An Epic Gucci Story — Sara Gay Forden
An Epic Gucci Story — Sara Gay Forden
A thrilling combination of creativity and chaos built Gucci’s luxury good empire. Sara Gay Forden details its extraordinary past in her book, The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed. And it’s now a major motion picture. Forden joins host Charles Mizrahi to discuss the genius of Gucci’s business and the thrilling saga of Maurizio and Patrizia.
- An Introduction to Sara Gay Forden (00:00:00)
- Gucci’s Origins (00:01:25)
- Luxury Legend (00:5:49)
- An Epic Story (00:13:08)
- Maurizio and Patrizia (00:21:40)
- Dark Ambitions (00:25:26)
- The Trial (00:29:47)
- Twenty Years Later (00:36:36)
- On the Big Screen (00:40:18)
Sara Gay Forden is an author and journalist. Her book (below) is a New York Times bestseller and major motion picture. Forden previously worked in Milan as a business correspondent, covering luxury brands and the bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine.
Today, she works at Bloomberg News, where she leads a team of reporters who cover corporate influence and big tech.
Before You Leave:
SARA GAY FORDEN: One of the things that strikes me about this company is how it’s managed to have three major revivals in over 100 years — all under different people. There’s something unstoppable about this brand and its story.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Sara Gay Forden. Sara is the author of The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed. The Economist named it a best book of the year. House of Gucci is now a major motion picture from director Ridley Scott, starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I recently sat down with Sara. We talked about how talent and creative chaos built one of the world’s great luxury good empires — and how bitter family conflict and incompetence nearly destroyed it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Sara, thanks so much for agreeing to be on the show. I was really looking forward to this. Especially because your book, The House of Gucci: A True Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed, is doing amazingly well at the box office — in spite of Spider-Man doing $1 billion. People are still going to see this movie. And there are no superheroes!
SARA GAY FORDEN: It’s incredible. It goes to show the power of a strong narrative and what it can do.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, people love stories. So, before we get into the nitty-gritty of the book, I first want to understand [something]. I don’t know much about the house of Gucci, not from this perspective. How did this fashion house start? And the second thing I want to ask you is: out of all the things you could write about, why did you pick this story?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, answer the second question later. I really want to know about the house of Gucci. Tell me about this Gucci family, how they’re known throughout the world for several generations, how they started, what makes them so great and anything you can add to that.
SARA GAY FORDEN: This is a story where facts are truly stranger than fiction. You couldn’t make this tale up. And if you did, people wouldn’t find it believable. There are so many twists and turns in this saga.
SARA GAY FORDEN: It all starts with very humble beginnings, just over a century ago in Florence in 1921. Guccio Gucci, the founder, was the son of a family that had a straw-hat factory. So, they weren’t goldsmiths or jewelry designers. It was a very Tuscan origin. He went off to London to get a job, because things were so tough at that time. It was in the Savoy Hotel that he got a job — we don’t know exactly what it was — maybe as a bellhop or a dishwasher. It was a low-level job.
SARA GAY FORDEN: But he could see the European traveling elite moving through the hotel. And they had something he recognized from his hometown of Florence: beautiful luggage to carry all their finery. So, that’s where he got the idea to go back home and start his own leather goods company. He opened the first store in Florence on Via della Vigna in 1921.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And that was the start of this humongous fashion house. It started as a leather company from a guy who was a bellhop in the Savoy Hotel. That’s really it, right?
SARA GAY FORDEN: So, the thing that starts to get intriguing about the story is, for one, the craftsmanship. I was covering the Italian luxury goods industry for Women’s Wear Daily at the time. I was the bureau chief and business writer. So, I was writing about fashion — not from the fashion perspective, but from the business perspective.
SARA GAY FORDEN: I never thought I was going to be writing about fashion. I moved to Milan because I was interested in the business and financial story coming out of Italy at the time. The EU had recently formed. There were a lot of cross-border deals going on. There were big, old-money companies like Pirelli, Agnelli and De Benedetti. So, I was writing about that.
SARA GAY FORDEN: And it was at that time that Italian fashion brands started to expand. They were exploding from mom-and-pop labels and family businesses into mega brands. And they were all doing it in a different way. And sometimes it was painful.
SARA GAY FORDEN: In the case of the Gucci story, they were pioneers at every step of the way — including with Maurizio, who was the last member of the Gucci family to run the company. He was the first to bring in big finance and an investment bank as a partner. So, all of this was unusual for how those companies were moving. And yet, their story became emblematic of what many companies were going through. But at the same time, it was extreme in every way — as you can see from the twists and turns.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, when did Gucci as a brand start to really hit? In 1921, Guccio Gucci goes back to Italy and opens up the shop. Is it a hit? Do they start doing well from day one? Because there’s a lot of great craftsmanship in Italy.
SARA GAY FORDEN: It was tough in the beginning. It was not a hit overnight. In fact, in the beginning of the book, you’ll read that Guccio had financial struggles and had to borrow money. He had to keep his sons in line. Some were interested in the business, some weren’t. And it was the second generation — under his son, Aldo — that Gucci really started to expand.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Aldo was the genius marketer before there was such a thing as marketing. And he was also the expander. So, he’s the one who brought Gucci to New York. It was one of the first Italian brands to open a store in New York in those years. This was in the late 50s. It was Gucci and Pucci. Then, he went on to Los Angeles. Again, he was one of the first brands to open a store on Rodeo Drive before Rodeo Drive was even a thing. But he had, as they say, the nose for the business.
SARA GAY FORDEN: So, it was really in the 50s, 60s and 70s that Gucci had its first moment in the sun. And then it happened again in the 90s, when Tom Ford took over and turned it into a real fashion brand. He hit it out of the park with his very sexy, hot designs. And now it’s having its third revival. So, one of the things that strikes me about this company is how it’s managed to have three major revivals in over 100 years — all under different people. There’s something unstoppable about this brand and its story.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: During the financial crisis in 2008, on Fifth Avenue — from 57th Street, all the way up — all the stores there were empty. The only store that was filled at the time was the Apple Store. Every other store on this beautiful row — a retailer’s paradise — was empty. A friend of mine walked into the Gucci store and asked how much something was. And the salesperson said: “We are not discounting!” And he says: “I didn’t ask for a discount.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: During the financial crisis, nobody was buying luxury items. But Gucci still had this brand and the snobbery of “we never discount.” How does a brand like that survive three real challenges — which would have destroyed any other brand?
SARA GAY FORDEN: It’s about dreams and creating in the customer this sense of need for something that you don’t really need — but that you desire and aspire to. And it says something about you. Actually, it’s funny. That’s very consistent with Gucci’s history. Because there were terrible newspaper articles being written in the 70s in New York about how badly the Gucci shop people treated their customers. But that became part of the intrigue, too. People would say: “Let’s go to Gucci and be treated badly.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let’s be abused and spend thousands of dollars on things we don’t need. It’s amazing.
SARA GAY FORDEN: I don’t think that happens anymore. They’re very accommodating. They’ve gotten the message that the customer comes first.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It took them 100 years. But good, they got it. So, here’s a brand that refuses to die. And I think it says a lot about not only the brand, but the consumer. When a brand starts dying, the consumer runs and tries to find the new thing. From a business perspective, what I find so amazing about Gucci is that the consumer forgave and went back to the brand three different times.
SARA GAY FORDEN: It’s really about its capacity to innovate — to stay fresh and relevant and spark that desire in people. Maurizio Gucci used to say to people that Gucci was like a siren — a mermaid who would call the sailors. And in that way, there’s this devastating appeal that it still has today.
SARA GAY FORDEN: It has grown in popularity with the younger generation — which is very hard for these expensive luxury brands to do. But with the latest designer, Alessandro Michele, they’ve touched a nerve — the zeitgeist — with the gender-fluid approach and romantic, flower child styles. Those have really taken off.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow, amazing. I don’t think there’s a tougher business in the world than fashion. I can’t understand how you could go to bed at night, and have your whole inventory look outdated the next morning. And you couldn’t have done anything about it — it’s not worth anything anymore. It’s absolutely amazing to master fashion in the way that Gucci has done for 100 years. It’s astounding to me.
SARA GAY FORDEN: And that’s really the trick — to create something that feels fresh and new, and that immediately makes your old things feel old. It’s a way to read our modern culture, too. You can take fashion and look at it as a sign of the times and what’s going on in the broader cultural arena.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, they’ve been able to tap into that every step of the way. It’s amazing — this sixth sense they have for the consumer and their brand. Some companies know their consumer, but the brand loses its way. With others, it’s vice versa. Here, I think they always had this tango between the consumer and the brand — they each knew how to dance and how the other would react. I know it sounds a little weird, but it’s like they knew each other’s moves. And they never separated — which just amazes me. Gucci is just as fresh today as it was in the 70s.
SARA GAY FORDEN: That’s a tricky balance. And I think people will want to watch and see what they do next. Because Alessandro Michele has been there since 2015. He’s incredibly creative. He has constantly revived interest in the brand.
SARA GAY FORDEN: But there were times over [the course of] its history when Gucci was perceived as being overexposed. The first time was in the 80s, when the “GG” logo was on everything from toilet kits to coffee mugs. That’s when Maurizio came in and wanted to refocus attention on the top end of the luxury market. He cleaned out all of the more lucrative — but down-market — products. So, that was the first time they really changed their strategy.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Then again, in the years when Frida Giannini was the creative director, there was a big emphasis on the icon. So, big emphasis on logos and the floor scarf. And yet, it didn’t touch a nerve with consumers. Gucci was seen as just another set of shoes and a handbag company. It wasn’t touching people’s emotions. And I think for a fashion brand to be able to command the prices that Gucci commands, they have to touch something in people.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. Now, I can almost guess what the answer is, but I’m going to ask anyway. I know as an author, you fall in love. You become obsessed. When you write a book, you become obsessed and you live and breathe it. Everyone thinks when an author is writing a book, they’re just typing. But no, it really takes over. Would you agree with that?
SARA GAY FORDEN: Oh, that is so true. I had no idea that was going to happen to me. And I’m a pretty disciplined, organized person. I had written my chapter outline and I was going to tackle one chapter a month and knock this thing off in 12 months. And, well, it didn’t happen that way at all. I got total writer’s block right when I started and ended up writing for like a month. I ended up tearing apart all of that work and putting it into three different chapters.
SARA GAY FORDEN: You get lost in the characters. And in this case, there’s so many intense characters. They all had very strong views of each other and of the story. And I had to somehow find the truth in the middle of all that. I had to get lost in the characters and the plot. I had a three-year-old when I started writing the book and I dedicated it to her. Because I wanted her to understand why Mommy was so distracted all those years. So, it ended up taking two years. I would say about 18 months was reporting and writing. And then the last six months was copy editing and passing the manuscript back and forth.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Why do you think this movie … And look, there’s an all-star cast. There are so many Academy Award winners in this movie. It’s a who’s who of Hollywood. You’ve got Lady Gaga, Al Pacino and a whole bunch of other people. Put all that aside for one second.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: As good as the acting, cinematography and setting might be … Why do you think this story resonates with people? Why did my wife say: “Come on, we’re going to the movies”? I said: “I don’t want to see House of Gucci. I’m not into fashion. I wear L.L. Bean. So, I’m the wrong guy.” The movie did around $160 million. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story only did $10 million or so — a flop. And that’s a pretty good story. But House of Gucci is drawing people — just like the brand.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Well, this is an epic story that touches people on so many levels. It’s not really a fashion story, it’s a family business story. The fashion adds glamour to it, but it’s really about the dysfunction of a family that created something amazing. And then, they tore each other apart — that’s gripping. We all want to know how that works. Every family has some level of dysfunction, and this blew it out of scale.
SARA GAY FORDEN: I think people are intrigued. They’re thinking about their own families, their own businesses and how to make things work. There’s a message here — which is that you can’t pick your family. You have to learn how to live with them, deal with them and work together. Why can’t a family that’s created something so amazing resolve their differences and pull in the same direction? I spent a lot of time thinking about that. I think these are the issues that bring people to the story.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s a tragedy, really. It’s like HBO’s Succession — with Brian Cox. It’s about a family business. I watched the first season and thought I wouldn’t be interested, but it grows on you. Because it’s not only a story about business. You can start identifying the characters and saying: “Oh, there’s Uncle Bob. There’s so-and-so.” It really draws you in.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: The people I’ve asked — and remember, this is not a scientific study — the people I’ve asked: “Did you ever think about seeing it?”, they say: “No, I saw it because I just wanted to get out.” And when they did see the movie, they said: “It’s pretty good.” I ask: “What’s good about it?” They say: “I don’t know. Overall, it’s a good movie.” If you have a cast like that, it should do amazingly well. But it could also do terribly if the storyline or screenplay weren’t good, or if it didn’t have this human element to it.
SARA GAY FORDEN: When I was writing it, I could really visualize it on a big screen. And when I set many of the scenes, I could almost see the camera panning. There’s so much to like here. And I think there could be a dozen movies of this story because there’s so many levels to unpack. This movie tells a slice of the story about the relationship between Maurizio and Patrizia, the family dynamics that play out through their love story and their falling out of love.
SARA GAY FORDEN: But there’s an origin story, the family battle story, the takeover battle afterwards with the French luxury titans … So, there’s something for everybody in this. There’s something for the fashion [person], but there’s something for the businessperson, too.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s a great job. So, let’s say you started writing in 1998. Lady Gaga was maybe in grade school at the time. But as you’re writing this, are you picturing in your mind … You said [you pictured] the settings. But did you see actors as you were doing this? Who would play this part, or who would be the perfect person for that part?
SARA GAY FORDEN: No, I really didn’t. I wasn’t thinking [about that] in those days. I was just trying to get the story down. And a lot was happening when I was writing the book. I was actually re-reporting an older book based on interviews with Paolo Gucci — Maurizio’s cousin. He is played by Jared Leto in the movie. Then, the takeover battle started. I was following that in real time. And then in May, the trial started for Patrizia…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What year was that?
SARA GAY FORDEN: This was 1998.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: The trial starts in May 1998?
SARA GAY FORDEN: It starts in May and goes for five months. They were in court three days a week. And I was in court just about every day because I wanted to be upfront and close.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, you were in Italy during this time?
SARA GAY FORDEN: Yeah, I was in Italy. I lived in Italy for 22 years.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh. So, you’re sitting there, understanding fluent Italian and watching the story courtside.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Exactly.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It seems unfair that you write a book on this because it’s like the transcript is your book! It’s amazing.
SARA GAY FORDEN: There was so much information that came out of the court transcripts, as you can imagine. That was a really useful reporting tool. It was a lot of filings, psychological reports, letters, Patrizia’s diaries, every phone call with Maurizio and the tapes. When she decides to wage a war — a smear campaign — against them, she’s recording angry cassette tapes and mailing them to him.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: If we talk about the movie, are we giving any spoilers? Are we screwing that up? I know how the movie plays out because I know the history. But if we start talking about that now, are people who didn’t see the movie going to be pissed?
SARA GAY FORDEN: No, I think it’s very much out there.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Great, so we can talk.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Great question. But we know that Patrizia, after getting ditched…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Hang on a second. Can you give us a little background for someone who knows nothing about this? Back us up. Talk to me about that part as if I knew nothing about this.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Yeah. So, this is the story of the relationship between Maurizio … He is the only son of Rodolfo Gucci. He’s based in Milan. The other family members are either in Florence or Rome. He’s a very eligible bachelor and very attractive. And he falls in love with Patrizia — who is the proverbial girl from the other side of the tracks.
SARA GAY FORDEN: She was born out of wedlock to her mother, Silvana. She ends up being adopted by her stepfather — Ferdinando Reggiani — who owns a successful trucking company outside of Milan. But she’s not considered to be part of the same social circle that Maurizio is from. And what people might not understand is that there’s a clear social stratum in this Milanesi business and industrial society. And Rodolfo — Maurizio’s father — was terrified that she was just after his money. He saw her as a gold digger.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: He’s a smart old fox. He knows this young girl. She’s an attractive, young girl. He’s a good-looking guy. And he had a large percentage of the shares, right? Was it 50% or so?
SARA GAY FORDEN: About 50%.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. So, this lady knows what she’s going for, right? She has the full package here. And the father’s really sharp. He’s saying: “Look, don’t go through with this because if you do…”
SARA GAY FORDEN: And he actually tries to get the wedding stopped by the Catholic Church. So, he goes to meet with the Cardinal of Milan and says: “We can’t let this this marriage happen.” And the Cardinal says: “I’m sorry, Mr. Gucci. But if they’re in love, there’s nothing we can do.” The Church is not about to get in the way of a marriage. So, the wedding goes forward. None of the Guccis come. It’s only people from Patrizia’s side of the family.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Hang on one second. Because you know this so well, what do you think Maurizio sees in this? Because as you’re reading the book, it’s a perfect setup. What do you think was going through his head? “She really loves me for me, I’m not listening to anyone and this is true love”?
SARA GAY FORDEN: Well, actually, I do think she loved him. But she was ambitious. She was being pushed by her mother to marry not only a wealthy man, but a man with a big name. At the same time, I do think she fell in love with him. And he was head-over-heels. He was completely swept off his feet. She was beautiful and exciting. She was not controversial, but she was edgy and different.
SARA GAY FORDEN: And he was also trying to get out from under his father’s thumb. At that point, you can see he hasn’t really come into his own as a man yet. They say sometimes we marry our parents. So, it seemed like he married the female version of his father. But he didn’t realize it until much later on in the story, when he starts to feel constrained by Patrizia — just as he had felt constrained by his domineering father.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You also become a therapist when you write these books.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Yes, it’s like history repeating itself.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, she starts off OK. She doesn’t seem crazy. Well, I can’t say that so I’m going to ask you. You know this much more intimately. What’s the turning point when things become a little fuzzy, she takes the leap and goes to the dark side?
SARA GAY FORDEN: Well, first of all, she’s very ambitious. The fashion industry is taking off, and it’s all about Armani and Versace. Gucci is seen as a has-been company — a dusty, old Florentine leather goods company. And she sees a real opportunity for Gucci to become a leader. She’s pushing Maurizio to step up to the plate and be the big Gucci CEO in Milan.
SARA GAY FORDEN: And he’s not having it. He’s shy, introverted and doesn’t like being out on the social set. And she loves all that. So, she’s pushing him and pushing him. It starts to get a little too much. Then, his father dies. And that’s where the switch is flipped.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Was she a smart businesswoman?
SARA GAY FORDEN: She definitely had good sense. For example, she was the one who suggested Rodolfo buy the beautiful penthouse apartment in Olympic Tower. Initially, he said: “You’re crazy. You’re just trying to spend my money.” And she said: “It’s a good investment.” And of course, it sure proved to be. It ended up being worth millions.
SARA GAY FORDEN: So, she was savvy. She wasn’t really educated, but she had a lot of common sense and street smarts. And it served her well. But it wasn’t until Maurizio loses his father and inherits 50% of the company that he starts to come up with his plan to relaunch Gucci. Because he wants to make his father and his grandfather proud of him. And he wants to restore Gucci to its glory.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: How much was that 50% worth?
SARA GAY FORDEN: When he finally sold it, it was $150 million.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When he inherited it, what was it worth?
SARA GAY FORDEN: It was less than that. But I don’t have the figures.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But it was pretty substantial. So, she really controls this and builds that brand up, right? Like you said, she has a good nose.
SARA GAY FORDEN: I wouldn’t say she built it up, but she definitely set things in motion.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I shouldn’t say that, right. She pushed it in the right direction. There was a woman behind the scenes.
SARA GAY FORDEN: She wanted to hire a proper designer. She was actually designing a gold jewelry collection for a while. It was ostentatious, but very much in the spirit of the 80s. Everything was big and flashy. But he wanted to make [Gucci] more classic and like the Italian version of the French brand Hermès — which was very highbrow at the time. They’ve all since moved more into the fashion arena. But at the time, he wanted to be round, brown and soft to a woman’s touch — that was his phrase. So, he focused on really classic pieces.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When do the wheels come off the wagon with her?
SARA GAY FORDEN: When he leaves and she realizes that she’s lost him. One day in 1985, he packs a bag, says he’s going to Florence for business meetings and never comes back. He doesn’t have the courage to tell her he’s done. The next day, he sends a friend — who’s a family doctor — with a bottle of Valium to tell her that Maurizio is finished. And that’s when it starts.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And if we talk about [what happens], we’re not giving it away. It’s happened, right? You sat at the court. So, folks, spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for him.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, walk us through that. You had a ringside seat. You were listening to this in the courtroom. And you probably said: “Holy smokes, this is stranger than fiction.”
SARA GAY FORDEN: It is. And while we can’t condone what she did, as a writer, I tried to understand how a woman can get to the point of wanting to kill her ex-husband. And the way I would summarize it is that it was a series of events that started to fester and became an obsession with her. Actually, the judge summed it up the most articulately when he issued a sentence. He said: “Maurizio didn’t die for who he was, but for what he had.” He had the name, fame and fortune that she fancied as hers. And she felt that she had lost it.
SARA GAY FORDEN: It was only after he died that she became “la Signora Gucci” again and reclaimed it. She moved into his apartment. She wore his bathrobe. It was pretty profound. But the judge ordered a psychological evaluation because initially she had presented an insanity defense.
SARA GAY FORDEN: She had a brain tumor that was operated on. It was a successful operation and the tumor was removed. It was not cancerous, it was benign. But Maurizio didn’t show up to the hospital when she was going into surgery. So, she felt like even though they weren’t married anymore, she was still the mother of his daughters. And he hadn’t shown up. So, there were layers and layers of hurt.
SARA GAY FORDEN: And they found that she had a narcissistic personality disorder. The way they described it was that when everything was going well, she was fine. But when things started to go downhill, they had an outsized effect on her. She took all of these things as things that had been done against her personally.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I know so many people with that disorder. When you go through life, you meet a lot of those kinds of people. Did you ever meet her?
SARA GAY FORDEN: I did. I met her in 1993, before any of these events happened. It was at the time when she was waging this smear campaign. And she was giving interviews to journalists in Milan about how terrible she thought Maurizio was. At that point, he was struggling to hold on to the company. He hadn’t lost control yet, but he was clearly fighting with Investcorp, his partner. He had overspent, so the company was taking on a lot of debt. People were leaving. And it was a very tense situation. She was furious with him.
SARA GAY FORDEN: So, she was granting interviews and pointing out what a terrible businessman he was and how he had hurt and wronged her. In the end, my editors decided not to publish the interview. But I had a long interview with her in her penthouse apartment in San Babila, overlooking the main shopping district in Milan.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Why didn’t they want you to publish it?
SARA GAY FORDEN: Well, at the time I was working for Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine. It was all about the beautiful life, beautiful people and intriguing things. And this was a hit job. That wasn’t in the editorial line of the magazine.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Looking back, you would have published that, right? I don’t know if it would be a hit piece, per say. It’s such a fine line. Anything goes today that people want to put out to hurt other people. I guess it would go.
SARA GAY FORDEN: When I started writing the book, she was in jail. And the prison authorities wouldn’t allow me to interview her. They were very concerned that she could use her name, fame and money to influence the outcome of the trial. So, I wrote her a letter. First, I asked the prison authorities in Milan. I went to the Justice Department in Rome. I even asked one of the lawmakers if they could help me get an interview. And the door kept shutting in my face.
SARA GAY FORDEN: So, I finally wrote her a letter telling her who I was and what I was doing. I asked if she would write to me, and she agreed. So, I had a jailhouse correspondence with her. And she talked primarily about her early years with Maurizio. She said how he was the man who she still loved the most despite all of his mistakes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Despite killing him also, right?
SARA GAY FORDEN: At that time, she was maintaining innocence. She maintained that she did not hire the hit — even though she had gone around dinner parties in Milan, publicly saying to friends: “Will somebody please kill my husband?” So, she was very vocal about this. But she said she didn’t really mean it, even though her lawyer got so upset about it that he wrote her a cease-and-desist letter. He told her she had to stop saying that and it was not OK.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Though she had been saying “Will somebody kill my husband?”, she maintained that it was actually her friend, Pina, who took it upon herself to do it. Then, she blackmailed Patrizia for the money. So, that was her defense.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: An elaborate story. And she got 24 years?
SARA GAY FORDEN: The initial sentence was 29 years. It was reduced almost immediately to 26 years. And then she ended up spending about 18 years total.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Why 18 years? Good behavior?
SARA GAY FORDEN: Time off for good behavior. They always end up spending less time in jail than the sentence. And this was a concern to the detective who had done the investigation. He believed she should have gotten a life sentence that was on par with what the killer got. But the judge said he gave her a lesser sentence because of the psychological evaluation. He felt that was a mitigating factor.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, where does the movie end?
SARA GAY FORDEN: That’s a spoiler, isn’t it?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK, then don’t do it. Let’s go to your book. Your book ends after that, right? I think you go further. You go up to present day.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Yeah. With the new tie-in addition, it goes right up to the present. So, I did a new afterword that updates the highlights of the past 20 years. My book looks not only at how Gucci came to be and what it was under the Gucci [family], but also how it went on to continued success under professional management.
SARA GAY FORDEN: So, you have the Tom-Dom team — they were the darlings of the fashion industry in the late-90s and early-2000s. They staged the most successful luxury IPO anybody could have imagined. They created the luxury goods financial sector on the stock market. It didn’t exist before then. They had to train analysts in how the luxury market worked. And then, of course, there was the takeover battle.
SARA GAY FORDEN: I was aiming at books like Barbarians at the Gate and Den of Thieves. I was interested in the whole business drama. And to me, the family saga made it even more compelling. I tried to weave them together. That’s the genre that I was trying to achieve in writing this book.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, this book has been out for 20 years, right? Does it freak you out that people are still reading it and talking about it?
SARA GAY FORDEN: Writing is a very solitary experience. As you understand, it was a real labor of love. I lost myself in the story. And the book did well. When it first came out, it sold 50,000 copies. It was not on The New York Times Best Seller list. So, this is now a dream come true.
SARA GAY FORDEN: But it didn’t really touch a nerve back then. And I’m not sure why. A lot of people say: “How come we didn’t know about the Gucci story? This is an incredible story arc.” They say every book has its time, right? Maybe this is the time for this book.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And during a pandemic. It really is weird. Your publisher sent this book to me. You were so gracious last minute. We reached out to you, we had a spot and you came. And I didn’t have a chance to read the whole book. So, your publisher sent it to me.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I was briefing through and I saw “2020.” Then, I went to the beginning and said: “Wow, this book was written 22 years ago?” And it’s still fresh. That is really a monumental feat. That’s amazing. I’m sure you’re proud of that.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Thank you. It’s very exciting. My mom is proud, too. She was my editor. She was a reporter in her early years. And when she retired, she was an editor at the Department of Commerce — a very good editor. I was over there in Italy and she was here in the D.C. area. And we were passing chapters back and forth. So, I got to see the first screening of the movie — before it was debuted in movie theaters — with her. That was a great moment.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When you see [the movie] as an author, do you start picking it apart, saying: “This is out of sequence. I can’t believe what the director did here.” Or do you just take it in and say: “Wow.”
SARA GAY FORDEN: Sorry, in terms of seeing the movie?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When you see the movie, here is your labor of love. You put more into this project than the movie shows in two hours. Because it’s really only showing a slice. And for artistic reasons, they switch things. Timelines are a little different. It’s not exact.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: One of my sons, after any movie he sees, he goes on this website that shows all the mistakes. Were you watching this, going: “That’s wrong. There were two cousins, not three. The valley was here.” Or do you just take it in and say: “Wow, this is good stuff.”
SARA GAY FORDEN: I have a lot of respect for the craft of filmmaking. And that’s not my craft, so I don’t feel like it’s something to be picked apart. But to me, what’s important is that the thrust of the story is true to what I wrote. And if they have devices to better convey that on a big screen, I’m not picking over details.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You must’ve been a pleasure to work with, because most authors are not that way. It becomes a war with the screenwriters.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Yeah. I’m so honored that a director of the caliber of Ridley Scott — and a cast of this caliber — is interpreting the story that I spent two years writing. So, I’m not a nitpicker, no.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow, good for you. You sound like a good person. This is really amazing. I just love this for your story. I know what it is to sit down and write. You’re writing to nobody. You’re writing to a computer screen. You never know if these words are going to see the light of day, or if some editor is going to strike through it. You spend every waking hour doing it. And then, 20-plus years later, it’s everywhere.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Yeah, it’s a bit of an out-of-body experience. In fact, when I first saw it, everything was just crashing through me. I do think that you can appreciate the movie more if you’ve read the book. Because there are so many quick transitions, twists and turns.
SARA GAY FORDEN: And there’s some great details. One of my favorite scenes in the book — and also in the movie — is the motorcycle escape, when Maurizio gets tipped off by his driver that the financial police are coming for him. Because his uncle and cousin reported to the authorities that he forged his father’s signature on his share certificates — for the famous 50% of the company.
SARA GAY FORDEN: And Luigi’s like: “Maurizio, the financial police are coming. Go down to the basement, get the motorcycle and ride like a bat out of hell to get to Switzerland.” He happens to have a chalet in St. Moritz that his father also left him. But what people don’t realize is that Switzerland has a non-extradition treaty with Italy. So, once he was there, he was safe. And he actually lived in exile for a year and ran the company from this house in St. Moritz until he was able to clear the charges against him.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow, crazy. Sara, all the power to you. I wish you continued success. When I was told that you were going to be on the show, I could just imagine that it’s like a dream come true. Because it’s not just a movie — you have the best of Hollywood. There are so many fine actors. I saw something on Twitter that said: “Just give Ridley Scott the Academy Award now.” He’s the only guy without one in the movie. I saw some really funny things about that.
SARA GAY FORDEN: I hope he gets it!
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Well, if this pandemic is over, they could have it live. You would probably be there, right?
SARA GAY FORDEN: Actually, I did go to the premieres in November in London, New York and L.A. And that was incredibly exciting. I got to meet some of the stars. That was really a goosebumps moment.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Were they impressed with you? Forget about you being awed by them. Were they impressed with you?
SARA GAY FORDEN: I had some great conversations. They love the story. And it was fun to talk to them about how they interpreted their characters. It’s great to have such an interesting topic of conversation with these amazing actors.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, without giving names, last question for you: all in all, are you happy with the way they took your interpretations and portrayed them on screen?
SARA GAY FORDEN: Overall, yes. I think they got to the essence of each of the characters. There were moments when I could remember typing the same words into my computer. For example, I was telling you about the cassettes that Patrizia was mailing to Maurizio. There’s a scene where Maurizio and his new girlfriend, Paola, are coming back to their new apartment after playing tennis. He hits the voice message on the phone and you hear Patrizia’s voice saying: “Maurizio, the inferno for you is yet to come.” And I’m thinking: “Oh my God, I remember typing those words.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: To see them come alive on screen…
SARA GAY FORDEN: Yes!
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s amazing. It goes to show you what a great job you did that the actors were able to portray the characters the way you envisioned them. So, great job. Do you have another book coming out? Do you have any ideas for another one?
SARA GAY FORDEN: Well, now I’m very jazzed to write another book. But it’s really about finding a story that speaks to me and will speak to other people. I think the point of writing a book is to have a story that resonates with people. So, I’m doing research for the next.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Absolutely great. Sara, all the power to you and lots of continued success. You sound like you’re still awestruck. And that’s a great place to be.
SARA GAY FORDEN: Thank you so much. What a great interview.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.
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