By Wendy Holden
When Patricia Gucci, granddaughter of the fashion-house founder, was ten, her mother finally told her the truth about why they lived in England, separated from her father in Italy.
‘People are often surprised to hear that, despite having Italian parents, I think of myself as fundamentally British,’ says Patricia Gucci. ‘But I was born in London and spent my childhood in Berkshire. All my education has been in English – my first language – and some of my happiest memories are of my friends from boarding school and my Geordie nanny.’
Although she now lives in Switzerland, and also spends time in Italy and Southern California, Patricia, 54, frequently comes to the UK. It was on a recent visit that she told me about her early life, which she describes in her book In the Name of Gucci, published in 12 countries – though, ironically, not in Britain.
‘I think people assume the book is about fashion when it’s not at all,’ she says. ‘A little-known fact in the book, for example, is that my grandfather had his eureka moment for the business while working at The Savoy hotel in the late 1800s.’
As a boy, Guccio Gucci – the company’s founder – had travelled from Florence to London in search of work. He found employment as a page at The Savoy, where he admired the beautifully crafted trunks and travel cases belonging to the hotel’s illustrious guests, including European nobility and wealthy American tourists. ‘One day,’ he decided, ‘luggage like this will bear my name.’
In 1921 his dream came true and he opened a shop in Florence specialising in leather goods of the highest quality, some of it sourced from a company in Walsall which made saddles for the British royals. He created the Gucci crest, featuring a porter in livery holding bags (a nod to his years at The Savoy), which also gave the impression of noble descent.
Britain continued to feature prominently in the evolution of Gucci as a business, but also as a family. Patricia’s father, Guccio’s son Aldo, was married in Shropshire to Olwen Price. The couple had three sons who were raised to speak English at home in Italy. Aldo, who was the eldest of three brothers, ultimately became responsible for turning his father’s small leather-goods store into the world-renowned powerhouse label it became.
‘Aldo was a formidable character. Without his vision, Gucci would almost certainly have remained a single-store entity in the back streets of Florence,’ Patricia says.
Everything changed for him when he fell for Bruna Palombo, an enchanting 18-year-old Italian who worked in his Rome store. Despite being engaged to another, she eventually succumbed to Aldo’s declarations of undying love. A few years later when she became pregnant, Aldo arranged for Bruna – who spoke no English – to move to London to see out the rest of her term in secret.
Described as ‘a gripping family drama and never-before-told love story’, In the Name of Gucci tells how Patricia’s birth could have spelled ruination for both her parents in the Catholic Italy of the 1960s.
Living first in Knightsbridge, then Hendon, and finally in the countryside near Windsor, Patricia saw her father once a month when he blew into her life fresh from another transatlantic flight like an exotic bird. ‘I adored him, of course, but I had no idea why he was gone all the time. Mamma suffered emotionally for being abandoned in a foreign land and we both lived for his visits, but it wasn’t easy.’
As Bruna withdrew deeper and deeper into depression and loneliness to become what her young daughter described as ‘sad Mummy’, Patricia was saved by her Geordie nanny Maureen, who taught her to read and took her on fun outings in London. ‘I loved Maureen. She called me poppet and I was heartbroken when she left us. It wasn’t long after that, though, that my mother gave my father an ultimatum and he moved us back to Rome where she could at least be with friends and family.’
Patricia was only ten years old when she was taken out of the primary school she loved and moved to Italy. ‘It was then that Mamma told me: ‘Papà has a wife and three sons, who are all much older than you and married with children of their own.’
With his 46-year marriage to Olwen existing in name only, Aldo finally introduced his young daughter to his middle-aged sons in the hope that they’d embrace her as one of their own. ‘My mother warned that they might resent me and, while they were polite enough in front of Papà, her warning came true. I never really felt that I was part of the family.’
Determined to make her own way in the world and have little to do with the business she felt no great connection to, Patricia moved to New York and enrolled in drama school. However, she was soon drawn back into the company fold by Aldo, who encouraged her to learn the ropes. Before long Patricia was Gucci’s rising star, with advertising campaigns created around her and an ambassadorial role in which she mingled with moguls and movie stars at Gucci events around the world.
Aged 19, she was the first woman in the family to take a seat on the board, becoming a most-trusted ally to her 77-year-old father – to the chagrin of her brothers and her ambitious cousin Maurizio.
With the vision for the company’s future being pulled in many different directions, family relationships floundered: ‘My father’s relationship with my brothers deteriorated.’ Patricia could only watch helplessly when, at the age of 81, Aldo was jailed for a year and a day for tax evasion in the US. After several bitter boardroom battles, her cousin Maurizio briefly held the reins and very nearly ran the company into the ground before being shot dead in 1995 in Milan by hitmen hired by his aggrieved ex-wife.
Patricia and her mother Bruna visited Aldo in his Florida jail during his incarceration. The harrowing experience brought their little family unit closer than it had ever been. ‘When my father was diagnosed with incurable cancer soon afterwards, he realised that all he had left was my mother and me.’ With no fight left in him and after a series of betrayals from his sons, Aldo reluctantly agreed to the sale of the family business and in 1989 it passed into the hands of an Arab investment group. Patricia was the only family member present when he signed the papers.
Close to the end, Aldo summoned his sons to his deathbed, with Patricia and Bruna at his side. ‘Having listened to their platitudes, he told them, ‘My time in hospital – like my time in prison – has given me plenty of time to think.’ Then he said nothing more. The finality of his silence was chilling,’ Patricia says.
Aldo died in 1990, aged 84. After his funeral – where Bruna and Patricia sat on opposite sides of the aisle from his wife Olwen and the rest of the family – his will was read, revealing that he’d made his only daughter his ‘sole and universal heir’. This was, Patricia says, a decision that would estrange her from her brothers for ever.
Patricia has been married twice and has three daughters. It took her many years and a great deal of soul-searching to come to terms with her past. A ten-year gagging order reportedly imposed by Gucci’s new owners initially prevented her from saying anything about the events leading up to the company’s sale and her life had since taken a new course. When Patricia finally decided to write the book she realised there was much she didn’t know about her parents’ lives, so she sought to fill the gaps. It was then that her mother produced a Gucci pouch full of love letters Aldo had written while courting her.
‘Until that moment, my mother had never wanted to talk about the past; she said the memories were too painful.’ For Patricia, the time had come to cement her father’s legacy and pay tribute to the man responsible for making Gucci the success it has become, synonymous with luxury, and sparking the ‘made in Italy’ phenomenon globally.
Patricia’s mother had one last letter to give to her only daughter: the one Aldo had written just before he died, in which he proclaimed his dedication to the woman who’d been his ‘faithful life companion for more than 30 years’. Poignantly for Patricia, who grew up with a father who rarely expressed affection, Aldo added, in his frail handwriting, ‘Twenty-six years ago, you gave me a daughter, our Patricia. What a divine gift. She could not be more beautiful because she inherited your qualities.’
‘I received this loving message from beyond the grave, 25 years after my father’s death. Along with the other letters, it provided precious insight into the man who had hitherto been an enigma to me. My mother and I had come full circle and, as usual, Aldo Gucci had the last word.’
– In the Name of Gucci: A Memoir by Patricia Gucci is published by Crown Archetype and is available from Amazon and other online retailers