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Early one summer morning in 1984, Sheree McLaughlin walked down to the buzzing port in the Sardinian town of Porto Cervo on Italy’s Costa Smeralda, named for the ocean’s brilliant blue-green hues. The local yacht club had organised the 12-Metre Class World Championship for the first time and was backing the Italian challenger for the upcoming 1987 America’s Cup. The team had attracted some of the best sailors in the world, including her then husband, an expert spinnaker designer.
Sheree, 26 at the time, was a lanky blonde from Orange, Connecticut, and a seasoned sailor herself. For the first few days of the competition, she had been directed to a large yacht that had been chartered to entertain the sailors’ wives, families and friends. The guests were plied with food and Champagne and followed the race at a distance through binoculars. “Nobody knew what they were watching, and I hated it,” she says.
To find an alternative, Sheree tried to hitch a ride with a film crew in a small motorboat headed out to capture the race. A tall man with sandy brown hair wearing white jeans, a light blue chambray shirt and aviator sunglasses responded in Italian-accented English. “Are you sure?” he asked. “You’re going to get wet.” He warned that they didn’t have good food like on the wives’ yacht.
“That’s OK. That’s not what I want,” she replied. “I want to watch the race.”
Over the next few days, Sheree taught the little crew about sailing, how to pull up to the racing boats without getting in the way, and how to get tight shots as they rounded the buoys. She got soaked and loved every minute of it. Italy kept winning, and she ended up staying almost four weeks.
The gang called the man with the white jeans and aviator glasses “Mau”. Sheree was struck by how delighted he was by being out on the water.
“It was as though he didn’t have anything like that in his life,” Sheree says. “He had come alive. We laughed so hard. I felt like I had known him all my life.”
And yet she had no idea who he was, and since they were both married, she did not ask questions. He would arrive in Porto Cervo b y helicopter, sometimes with his wife, a petite, dark-haired Italian who looked like Joan Collins, though she never came aboard the little motorboat.
About three weeks in, she asked one of the US sailors, “Who is that guy that I’m going out on the boat with?” “That’s Maurizio Gucci, Sheree,” the sailor said.
He was an heir to Italy’s most famous fashion dynasty, and their days on the little motorboat would spark an almost seven-year love affair. The relationship would play into his decision to leave his wife, Patrizia, and ignite a fierce divorce battle, one that would eventually lead to his murder.
The story of Maurizio Gucci and his untimely death is infamous in Italy — and will soon be viewed by audiences around the world as it is retold by director Ridley Scott in the film House of Gucci. Adam Driver plays Maurizio, and Lady Gaga portrays Patrizia, the glamorous wife who was eventually convicted of paying a hitman to have him killed. Al Pacino, Jared Leto and Jeremy Irons play Gucci family members fighting over the future of the luxury brand. (Sheree, whose story was largely unknown until now, is not portrayed in the film.)
The saga in Scott’s film is one I know well. It is based on a book I wrote 20 years ago, The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed. Back then, I took leave from my job as Milan bureau chief for Women’s Wear Daily. I interviewed more than 100 people for it, including many family members and Gucci employees who were present at key moments.
But until this year, I never had the opportunity to interview Sheree. Her perspective was a missing piece. This was unfortunate, as she held unique knowledge of the family’s turmoil, and Maurizio’s motivations.
The year before she met Mau on the dock in Porto Cervo, Maurizio’s father, Rodolfo, had died, leaving him 50% of the family company. At that time, the brand’s lustre was fading. The fashion house had overlicensed its famous logo, which appeared on everything from coffee mugs to plastic toilet kits and Scotch bottles. Meanwhile, Milan had wrested the semi-annual presentations of women’s ready-to-wear away from Florence, where Gucci was headquartered, and a tribe of young new designers, with names such as Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace and Gianfranco Ferré, was starting to flourish.
Maurizio, who was only 35 at the time, realised that to remain competitive, his family leather goods company had to find a new direction. He was nurturing a vision to bring the brand to the forefront of the European luxury market and joined the Italian consortium that was sponsoring the 1987 America’s Cup challenger. The historic race captured just the kind of elite viewers in the US and Europe to which the company catered.
Sheree would spot him around the cafes and designer boutiques of Porto Cervo, all painted a soft pink to resemble the local stone. They shared an innocent motorcycle ride while her husband was on the water, and on her last night in the seaside resort, the sailing crowd had a dinner, and she and Maurizio danced together under the stars. She went home early that night and flew out the next day.
I was the catalyst. I didn’t want to break up his marriage, but he said it was already broken.
Maurizio tracked down Sheree in Florida where she and her husband had opened an operation for the sailmaker North Sails, and called her every day. He started telling her about the heavy legacy his father had handed down to him. He had become the brand’s single largest shareholder, but it did not give him the power to control the company.
He had grown frustrated trying to get his family members who held the other 50% — his Uncle Aldo and his cousins Giorgio, Roberto and Paolo — to share his vision. Maurizio did not have the money to buy them out, so he hatched a secret plan to use an outside investment bank to do it and put him in charge.
He also told Sheree that he had two daughters he adored and that he was unhappily married to their mother, Patrizia.
Sheree told her husband she was going to see Maurizio about a possible job, scrounged through her mother’s closet to find some clothes appropriate for Europe, and flew to Nice, France. As she descended the stairs of her hotel, Maurizio was waiting for her at the bottom and announced dramatically, “I am your knight in shining armour, only I forgot the horse.”
Maurizio was transforming from the shy, awkward young man who had grown up in his father’s shadow into the CEO of the family company. Even though he could be charming and playful, he was fiercely determined to be the architect of a new era for the brand.
His ideas included building an expensive new headquarters in Milan and buying a costly 16th-century villa outside Florence to house a centre for training artisans in craftsmanship and executives in branding. He also cut out the cash cow products which he felt cheapened Gucci’s image.
One day in 1985, Maurizio told his wife he was leaving on a business trip, packed a bag, and never returned. “I was the catalyst,” Sheree says. With her he had seen another kind of life. “I didn’t want to break up his marriage, but he said it was already broken.”
Sheree got a divorce a year later, and Maurizio rented her a little apartment in New York. He flew back and forth often. They rarely used his grand penthouse at Olympic Tower in Midtown Manhattan, a gift from his father, where he had lived with Patrizia in the 1970s. They felt the staff there would feed information back to Signora Gucci.
But Patrizia was not going to let him go — or everything being a Gucci entailed.
Patrizia had come from humble origins, which caused Rodolfo Gucci to oppose their wedding in 1972. Her adoptive father, Ferdinando Reggiani, was well off, but Milan’s business and financial elite looked down on her. Still, over the course of their marriage, she became a well-known figure in Italian society.
She played the role of powerful wife, chauffeured around town in her Chanel suits. She pushed her husband to become the leading CEO in Italy’s fashion firmament. As I wrote in my book, she would announce to people, “The era of Maurizio has begun.”
Sheree left the world of international luxury intrigue long ago. She now lives in suburban Wilton, Connecticut, where she works for a geese control company that uses border collies to clear flocks. She has two daughters from a second marriage and still loves to sail.
While I was reporting the book in the late 1990s, Sheree eluded my calls and emails, and I was unable to include her side of the story. One day in 2001, I was presenting the paperback edition at a bookstore in New York. As the guests were leaving, a tall, attractive blond woman came up to me with tears in her eyes. She explained she was Sheree McLaughlin. She said she loved the book and wished she had spoken with me.
We hugged and went our separate ways for the next 20 years. When news of the movie adaptation splashed across the internet in 2020, Sheree got in touch. She recalled her relationship with Maurizio — which lasted from 1984 to 1990 — as a real-life Cinderella story. They each wanted to help the other “fly”, she says.
In the first few years after they met, Sheree took the Concorde back and forth between New York and London or Paris to see him. He would pick her up from the airport in his black Ferrari and drive her to St Moritz, where he had inherited his father’s chalet. “We would get clocked and pulled over doing 200km an hour,” she says. “He would have to pay somebody something like $5,000 not to get a ticket.”
They would hit the slopes in the Alps around the Swiss village, going up in a sleigh piled with furs and skiing down, stopping for wine-fuelled lunches along the way. Maurizio said he always wore white ski pants because if he fell, no-one would know, Sheree recalls. (In the first hotly circulated images from the film, Driver, wearing white ski pants, poses with Lady Gaga.)
Sheree got a job at Sotheby’s in 1988 and moved to London, which made it easier for them to see each other. He doted on her, but did not want her to move to Milan, where he thought the strict social codes — and the Milanese socialites — would make them both miserable. The same year, he forced out his remaining family members from Gucci.
She would meet him in European port cities — Bremen, Monte Carlo, Palma de Mallorca — to help restore his prized historic sailing yacht, the Creole. It was a project she says took five years, and $25m.
Once, they flew together to New York, where Maurizio kept a Rolls-Royce. He told Sheree they were going to play Arthur, referring to the 1981 film starring Dudley Moore as a spoiled alcoholic billionaire who liked to be driven through Central Park in his Rolls. “I didn’t know what he meant,” Sheree recalls.
Later she urged him to give up the car and take taxis, because she learnt one of his drivers was spying on them for Patrizia. Maurizio told her many times during their relationship that he was afraid one day Patrizia was going to kill him.
The drama and the travel started to weigh on Sheree in the second half of 1989. She told Maurizio that she wanted to end their relationship, even though she said she would always be in love with him. She wanted to settle down and start a family.
“I just got tired of the flying back and forth and the waiting and being all alone,” she says. “I really just wanted to have a normal life.”
He did not believe she was serious, but he was so enmeshed with his family and legal troubles, he could not offer her the life she wanted. They cried together. On their last evening, they went to the theatre and for dinner at the steakhouse Smith & Wollensky, one of their favourite New York spots. He told her he would never see her again; it would be too painful to stay in touch.
Maurizio was a compelling but tragic figure — the link to Gucci’s past and, ultimately, the reason the family lost control of it. His big initiatives of the late 1980s — cutting back on profitable but more mass products, such as canvas GG-logo handbags, and that new headquarters — brought the brand to the brink of bankruptcy.
I met Maurizio Gucci in 1991 at a press conference in the luxurious Gucci building he had refurbished in Milan. He had attracted attention when he hired Bergdorf Goodman’s president, Dawn Mello, as his creative director, who in turn brought in soon-to-be-legendary designer Tom Ford. Maurizio was ebullient in describing his vision to transform the company into a top-tier luxury brand on par with Hermès of France, restoring Gucci to the glory days it had known under his father and grandfather.
He reeled off sales projections and said the company would break even that year, despite a 20% plunge in revenue. In the ensuing weeks, sources told me stories about how badly Maurizio’s turnaround of Gucci was failing, and I wrote articles that exposed the brand’s dire situation. He was always charming during our follow-up interviews, even as he disputed my reporting.
Investcorp, the Bahrain-based company that in 1988 had bought out the 50% of Gucci owned by Aldo and his sons, watched the mounting debts and used them to force Maurizio out in 1993, paying him $135m for his shares. “He thought they believed in him,” Sheree says. “I said, ‘No, they want to make money. They’re not your bank!’ ”
Maurizio was well aware of the brand’s allure in the business and financial world. He described the company as a “siren who beckoned men to come and fall in love, and none would ever want to leave”, says Rick Swanson, who oversaw Investcorp’s investment in Gucci and later went to work directly for the fashion brand. “Of course,” Swanson adds, “we all know what the mythological sirens did to the men they lured.”
On March 27 1995, Sheree had just walked into her office at Vogue, where she was working as a merchandising editor after a stint at Calvin Klein, when the phone rang. It was Allan Tuttle, who had been Maurizio’s lawyer and had gone on to work for Gucci. “Sit down,” Tuttle said. He told her that Maurizio had been shot and was dead. She hung up and sat there in shock. “I never thought I would never see him again,” she says.
Maurizio had been killed by a hitman as he walked up the steps of his office building in Milan. Two years later, Patrizia was arrested for hiring the killer, after a tipster went to the police. Judge Renato Samek, when issuing her sentence in November 1998 after a five-month trial, said that Maurizio had died not for who he was but for what he had: a formidable patrimony and an internationally recognised name. “Patrizia Reggiani did not intend to give these up,” said Samek, looking out over the courtroom. She was sentenced to 26 years in prison and released on parole after 18 years.
In July that year, Domenico De Sole was named CEO of Gucci and started working on reintroducing it with creative director Tom Ford. I covered “Tom and Dom” for Women’s Wear Daily as well as the stunning success of the initial public offering that netted almost $2bn, enough to repay Investcorp’s investment many times over. Gucci is now controlled by François-Henri Pinault’s Kering.
Under Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s gender-fluid, romantic styles have captured a younger clientele, propelling the brand back to the forefront of global luxury labels. Maurizio’s dreams of Gucci bearing the standard for Italy have come true.
Gucci’s answer to the Birkin was originally called the Constance. It was renamed the Jackie in honour of Jacqueline Kennedy, one of its biggest fans. The first “hobo” bag, because of its rounded edges, was popular through the ’70s.
Overlicensing somewhat cheapened the brand’s logo and famous web stripe. Although Gucci thermoses and barware gave off a whiff of desperation at the time, some have become collector’s items.
Canvas bags featuring the “GG” logo from the Accessory Collection were hugely popular but also mass-market, undercutting the brand’s aspirations to luxury. Maurizio Gucci cut back significantly on their production.
The Jackie was revived by Tom Ford in 1999, and his successor, Frida Giannini, combined it with the beloved Flora print. She also released a limited edition called the Jackie O Bouvier, bringing in the former first lady’s maiden name.
At a 2018 event at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, hip-hop star A$AP Rocky heralded a more gender-fluid approach with a babushka-style floral scarf, jacket and tuxedo designed by creative director Alessandro Michele.
On the heels of forays into digital worlds such as Roblox and Fortnite, Gucci collaborated with Xbox in November. Its 100 numbered sets have a custom console with laser-engraved controllers and a hard case inspired by archival luggage.
Bloomberg Businessweek. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.
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