There’s a scene early in Ridley Scott’s new biopic House of Gucci that underscores the power of fashion. It is 1970 and a bootylicious young woman in a curve-surfacing silk dress and heels jiggles her way across the forecourt of her father’s Milanese transportation business, looking “like Jell-O on springs”, to quote Some Like It Hot. Every pair of male eyes is on her — she knows it and she loves it.
That’s Patrizia Reggiani, as played by Lady Gaga. She is the woman who was to marry Maurizio Gucci, the heir apparent of the clan that made the horsebit loafer a global status symbol, the man whom — after the failure of their marriage and his loss of control of the business — she would, in 1995, have murdered by a hired assassin. Almost 20 years later, in 2014, she would tell La Repubblica: “I still feel like a Gucci — in fact, the most Gucci of all of them.” Here is the allure of the brand at its most personal, not to mention psychopathic.
Then there’s the opening scene of the film. A different kind of fashion. A different kind of potency. A tweed jacket. A signet ring. An expensive watch. Those loafers. The first we see of Maurizio Gucci, as played by Adam Driver, are those apparently small signifiers. Yet those signifiers are also designed to catch the eye, albeit more subtly, and it is upon them that the modern mega-brand that is Gucci — currently valued at US$15.6 billion ($21.2 billion) — was built. And which drove Reggiani, who famously said: “It’s better to cry in a Rolls-Royce than be happy on a bicycle,” to mariticide. Maurizio was 46 when he was shot on the steps of his office. When asked once by a reporter why she didn’t kill him herself, Reggiani replied: “My eyesight is not so good. I didn’t want to miss.”
“What I liked about the story,” Ridley Scott tells me, “is that it was like a modern version of a 15th-century story, like the Medicis and the Borgias. Somehow, people don’t connect the idea of murder with the wealthy, and yet it happens.”
And was the fashion angle part of the appeal? “The dressing certainly promised to be interesting. And the period the film covers — the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties — I went right through that lot because of my age. So it was very simple for me.” These days, he is clad in Gap from head to toe. “I am embarrassed about going shopping. Nothing fits.”
The clothes that maketh the scene
Scott’s costume designer was his long-time collaborator Janty Yates, who won an Oscar in 2001 for her work on Gladiator and who is also British.
“Ridley and I would look at each other and go, “‘Well, we were there,’” she says, “because we are both ancient.” She laughs. “It was also easier to create the narrative arc because there was such a huge amount of fashion change in this period.”
The creative process for House of Gucci — which is based on a book by Sara Gay Forden — started, as it always does, on a Scott film, with the director’s sketches. “I am an art school kind of geezer, so I can still really draw,” he says proudly. Then Yates got going with the research.
Reggiani is at the film’s heart, although that is perhaps, given the way things turn out, the wrong way to put it. Once she gets her hands on the Gucci fortune, she sparkles like a jewellery shop window or, as Yates says, “dresses like a Christmas tree”. Yates perused photographs of Reggiani back in the day and also today, when — having spent 17 years in prison — the woman who became known as the Black Widow can occasionally be seen on the streets of Milan, accessorising her ensembles not only with copious bling but with her pet parrot on her shoulder.
Reggiani, 72, who has always maintained her innocence, now lives off an annual grant from Maurizio’s estate. “I am rather annoyed that Lady Gaga is playing me… without having had the consideration and sensibility to come and meet me,” she told Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata earlier this year. “It’s not an economic question. It’s a question of good sense and respect.”
Yates recalls that she said to Scott, “‘Do you want us to do her like Joan Collins?’ He said, ‘No, I want her to be a little more discreet, like Gina Lollobrigida.’ But Lollobrigida was Sixties, so we took things from photos of her and adapted them. She did represent a certain kind of arriviste young Italian girl.” For Reggiani, think more is more, always. Think jewels, fur and cleavage, plus that double-G monogram worked to within an inch of its life.
Talking of working it, Yates was dressing not just any old world-famous actress but one of the greatest image-forgers of her generation, one game even for a dress made of beef in the interests of burnishing her stardom. Yates refers to her throughout our conversation as “LG” — or Lady Gaga to the likes of you and me.
Gaga was “completely collaborative”, Yates recalls, “but she also just let us get on with it”. Before filming started, the pair were stuck on either side of the Atlantic. “We knew we needed to have a costume closet, as it’s called, to show her at the first and second fittings. So we pretty much took her measurements off the Internet. And we had five or six different Zooms, with my assistant in Los Angeles there with her. We’d go through a scene. I would be Maurizio and she would be Patrizia, and she would say, ‘I think a heavy lipliner here,’ or ‘Maybe this wig’. After the first couple of times, she trusted us.”
Conveniently, Gaga had just launched her latest makeup range, Casa Gaga Italian Glam Collection, which she wore in the film and at its London premiere last November.
Recently, Gaga told Vogue that she “lived as her [Reggiani] for a year and a half. And I spoke with an accent for nine months of that,” Yates concurs.
“She was-a like-a this-a, all the time,” she laughs. Gaga also said in the same interview that, “It was nearly impossible for me to speak in the accent as a blonde. I instantly had to dye my hair.” She said, too, that she “started to live in a way whereby anything that I looked at, anything that I touched, I started to take notice of where and when I could see money”.
Mmm. Money. That’s the leitmotif of this opera, needless to say. Reggiani — whom the press called Lady Gucci — was said to have spent £9,000 ($1,654) a month on orchids alone.
“Most people would be very excited to play a chancy, risky, gold-digging murderer who gets off on chaos and f***ing up people’s lives,” Gaga said at a post-screening Q&A at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles recently. “I thought, but what if I made her a real woman?” In this, she succeeds.
Reviving the band
It’s significant too that when Yates was researching at the Gucci Museum in Florence — the city where the brand started out in 1921 flogging posh luggage — “the place was drenched in pictures of famous people, but it was useless for me. None of them wore Gucci clothes. It was Gucci belts, Gucci shoes, Gucci sunglasses. You saw Peter Sellers with Gucci luggage up to his ears, Sophia Loren, but no clothes.”
Aldo Gucci may have pushed the brand, pushed the bits and pieces that still make most luxury brands today the majority of their money. However, the fashion aspect of the equation — the boldface clothes designed to garner press and celebrity attention and thus build more traction for the accessories — was missing.
The way House of Gucci tells it, Reggiani was the one who recognised that this needed to change. But it was under Maurizio’s watch, post the couple’s estrangement, that Gucci hired a little known Texan by the name of Tom Ford. It was Ford who transformed the brand into “Fashion” with a capital “F”. His autumn/winter 1995 catwalk show — all 1970s tailoring, jewel colours and sophisticated sexiness — was certainly one of the most memorable fashion moments of my lifetime; Yates feels the same way. “I remember it happening. It was so groundshaking. Angular and sculpted on the body, whereas before it had been what I would call round and brown. It was glorious, absolutely glorious.”
The degree to which House of Gucci has the blessing of its 21st-century incarnation is made clear by the fact that the film also stars Salma Hayek. Hayek is married to François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering, the luxury group that now owns Gucci. As for the Gucci family — none of whom are now involved with the business they founded — matters are rather less straightforward.
Patrizia Gucci, a second cousin of Maurizio, seemed especially slighted by the casting of Aldo when she spoke on behalf of the family to Associated Press earlier this year.
“My grandfather was a very handsome man, like all the Guccis, and very tall, with blue eyes and very elegant… Al Pacino is not very tall already, and this… shows him as fat, short, with sideburns, really ugly. Shameful, because he doesn’t resemble him at all.”
As for Jared Leto’s scene-stealing turn as Aldo’s son, the bald, buffoonish, jumbo-cord-clad Paolo — her father — Patrizia said it was “horrible, horrible. I still feel offended”. Go figure.