On March 27, 1995, Sara Gay Forden was preparing to go to work when Maurizio Gucci, head of the Gucci fashion label, was gunned down on the steps outside his office in Italy.
A former fashion journalist, Forden at the time was working as bureau chief for Women’s Wear Daily, which had its headquarters around the corner from where Gucci was murdered.
“Even before going into my office, I went down the street and, at that point, they had already cordoned off the entrance,” says the House of Gucci author, who will be appearing in talks at this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on February 11 and 12.
“There was a mob of paparazzi, police and emergency responders. It was astonishing. Milan was not a city where there was a lot of violence, shootings were not commonplace.”
The involvement of Gucci's wife, Patrizia Reggiani, in his murder may be apparent and well-publicised now, and has made headlines again following the release of the film, House of Gucci, starring Lady Gaga, but at the time, Forden says, “nobody could figure out who had done it”.
Investigators were looking into Gucci's business dealings, thinking his assassination was the result of an agreement or professional relationship gone sour.
“Even though Patrizia had been known to go around and say ‘somebody kill my husband for me’, nobody really took her seriously,” Forden tells The National. “Nobody really believed her. She was basically living as a free woman for two years until finally there was a tipster. That’s how they figured it out.”
While Gucci's tragic fate inspired Forden to chronicle the fashion mogul’s life, she had long been captivated by his ambitious and business-savvy nature, which helped the Gucci brand to rise again.
“One of the reasons I wanted to write a book was because there was this sort of narrative rise, fall and rise again of the Gucci brand,” Forden says. “I was inspired by Maurizio’s effort to turn his family company around, to take it upmarket and make it beautiful and glorious again. Of course, then he loses control of the company and he is shot and his ex-wife is arrested.”
Forden worked closely with members of the Gucci family when writing House of Gucci, specifically Maurizio’s cousins, Roberto and Giorgio, who at one point ran the company in Florence and Rome respectively.
“They were very helpful in terms of reconstructing the early family history and how the family worked together, as well as the development of the brand,” she says. “They felt I had done an accurate and fair account of the family’s history and business history. They felt betrayed by Maurizio and hurt at the loss of the company. They were aghast at the murder and their feeling was, for all the conflict in the family, nothing rose to the level of murder. They were horrified.”
It has been more than two decades since Forden released House of Gucci. Published by Harper Collins in 2000, it received glowing reviews from business publications that Forden held in high regard, including The Economist, Financial Times and Wall Street Journal.
“They were some of the most gratifying,” she says. “They all got that I was trying to weave together the business story and the family saga. When they acknowledged I had achieved that, it was a sign of success.”
The book’s success was far from a certainty. Forden had gone through nine different publishers before landing a deal.
“There was a lot of resistance,” she says. “A lot of the scepticism was that publishers didn’t think readers would be interested in a family and story that was so far from US shores. They did not see Gucci as a big name, and at the time, it wasn’t really a big name.”
When Forden was covering Italian fashion, the brand was considered a “has-been”, she says. Maurizio was instrumental in helping to elevate Gucci’s reputation as a name in high-end fashion, but “it wasn’t until the Tom Ford years that they really hit it out of the park”.
Similar to the book's publication process, the film adaptation of House of Gucci was far from straightforward.
“It was kind of a slow crawl,” she says. “When the book first came out, Martin Scorsese said he was going to do a Gucci movie, and that killed the market for any other director, because nobody was going to do a film to compete with him. He had bought [rights to] an older book. A few years went by and he didn’t do a movie.”
Even when Ridley Scott announced that he was pursuing a Gucci film, Forden’s book was not, at first, prime resource material.
“They were doing their own research,” she says. “A little over 10 years ago, they came and offered me an option for my book as a resource in their development. I didn’t hear much after that but knew they had to test some screenplay writers. They went through several writers and screenplays but it wasn’t really moving forward.”
In 2018, Forden received news that the project had picked up Roberto Bentivegna, a writer who had grown up in Milan and whose mother had worked for Armani for more than three decades.
“He grew up as a kid knowing the fashion world,” Forden says. “He had a great sensibility for the story. I did consult with him on the screenplay. He was very interested in really understanding the narratives and the characters and the dynamics.”
In the end, Forden never experienced that sudden thrill at finding out her book was being adapted into a film, thanks to the slow process. That is until she found out who was starring in it.
“To me, the most exciting moment was in November 2019,” she says. “I’d actually taken the afternoon off and was off the grid. I came back and was checking my emails, and I see this email that said Lady Gaga was going to play Patrizia. I was like ‘Oh, my god’. I never in a million years expected that.
“I had always imagined this story could be a great movie."
See photos from House of Gucci's UK premiere