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It's a timeless narrative, says The House of Gucci author Sara Gay Forden

The celebrated author will be in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next month

Sara Gay Forden
Sara Gay Forden

By Sujata Assomull

Published: Thu 27 Jan 2022, 11:39 PM

Two decades ago, former fashion journalist Sara Gay Forden penned The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed. As the title suggests, it is a real-life story that award-winning filmmaker Ridley Scott (of Gladiator fame) turned into a blockbuster film last year. While fashion critics loved the book, film critics did not feel the same way about the Lady Gaga-starrer.

Forden’s novel is based on extensive research from the time she was living in Milan as a fashion journalist when Maurizio Gucci was murdered in 1995. Many critics felt that the film had several gaps as it purely revolved around the murder and did not delve into the dynamics of the Gucci family with the same integrity as Forden’s book. However, it still remains one of the most watched films of last year, giving the book a new lease of life.

Forden has also updated the book, and has admitted to enjoying the film. The celebrated author will be in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next month. Hers is one of the most anticipated sessions of the 10-day festival that celebrates the written word.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

When did you first realise that the Gucci story needed to be told?

I was working as Bureau Chief for Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) in Milan, covering the business side of the fashion industry. I wrote about all the twists and turns that Gucci was going through. When I saw the spectacular turnaround engineered by Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford, I realised that there was a real narrative arc and a compelling story behind the brand.

You met many members of the Gucci clan as a journalist working in Milan in the 1990s. Italian press has often compared them to the Carringtons of Dynasty. Tell us about the family.

While the Gucci family was well known, the members I met were all very focused on the business and very invested — each in their own way — in the success of the company. While they were public figures, they were very private.

While you have always said how happy you were with the film, it omits many parts of the narrative and does not go into the details the way the book does.

I don’t think any movie will always include all the details of a book and streamlining can actually make a complex narrative more effective on the big screen. I think the movie does a beautiful job of portraying the thrust and the dynamics of the story cinematically.

Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani and Adam Driver as Maurizio Gucci in House of Gucci, the film based on Forden’s book
Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani and Adam Driver as Maurizio Gucci in House of Gucci, the film based on Forden’s book

Why do you think a book that was written in 2000 was turned into a film 20 years later?

Sometimes good things take time! Still, the Gucci story has such epic themes about family, money and trust that it’s a timeless narrative. I’m not privy to all the ins-and-outs of how things work in Hollywood, but I do understand it’s important to get a good screenplay and the right mix of talent. I enjoyed collaborating with the screenplay writer, a talented young Italian named Roberto Bentivenga, who had grown up in Milan and had a good feel for the story.

The title of the book is The House of Gucci: A true story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed. Was it greed that led to the Gucci family losing their own company?

While there was certainly evidence of greed throughout the story, I think the loss of the company was ultimately due to conflicting visions about what Gucci should be and stand for. There was a split within the family because 50 per cent of the business was owned by Aldo (one of the sons of the brand’s founder Guccio Gucci, who became the driving force behind its international expansion) and his sons and they were (more or less) happy with the way the business was going. Part of this is also because they had signed lucrative licensing deals. But when Maurizio Gucci (Aldo’s nephew) inherited the other 50 per cent from his father (Rodolfo Gucci), he became consumed with a bigger vision for the brand: to restore it to the top of the luxury goods market and put it on par with Hermes of France. This became an obsession for him and he felt he had to prove to his father and grandfather that he could achieve it. He overreached and ultimately lost it.

Do you think the fact you had met the family and were in Milan as a WWD journalist when the murder happened gave you insights that no other writer would have had access to?

The fact that I had been covering the luxury goods market for years and had detailed knowledge of the events and people involved meant that I had a very intimate understanding of the story. In addition, my knowledge of Italian language and culture allowed me to do a lot of first-hand research. I think it also enabled me to build trust with sources who agreed to speak to me.

This book reads like a great piece of journalism yet grips you the way a well-written novel would. How did you strike this balance?

I was very impressed with the work of the so-called “literary journalists” during my college years and had always wanted to write a work of non-fiction that read like a novel. My models were big business books like Barbarians at the Gate and Den of Thieves. I realised at a certain point that the Gucci story had the sweep of a big novel-like narrative, with the rise and fall and rise of the brand.

You spoke to over 100 people for the story. Who was the most helpful? Was it someone from the Gucci family or outsiders who had played a pivotal role, like Domenico De Sole?

Of course, speaking to the family members was key, but also figures like Domenico De Sole, who was very close to the family, played an important role. He was also at many of the pivotal family board meetings where tape recorders and ashtrays flew. And then he went on to lead Gucci to a new future as a multi-brand group. But there were others too who were incredibly dedicated and worked for Gucci for many years. Balancing all the stories was a big part of the work, but I tried to arrive at what I thought was the closest version of the truth.

Is it true that when you approached one of Maurizio’s daughters, she asked for money to be interviewed?

One family member did ask for money to be interviewed, but not one of Maurizio’s daughters. I explained that no one was getting paid to speak to me and that it was a journalistic work. I didn’t pay anyone for their story.

The part of Patrizia’s accomplice, Pina, is played by Salma Hayek, wife of Kering Group’s François-Henri Pinault, the current owner of Gucci among other leading fashion houses. Do you know how he feels about your book and the film?

I have interviewed Francois-Henri Pinault many times over the years, including for the new ‘Afterword’ that appears at the end of the movie tie-in edition that was published last year. The fact that he granted me the interview for the updated edition shows that he felt I had done a good job with the book. I don’t know how he feels about the film, that would be a good question to ask him!

What do you make of the Gucci of today, helmed by creative director Alessandro Michele?

I observe that Alessandro Michele has touched a nerve with his collections and also attracted younger customers to the brand, which is a difficult feat that all the leading luxury brands are trying to achieve. At the same time, I think Michele is really knitting together Gucci’s past with its present, weaving in icons from the family era along with those from the Tom Ford years. While I don’t think Maurizio Gucci would necessarily embrace the current fashion — he had a very classic image in mind for Gucci — I do think that it has achieved the global recognition as a top-tier luxury brand that he always thought it deserved.


(Sara Gay Forden will be in conversation with Sujata Assomull on 12 February 2022 at the Habtoor Palace)

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