Maurizio, on one side and Aldo, with three sons, Paolo, Giorgio and Roberto, on the other.)

Rodolfo distrusted Patrizia's interest in his boy, suspecting her of being after the family fortunes, notwithstanding the fact that she herself was heiress to a huge fortune from the Reggiani family road haul age business.

On one occasion Rodolfo went so far as to ring up Patrizia's father, Ferdinando Reggiani, to tell him there was no way he would countenance the marriage. Rather than commiserating with Rodolfo, old man Reggiani got offended on behalf of his daughter and decided to take the young Gucci (Maurizio) into his own family home, treating him as a future son-in-law and seeing him through university after Rodolfo had cut off family funds.

In his desperation, Rodolfo Gucci even went to the Cardinal of Milan to invoke his help in stopping the marriage. In the end, Rodolfo had to accept the inevitable and was present for the couple's marriage in October 1972.

For the next 10 years, all was relatively quiet on the Maurizio-Patrizia Gucci front. It was the death of Rodolfo Gucci in 1983 which marked a turning point in Gucci affairs, prompting not only a desperate family feud, but also leading to the break-up of the marriage between Patrizia and Maurizio in 1984.

By the early 1980s, the Supreme Court of Manhattan was being called on to sort out the squabbling between the Gucci cousins, Maurizio and Paolo.

The family feud got very nasty. Maurizio Gucci released documents that testified to systematic income-tax evasion by his cousin's family. He himself was then served with an arrest warrant regarding an allegedly illegal off- shore company opened by him in Panama to buy a luxury yacht. Information about the Panama company had been "leaked" - by guess who?

Remarkably, the company fortunes survived the potentially all destructive family fighting. However, with control of the company continually oscillating (Maurizio's faction at one stage managed 53 per cent of the shares, while cousins Paolo, Giorgio and Roberto at a later stage put together nearly 60 per cent), this was clearly one business that was not going to be kept in the family.

The feuding finally came to an end in 1993 when Maurizio, by then company president, sold off the Gucci holdings to an Anglo-Arab company called Investcorp for a reported $190 million.

It was at this point that Patrizia Gucci re-emerged, announcing in 1994 that she was worried about what might become of the share of the family fortune due to her and her two daughters, Alessandra and Allegra. She also revealed that she was writing an autobiography, making it very clear that her portrayal of the Gucci family would not be a flattering one.

Furthermore, when discussing family affairs, Patrizia continued to refer to Maurizio as "my husband", even though they were divorced and their marriage had ended 10 years earlier. Worse still, she made little secret of her antipathy for Paola Franchi, the woman with whom her ex-husband had been living at the time of his death two years ago. Patrizia would never refer to Paola by name, merely calling her "that woman".

Maurizio Gucci was shot by two killers who had waited for him outside his Milan office on the morning of March 27th, 1995. Police immediately felt the killing had been the work of professional hit men.

The precision of the shooting, the cold-blooded way the killers shot and seriously wounded the office building janitor who had come to Maurizio's aid and the calm way they drove off into the Milan traffic, all argued that the killers had been experienced professionals, probably Mafia hit men.

Initial investigations concentrated on three areas - the recent sale of the Gucci family business, Maurizio Gucci's intention to start a gambling casino in Switzerland and, most fruitfully it seems, his ex-wife.

Investigators believe, via a Neapolitan fortune-teller-cum- "adviser" called Giuseppina Auriema, that Patrizia Gucci hired two killers. They also believe they can prove that Patrizia paid the two men about $350,000 to kill her ex-husband.

When police officers knocked on the door of Patrizia Gucci's central Milan apartment yesterday morning, they asked her if she could guess why they had come to arrest her.

"You've come because of my husband's death," she replied.

Note that she said "husband", not "ex-husband".