The Three Muses of Italy

06 April, 2017

Fashion historian Laura Helms returned to our library for another look at modern culture through fashion, revisiting the histories of Italy’s three most-iconic fashion houses: Gucci, Pucci, Fendi.

What makes these three brands so special?

There's a lot of Italian brands that are very famous right now, who've been famous for the last 30 years, like Versace. But Gucci, Pucci, and Fendi started much earlier, in the '20s and ’40s. They brought to light Italian craftsmanship, and also the sort of hedonistic and more casual lifestyle of Italy, and made it this very attractive thing that people worldwide wanted to buy into, by purchasing these items of clothing.

How did Gucci get its start?

It was founded in 1921 by Guccio Gucci. He was born in Florence in 1881, but in 1897 he moved to London and when he was quite young, he started working at the Savoy Hotel. It's sort of unclear exactly what he was doing, whether he was a bellhop, or a waiter, page. But, in his role, he would have come into contact with all of the very expensive handmade leather trunks that all of the very rich royals coming to the hotel were using. He was very interested in them. When he returned to Florence in 1901, he got married and had children, then started working with a firm called Fronzie, a Florentine leather goods company, learning how to pick different hides and how to tan them. He became the head of their tannery in Rome. But, his wife wasn't into Rome. So, he ended up moving back to Florence to start his own firm. He took everything he'd learned at Fronzie, how to take really cheap hides and make them look really expensive, and combined it with the tailoring of luggage that he'd seen in London. In the company’s first ad, it says “in the English style of bags.” He brought that all together using cheap, imported hides, and then made them look really expensive and amazing, and built quite a large following just in Florence among the local aristocrats, which continued for a while.

And it took off from there?

Actually, in 1935, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, and there were sanctions put on Italy, and he could no longer get those cheap hides from Germany. So, the only hides he could get in Florence were very expensive. He had to make use of other, cheaper goods. This is when they started using very expensive hides just for trim, and found cheaper things like hemp and linen and jute. This is how their most iconic suitcase, which has become one of their best sellers ever, was actually created out of necessity. They only could afford so much leather, and it had to be that way.

Founder Guccio Gucci
Guccio Gucci and his son Adolfo in front of their shop in Florence

Gucci was very smart about cultivating his clientele, wasn’t he?

He was kind of a branding mastermind before we talked about people like that. He really believed in expanding the business. In 1938, he expanded to Rome in the Via Condotti. He really believed in it, and he chose the space. It was sort of a not-that-cool-and-interesting space yet, but it was near to where Mussolini had just built Cinecittà, the film town. All of the actors and actresses started coming there. They were all photographed going into Gucci, buying the suitcases. It became the thing that everyone wanted.

Can you tell us a little about the origins of Gucci’s equestrian motifs?

In the ’20s, they’d already started using some of the motifs of horse riding, because their aristocratic clientele in Florence were very fancy, and they liked to ride horses around the countryside. His son Aldo realized that this was something that people really latched on to: the green and red stripe from the girth straps, the horse bit. They did this for 50 years in crocodile, alligator, evolving the same kind of suitcases and trunks. That's what they were really known for. They weren't necessarily the sexiest brand for a very long time, but they were really beautiful, expensive goods that everyone wanted. If you were a beautiful, well-dressed, upper middle-class woman, you would want one of their bags, and aspire to have one of their bags.

After the war, how did things change for Gucci?

Directly after the war, Rome was flooded with American GIs who had lots of money to spend in dollars, and who wanted to bring things back to America. So, they went to Gucci, and they bought whatever they could find, like small keyfobs, to fit in their suitcases, and brought them back. They were bringing those back, as well as stories about what Rome was like. A lot of how what we now think of Rome in the ’50s, La Dolce Vita, was this sort of idea that American GIs and the first American tourists after the war were reacting to. After the deprivation and sorrow of the war, they were coming to Rome and seeing magic, and beautiful women, beautiful men in the sun, and being like, "Oh my God, this is amazing." Aldo Gucci saw this. His father wasn’t into it at all. So, Aldo went behind his back, went to New York, signed the lease on a space in the Savoy Plaza Hotel, across the street from Bergdorf, on 58th and 5th, then came home and told his father. There was a big fight, but gradually they worked it out, luckily, because Guccio then died. Ten months later, in November of ’53, they opened this store. They were almost immediately very successful, because of the high quality of the goods, and the celebrity clientele.

How did some of the other iconic Gucci pieces — like the bamboo handle or the scarf — come about?

Very early on, they evolved other key motifs. One of them was the bamboo handle, which was a very cheap material. In 1947, they finally figured out a way to bend it, and make it into a handle. In ’66, Princess Grace of Monaco came into the Milan store, and Rodolfo Gucci was working and taking care of her. She was buying things. Then he said he wanted to give her something. She was like, "No, no I don't need anything." He kept insisting. She was finally like, "Oh, I'd like a floral scarf." He realized they didn't have any floral scarves. So, he immediately afterwards called up an illustrator who designed it. It has, I think, 49 different types of flowers, and insects on it. It's incredibly, beautiful, very intricately done. It became iconic almost immediately. They sent it to her. They included it in ’69 is when they first introduced clothing. Before that, it was just leather goods.

Liz Taylor with Gucci’s iconic bamboo-handled bag
Leather trunks and bags by Gucci

But people didn’t necessarily flock to the clothes at first?

At that point, it really wasn't about the design. It wasn't like you were going to Balenciaga and getting a gown, a properly cut silhouette. Gucci'd realized, people want us because it's Gucci. People know the horse bit, they know the double-G logo, so we're gonna just go with it. So the design was like prefunctory to the overall motif of getting across the fact that you were wearing Gucci. It was really the start of logo mania.. It was a brash sort of take on fashion. They didn't hire someone who was famous to be the creative director or anything like that. They just went straightforward with: we're going logos, we're going this way. Which changed the scope of their business significantly...

At the same time, Aldo and his brothers decided to really push for a lot of licensing deals. That's really where Gucci went, in the '70s and '80s. They were making tons of money themselves in all of their stores, which were opening across America. They opened Rodeo Drive in ’69, in Palm Beach when Aldo moved there in the ’70s. At the same time, they were like, "Okay, here. You can do our watches, and here, you can do our sunglasses," and etcetera, and just building on it.

But the passion for Gucci eventuall waned, didn’t it?

By the ‘80s, it had lost a lot of its appeal. In the late '70s, there was a moment when all these very different people were wearing Gucci. Guys going to Studio 54 were wearing it. Rich bachelors in Palm Beach were wearing the loafers. In the early ’80s, a lot of hip-hop artists were wearing it. But, none of them were particularly fashionable people. They were all sort of like specific groups. The more that those specific groups grabbed onto Gucci, the less it became important to fashion. It sort of disappeared completely from the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. The interesting thing about a lot of these three brands (Gucci, Pucci, and Fendi), is they all went through that same kind of a fallout period, where they couldn't get photographed by Vogue for anything. It's kind of interesting that they all were able to come back, because a lot can't.

What do you think was the problem?

They were really boring! I think it's just like housewives in middle America or Florence. It wasn't innovative. They were just going over and over the same things. But, in the late ’80s, at the same time, stylists and very fashionable people started rediscovering the older Gucci pieces in markets and flea markets, and started buying them. So, by ’90, Vogue featured it. They hadn't modernized anything, and the article’s mostly about going out and buying vintage, but talking about the stuff that's available in the store, which was basically just copying things they had made forever. There was nothing innovative, but talking about it like it was fashionable again because it was almost so unfashionable.

The famous floral scarf designed to please Grace Kelly
Vintage ’80s advertising from Gucci

And there were also internal struggles, right?

I'm not gonna get into it, but there was a lot of familial drama in the ’80s and ’90s, and murder in ’95. There's a book called The House of Gucci, so if you ever want to read a full soap-opera about it, that's what I recommend. It's a lot. It ended with Mauritzio, who is Rodolfo's son, kicking Aldo out in ’83. But then he did such a bad job running it, that by ’88, he sold it to Investcorp, which realized that this was a total flailing company. So, in ’89 they brought in Dawn Mello of Bergdorf Goodman. When she started, there were 20,000 different items with the Gucci label on them, and she cut it down to 5,000. She just slaughtered every licensing deal. She also brought on Tom Ford to do a ready-to-wear line.

And Tom Ford was a revelation (and a revolution) for them...

In ’94, he was promoted to creative director. His first collection for spring/summer ’95 was kind of a wash. Then he realized he was gonna lose his job probably, so he really had nothing to lose, so why not go out with a bang? I mean, in the end, he kind of changed fashion forever. His autumn/winter ’95 collection is one of the most iconic fashion collections I know of. He was harking back to the very hedonistic movement of the ’70s and amping it up with the huggers and the big Gucci belts, and the big horse-bit belt. He just mixed it up amazingly.

Tom Ford reinvented Gucci by giving it a sexy twist
Gwyneth Paltrow in Gucci
Speaker Laura Helms, presenting the same Gucci suit worn by Gwyneth Paltrow at left

So he broke with their tradition… and what was the result on the business?

From ’95 to ’96, Gucci's sales went up 90%. Madonna wore it, Gwyneth wore it. It was what you wanted to be. The Gucci workmanship was always there, but while it was very ’70s, he was really modernizing it, this sort of aggressive attitude of his models and the cut. It really turned Gucci around, and obviously made Tom Ford’s career. He was there until 2004 when the company changed hands. He completely obliterated anyone's memories of Gucci; people don't even think of Gucci as that really uncool thing anymore, you know? In the last 20 years, since the ’95 collection, Gucci has been this very sexed up, very glamorous collection that everyone waits for. It's what you want to see at the end of Milan during fashion week.

What do you think of Gucci’s design aesthetic now?

Frida Gianinni was there until January ’15, when Alessandro Michele took over. Alessandro had actually been at Gucci since ’02. He's definitely used a lot of the Gucci motifs throughout his work, but just sort of played with them. He took the animals and flowers from flora, and reinterpreted them in different ways. With his work, it's like a constant interplay of the Gucci archives, because he has such a great understanding of them being there since ’02, but also just having fun with it. It's a little less sexed up than, I think, either Tom or Frida, but I think it's definitely caught the zeitgeist.

And the business today?

It's the most profitable Italian company now, which is crazy if you think about the fact that they almost went out of business in the ’80s. Having done a lot of studies of brands, it's so rare to see one have that big of a turnaround. Also, they've really created this idea of luxury. They were one of the first brands to really take it from just leather goods into ready-to-wear. They were able to transcend that in a way that a lot of other brands haven't been able to. Interestingly, Alessandro Michele actually started his career before Gucci at Fendi.

Pucci (left) and Gucci (right) goodness

Let’s talk about Fendi.

Fendi was founded in 1925 by Edoardo and Adele Fendi in Rome, with just leather goods and furs. They're mostly known for their furs still. They had five daughters: Anna, Carla, Franka, Alda, and Paula. When the daughters all got involved, they really were the sort of the powershouses behind Fendi's growth. Each of them had, amazingly, had different talents, and took over different parts of the business. One was very into dying techniques. Another was into financial reports. So, the family started pushing to expand, and do different things. What they were really interested in was doing fur differently than everybody else. Fur's always been this status symbol, and it's been more about the fact that you're wearing a fur, especially in the mid-20th century. It's was always just more about having a big mink, showing that you could afford a mink that was expensive. They were really interested in using different techniques to make them lighter, thinner, easier to wear. They were trying different ways to do that.

Fendi advertises its first store in Florence

And then Fendi met Karl...

In 1965, they hired Karl Lagerfeld to design their furs. They were just easy to wear. It was something you could just throw on. That's not how people thought about fur. They used different colors, and would interweave furs, all different kinds of techniques. They were trying to rework that sort of world, leathers and furs, in a way that was inspiring and different. They were really only Rome-based, but the head of Bloomingdales happened to see their bags in Rome in the mid-’60s, and bought the whole collection and brought it back. Then in ’68, two of the sisters came over with trunks, and Henry Bendel bought every single fur out of them and just put them on the shop floor, because there was nothing like that available in America. They had interior pockets with the Fendi tape along the edge, so everyone would know what you're wearing. It's very clear you've spent a fortune on it. That was obviously a big part of Gucci's success, and Fendi followed it. Karl Lagerfled also designed the double-F logo for them. Because they already had a celebrity following in Rome, it caught on immediately.

We really can’t underestimate the role of celebrity in building the reputations of these brands, can we?

Italian movie stars were super famous, and the American movie stars were also filming in Italy a lot. There are so many photographs of people like Elizabeth Taylor filming Cleopatra coming out of the Gucci store, and Brigitte Bardot in the Fendi store. Rome was just the hot place to hang out, sort of fun, hedonistic, so it really caught on. People in America were totally disconnected from this, but were seeing photographs. Celebrities in the stores are seeing pictures in Vogue, with Sophia Loren photographed with 40 different types of accouterments on her table. That was really appealing. Everyone wanted a piece of it.

The five Fendi sisters
Furs by Fendi

So how was Fendi’s business in America?

The more they started importing their goods to America, the better they did. They really took off, and by the late ’70s, they were in a lot of stores in America selling very successfully. In ’77, they decided to launch the ready-to-wear line,. They made a film to launch the ready-to-wear line that Karl Lagerfeld designed for autumn/winter ’77. They were always trying to innovate. It was the perfect union. Lagerfeld and the five sisters were sort of the perfect union of people who were really excited to try new things.

How did their collaboration work on a practical level?

Lagerfeld was in Paris. Before the times of Internet or faxes, he’d design things and send letters to them, and things would get lost in the mail. They'd have to search them down and find them, and then try and do whatever he had said in the letter, and try and make it, and then send letters back. Somehow, it really worked. It really worked. It was a very successful collaboration for them. It's still continuing. It's the longest collaboration in fashion at this point. '65 is 52 years ago.

Can you pinpoint a high-point for their business?

The ’80s were really the peak for their business, because in the '80s, luxury came back. It was in. There's nothing more luxurious than fur, so they took advantage of that. You can see they went more opulent with their furs, and really amped up their production, and in ’89, they actually opened their first flagship in America. It was really a great period for them.

Fendi has always had a strong connection to the film industry.

Karl Lagerfeld started designing furs for Fendi, for specific films. He designed all the furs in Visconti's Conversation piece. This fur became incredibly iconic because it's a raincoat lined with sable, which is like the ultimate in luxury, like, "I'm so rich, you don't even need to see my fur." Like, "I'm just gonna wear it on the inside, and wear like, a sort of boring raincoat on the outside." People died over it. They weren't gonna put it into production. Then, when people were talking about it in reviews of the film, they put it in production, and it was one of their best sellers ever. They've continued that relationship with directors and costume directors to this day, and have worked with Wes Anderson on the Royal Tenenbaums, and also the Grand Budapest Hotel.

Sophia Lauren greatly contributed to the aura of Fendi
Karl Lagerfeld helped Fendi take the art of furs to the next level
French, Italian, and American actresses all wore Fendi

Like Gucci, did Fendi have ever have a dip in popularity?

The ’90s after the ’80s boom was kind of another fallout period. They were seen as old-fashioned. Fur fell out of fashion in the ’90s. We went to minimalism and political correctness. It wasn't appropriate to wear fur, so they were focusing more on their leather goods, but couldn't seem to get cool. Anna's daughter, Sylvia Vinterini Fendi, started working for them in ’94 as the creative director of accessories in men’s . She was basically told to make a boring bag, that was minimal, in the mood of the times. She's like, "Fuck it, I can't do this." What she wanted to wear was this maximimalist beautiful thing that showed craftsmanship, so she designed the baguette. It's called the baguette because you wear it right under your armpit, like a man coming out of a boulangerie would carry a baguette. They made it in 600 different combinations of patterns and techniques and fabrics. Usually, they're all handmade. Almost immediately, they became iconic “it bags,” and really started that trend. You know, Sara Jessica Parker memorably wore in Sex In The City. And they were incredibly expensive. But, they were really fusing this idea of a luxury good as a one-off art piece.

Each one is so different.

A couple years ago, I went to see a silk weaving place outside of Florence that has been around since the 1400s. These 15th-century looms had woven specific ones for the Fendi baguette. They went to these very specific craftsman and worked with them to honor the idea of Italian craftsmanship that had helped them gained such eminence in America, but also neon colors, or there would be hot-pink python with this beautiful beaded pastoral scene on it. It was very interesting combinations, and it really turned the company around. They'd been having a lot of trouble, and it made them the hot handbag company starting then. Most of Sylvia's designs for Fendi have continued being really important, like the spy bag which was introduced in ’05, which they still do various iterations of, with the woven handles, the very slouchy shape, continuing with the Bohemian ethos they started with the baguette, and then taking it a step further.

A myriad of Fendi baguettes
Carrie carries the baguette, in an episode dedicated to the iconic handbag

What’s next for Fendi?

They’re still continuing to push boundaries with both fur and technological advances. That's really what Lagerfeld, the sisters, and Sylvia talk about, when they discuss the company. He always says that he sees his work with Fendi sort of eschewing nostalgia. I wouldn't necessarily say so completely. There’s a real sense of taking care of the craftsmanship, continuing that, even when they're using silk instead of leather, always trying to do everything to the best of abilities, and continue to make it as pretty and beautiful in the form as they would with the light leather jackets and furs. In ’07, they did the longest runway show in history, which was on the great wall of China, showing their spring/summer ’08 collection. It was just one night, but they flew in like 500 celebrities to watch. They worked on it for a year. They planned it for a year. I think it was this show and the Trevi Fountain show, sort of these pinnacles of their work, their time, design and fashion. ’07 was the 30th anniversary of Lagerfeld doing the ready-to-wear collection, so I think they wanted to do this very dynamic show. And in ’15, they did their first haute-couture fur show, just furs. They're always trying to do things in a new way, trying to push boundaries, while at the same time, locking in with the craftsmanship that they're known for in Italy.

Drape escape: a Fendi dress from Laura Helms’ collection

And I see you’ve saved your favorite for last? Let’s talk about Pucci.

Both Gucci and Fendi were started in the ’20s, but really came to prominence in the post-war era, and Fendi a little later than Gucci, really in the ’50s and '60s. Emilio Pucci founded his company in the late ’40s, early '50s — perfectly capturing that time when everyone in America was turning toward Italy. He was born in Naples in 1914, the son of a marquese, so he grew up in a palazzo in Rome, and was a very talented athlete and a very good skier. He was on the Italian Olympic ski team in ’34, and he was also an academic, so he got a ski scholarship to go to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He finished it in one year, writing his thesis on democracy versus fascism, so it's very interesting he then went into fashion. But, also living in Mussolini's Italy, he must have been very affected by it. While he was at Reed, he redesigned their ski uniforms, and that was the first time he did any kind of design.

Emilio Pucci (center, in Capri) was a jet-setter and playboy

What happened when he returned to Italy?

He joined the air force, and was a torpedo bomber and Mussolini's daughter's lover. Lots of interesting things. Then, after the war, he was still sort of affiliated to the air force, but he was a marquese, so he did jet-set even though he was kind of poor. He was skiing with one of his girlfriends, and he made her ski clothes. And this photographer for Harper’s Bazaar happened to be there and photographed them, and took the pictures back to fashion director Diana Vreeland, who thought they were amazing. Ski clothes at the time were super bulky, especially for women. You weren't supposed to show your form, but that really hinders you when you're skiing. So, Pucci thought that was ridiculous, and made skin-tight pants and jackets where you could see the body, and also move. Vreeland called up Lord and Taylor, who then called Pucci back in Florence. He started doing a line, White Stag, which was manufactured in Oregon for Lord and Taylor, and they were featured in the December ’48 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. That was something he really understood. Women wanted to be able to be active, have mobile lives. So, he started creating clothes that allowed that. That's when he opened his first store in Capri, with easy-to-throw-on clothes and these prints that he'd hand-draw himself. All of the clothes were made in the palazzo, and it was falling apart, so he realized the only way he was going to be able to restore his family home was if he made some money. It wasn’t necessarily sportswear, in terms of what we think of with Nike, but it wasn't a corseted dress. It was easy to throw on and go.

What made Pucci’s clothes so different?

His clothes were very different than most of the clothes that were on the market. His pants were very form fitting. He would see American women put them on over their very thick girdles, and you could see every line of the girdle. He was so bold that he went to Formfit-Rogers, a lingerie manufacturer in America, and set up a collaboration to make proper underwear that would go under these clothes without making the lines, with a sheer back. He collaborated them for 20 years, over time adapting the designs to go with the way that fashions changes. By the early ’70s, they were just like little bras with psychedelic colors.

Pucci revolutionized women’s skiwear
Here, he adjusts his girlfriend’s skis in his first editorial for Harper's Bazaar

And he designed these things himself?

He designed most of the textiles. The very early ones had very light hand-drawn elements to them. Especially in the ’50s, he used Italian motifs based on Italian culture. You can see Renaissance saints and goddesses, and he did a whole collection based on the palio, the famous horserace in Sienna. Americans loved the patterns of the pieces, and their simplicity. Beach sweaters. Printed blouses. Capri pants. He invented the idea of a Capri pant, which was named after his store in Capri. Those pieces, along with a sun dress and a very simple boat-neck dress, those were pretty much everything he created, but just kept evolving them. His clothes were easy to wear and fun, and different, and joyful, and that's what everyone wanted to wear in the ’50s, coming out of the war.

The appeal also had something to do with his image, too, didn’t it?

The appeal was also him: this playboy who had this fantastic life in Capri and Florence, and it was just really appealing. He was very charming. He would come to do the fashion show at Lord and Taylor, and then fly to Neiman Marcus and do a fashion show. He was loved. Everyone wanted to be part of that jet-set world.

Pucci started with a collection for Lord and Taylor…
... and quickly starting to dress the jet-set in Florence, Capri, and around the world

Marilyn Monroe was an especially big fan, wasn’t she?

The sort of boat-neck dress that I was talking about, really flattering, made out of a silk jersey he started using in ’54, that was especially woven and printed in very small batches in Como for him. Marilyn actually loved that dress so much that she was buried in it. She had a very large collection of Pucci. It’s what she always wore for photo shoots, unless she was asked to wear something specifically chosen by the studio.

He was his own brand.

He opened his first store and called it Emilio's of Capri. Then he signed all of his designs with Emilio because he didn't want to bring a very important ancestral name into it. They went back to the 13th century, and were allied with the Medicis. His family was very important. There's this whole street in Florence named after them, so he didn't want to get involved with the rag trade, especially at the beginning. That's why you'll just see it signed with Emilio. The labels inside say Emilio Pucci. The very earliest ones just say Emilio’s of Capri. Then from about ’51 on, they say Emilio Pucci; because obviously these designs were so incredibly exciting for people, but they were really expensive, even though they weren't couture. They were as expensive as ready-to-wear could get, in a way. Most people couldn't afford them, and lots of manufacturers just started making copies. There's a lot of Pucci-esque pieces on the vintage market that you'll see, but just look for the name.

Which other celebrities loved Pucci, and what was its particular appeal to them?

You've got Elizabeth Taylor and then Jackie Onassis. The great thing about the silk jersey dresses is that this fabric doesn't wrinkle. It travels amazingly well, so you can just throw like five of these in a suitcase, throw one on, get on the airplane. You'll get off the airplane five hours later looking as flawless as when you got on, and they pack super easily. So it was really about this sort of mobile jet-set lifestyle, and that's why it was taken up so much by celebrities who were constantly traveling, and who knew they were gonna be photographed wherever they went. It’s about throw on and go. It's not about a Dior dress, especially at that time, would take three or four fittings. It was a very long process. These, you could pick up at the boutique and go. You could pick them up at the Emilio Pucci in Saks, in Houston, or wherever you were. Even though they were expensive, they were easy to get.

I’ve heard that Pucci had interesting arrangements with his retailers, to keep each assortment unique...

He had exclusive contracts with all of these department stores around America, so they might get the same silhouette. Say, Saks might get the same silhouette as Neiman Marcus, but it would always be in a different color and in a different pattern, and each of them has sewn into it the label of the store. It was very clear who got the rights for which dress and which item and which pattern or which color way. At the same time he was doing the ready-to-wear, he also, for a couple years in the ’60s, did a very high-end couture line based in Rome. Beaded tunics over shantung pants. It was just an opportunity for him to use materials that he didn't get to the rest of the time, and also to use techniques and craftsmanship that were far beyond his normal clientele, at the upper echelon of his normal clientele's desires.

Elizabeth Taylor...
... Marilyn Monroe...
...and Jackie Onassis all wore Pucci in the ’60s

What inspired Pucci?

In the ’60s, he started to really travel because of work, and also to gather inspiration. He did an Indonesian collection, an African collection. At the same time, in ’59, he married a much younger woman who was interested in modern art, which he didn't get at all, but she was really interested in pop art, would take him to shows. He kept being like, "I can do that better." That's a lot of what the more psychedelic pieces that came a little later in the ’60s were about: his reaction to what he was seeing out in the art world and the marketplace, and feeling like he would go much farther with it. His designs really took a leap forward. In the ’50s, there's a lot of really beautiful little ballerinas and cats, or like a full street scene, but there's a sort of quaintness that was totally gone by the ’60s. That's really when his business was kind of incredible. By the mid to late ’60s, Saks was selling $4-$5M a year of Pucci. He was on top of the world.

Cosmopolitan helped in shaping the image of this brand, too, didn’t it?

I have a quote from Helen Gurley Brown, who wrote “Sex And The Single Girl,” and was the editor of Cosmopolitan for like 40 years. She said, "Pucci helped American women express ourselves, experience a new freedom, a sensuousness we hadn't felt or shown before. The dresses were spare, sexy and liberating." She featured them in the magazine. The clothes were really close to the body, and sort of showed it off. But if you didn't have a perfect body, you could wear one of his undergarments to create it. Body consciousness was a really novel thing. It wasn't about being corseted in or belted in.

Pucci appeared in the pages of Cosmo (Editor Helen Gurley Brown was a fan)
Speaker Laura Helms, with a Pucci dress from her personal collection

It seems like Pucci went from having a jet-set lifestyle, to helping make the jet-set lifestyle popular, designing uniforms for Braniff. We’re a little obsessed with those...

His first collection of uniforms for them in ’65 was called The Airstrip. It was a sort of capsule wardrobe, that, as they flew through the air and moved from climate to climate, could either be added to or taken away from. It went all the way to a bikini, but I don't think the stewardess went down to the bikini very often. In the ad, it's a woman doing the strip, with an airplane uniform, basically being like, “Come fly our airline. This is what you're gonna get.“ Unsurprisingly, it was very successful. They flew to Acapulco. Alexander Gerard designed the planes and everything else. It was really great advertising. He also ended up doing the uniforms for Qantas in ’75. Pucci was so identified with that sort of jet-set world, that when it transitioned into the ’70s and became declassé, more about natural clothing and earthier tones, it wasn’t his sort of heightened view of luxury.

It seems the ’70s were a tough time for all Italian designers, Pucci included.

Saks closed all of their in-store boutiques in about ’73. Emilio opened in his first American store in ’75 in New York. It was their only outlet in America for about 20 years. The people who really loved Pucci still would fly to New York and buy everything. There was always a lot of those women who really wanted to wear it in Palm Beach and Palm Springs, sort of the perfect holiday or summer, warmer-weather house garb. Or, if you're flying around the world, that clientele still wanted it. As with Gucci and Fendi, there was a period when there's no mention of it at all in any fashion magazines. He was still producing collections every season, and the Italian press was talking about him, but they weren't getting picked up anywhere. But, in the late ’80s, fashion was changing. The rave movement was coming in, and also, the fitness craze of the late ’80s, the return to a body-conscious idea.

Braniff’s Pucci-clad stewardesses
Braniff’s “Air Strip” campaign featuring Pucci-designed uniforms

And a resurgence of the brand...

In ’90, Vogue did a piece on Gucci being retro, coming back into style, and they did one on Pucci’s catsuits. They were just sort of a fun thing that he thought were great, sort of in line with his original skin-tight ski pants, just the next evolution. They worked perfectly with this new body-conscious fitness obsession, and also this reaction against the glamour of the ’80s. The company totally turned around.

Where do you think the brand is going?

Since then, there's been designers who've worked as creative directors of Pucci. Christian Lacroix was there from ’02 to ’06. Peter Dundas. It's continuing to use the same prints and metaphors, but in a different way. Now, I think Pucci's really moved away from his original idea of it being mostly sportswear, you know, easy-to-wear clothing. That's not really what you find now, and Pucci is much more like evening gowns. But, they still are using the prints, and the idea of bright colors, and patterns as a central metaphor of the company.

What would say all three brands — Gucci, Fendi, and Pucci — have in common?

They’ve all had a winding road to their present success, ups and downs, figuring out the right way to get there. They all started not directly in fashion as ready-to-wear, either coming from leather goods, or furs, or sportswear/ski-wear, and then found their way to a central place in fashion, using Italian craftsmanship to get there. None of these brands could have managed what they did without the craftsmen that made the bags or printed the textiles. All of that is very specific work. And why all of these brands are still so incredibly valued and desired.

Laura Helms, mid-lecture, in our NYC Penthouse library

Words by The Editors and Laura McLaws Helms.

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