THE ITALIAN DESIGNER THAT CREATED A RENAISSANCE IN FASHION, ALL ON HIS OWN.
“I am the first in my family to work in a thousand years,” Emilio Pucci espoused in his flowing, Florentine accent. Born in 1914 to one of the oldest of Italian noble families, he was tapped with the title, Marquis. The Florentine di Barsento Pucci’s were the truest of blue bloods – their lineage of nobility dating back to the 13th century, with ancient alliances to the banking and political family dynasty, The House of Medici.
The family has owned the Palazzo Pucci since they acted as political advisors for the Medici’s in the 1400’s. The palace, located in the center of Florence, still houses some of the most brilliant paintings of the Renaissance period, including Botticelli’s Story of Nastagio Degli Onsti. But by the 19th Century, the Pucci palace was falling into disrepair, and their family fortunes were dwindling after decades of extravagant living. So broke were they, Emilio’s grandfather had to necessitate the selling of paintings and furniture. Family legend has supported the story that this grandfather once removed a Botticelli from its frame and cut it down in size to fit into a steamer trunk, selling it to an art dealer in New York. The family did hold vast amounts of farmland in Tuscany, however, and managed a good living growing wheat and grapes. In his lifetime, Emilio was able to take his financial successes and restore the palazzo to its aristocratic past. The palace eventually became Emilio’s company headquarters, which preciously archived some 18,000 print variations, 200 custom fabric colors, 15,000 scarves, and thousands of bolts of vintage fabric.
Who was this was this erudite playboy and modern day Renaissance man with a spirit for living that pushed the envelope in every aspect of his life? An avid sportsman, a lover of women, fast cars and the sporting life, his life ultimately resembled that of a hero in a romantic novel.
What can be said of an Air Force Captain, decorated for valor for his made-for-the-movies exploits during WWII, only to be dubbed by the international fashion press as “the Prince of Prints” for his subsequent career in fashion that both mystified and humiliated his upper crust family?
Who indeed was this swank man who, with no formal training, grew his company into one of the greatest fashion houses in history, dressing the famous and the infamous over three fashion decades? Bacall, Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Babe Paley, Barbara Walters, and the gorgeous and talented Marilyn Monroe – all lovers of his geometric patterns, exuberant colors, and effortless designs that redefined the way women wanted to dress and feel for a new generation. One of the most important and enigmatic characters of the Italian fashion world during his era, Emilio Pucci came to signify all on his own, true “Made in Italy” style.
The young Emilio Pucci’s youth was carefree and without want. As the young, aristocratic child of two severe parents, he spent his childhood in a calm and pleasant environment, attending the Liceo Galileo in Florence, summering at Forte di Marmi, and in the autumn, he spent time in the country where he would watch his father shoot pheasants for sport.
Pucci was a gifted athlete, extolling in tennis and skiing, so much so that at the age of 17, he was invited to participate as a member of the Italian Olympic ski team in the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, although he did not compete. As with most athletes, he became fascinated with how the body could move through space. This, coupled with his interest in art and architecture, were most likely the stimulus for his curiosity about clothing design and how fabrics could make the body seem free. So perhaps one could say that Pucci’s love for skiing was the natural impetus for what he was to become. “Pucci was driven by the desire to liberate women, granting them unprecedented freedom of movement.”
By many reports, the handsome Emilio’s nature was somewhat aloof, and he rarely smiled. For some, this came off as arrogance. He was a talented linguist and playboy who loved the thrill of racing cars and enjoyed the adoration of beautiful women. As a young man, he did not share the same haughty class distinctions to which his lineage subscribed. Since the end of World War I, there had been demonstrations throughout Europe concerning wages, working conditions and the sway that the wealthy held over the working classes. Emilio did not share the same attitudes of his elite lineage and was quite conscious of the underclass’s plight.
At a young age, Emilio was attracted to the politics of Italian fascism and its tenants but morally believed in the freedom and opportunity for all. He was iconoclastic. This ideology would be a conundrum for Pucci, as unrest in Europe continued to grow prior to World War II. Pucci had a life-long passion for politics, eventually leading him to serve as a member of the Italian Parliament’s liberal party in 1964, where he served as a deputy in Rome for nine years.
At the age of 21, at his father’s insistence, Pucci was sent to America to study cotton agriculture at the University of Georgia. This was a short-lived experiment. He found the college intellectually lacking luster. At the same time, the Pucci family was suffering great financial losses due to the Italian war with Ethiopia. There were economic sanctions against agricultural exports and the family’s farmland production suffered greatly. More importantly, historically, this was the time when Italy and Germany were becoming confederates against the rest of Europe. Emilio was cut off from any family funding, leaving him a penniless aristocrat in search of his future.
Emilio left the University of Georgia and found respite and solace in skiing when he took a trip to Mt. Hood in Oregon. He had heard of a school, Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, and with his practiced aristocratic bravado, introduced himself to the school’s president. Explaining his lack of money to continue his education because of the Italian economic sanctions, so persuasive was he, that Reed’s president offered him a full scholarship, room and board. In exchange, Pucci would develop and coach Reed’s first ski team. (Interestingly enough, Steve Jobs was also a devotee of Reed College, attending there for six months as an official student, but living there for the next year and a half while sleeping on friend’s dorm room floors, dropping in on courses he found interesting – in particular, a course in calligraphy.)
Still, Emilio remained short on money. It was most likely terribly humbling to have to take on further jobs washing dishes and scrubbing floors on the Reed college campus, but Pucci did so without complaint. Emilio not only trained Reed’s ski team but also designed their ski uniforms. Always in pursuit of form and flow, he received his first design commission during this time by working with White Stag, a Portland based skiwear company.
Emilio cut quite an impression as the flamboyant Florentine on such a small college campus. Co-ed’s either weakened to his philandering ways or stayed miles away. Known to waltz like no one on campus, he certainly made an impression. Upon graduating from Reed in 1937 with a Masters degree in Social Science, Pucci, in the meantime, garnered a fascination with the casual way of American life that pointed him to the colorful, but casual, form of clothing he would later design after the war. Interestingly, his Master’s thesis was entitled “Fascism: An Explanation and Justification.” But the tides were soon to change.
GALEAZZO CIANO AND EDDA MUSSOLINI
Edda Mussolini was the eldest daughter and special favorite of her father, the Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. Born in 1920 to her then unmarried parents, Edda was raised in dire poverty while living with her mother in her early years. Her father was the founder and editor of the newspaper, Il Popolo D’Italia (“The People of Italy”) and lived in Milan. Eventually, as her father became a rising star in Italian politics, Edda went to live with him. Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy in October 1922 and Dictator after January 1925.
Much like her father, Edda was headstrong and intelligent. Dating was nearly impossible, as most men feared Mussolini and wouldn’t dream of courting his daughter. But soon after her introduction to Galeazzo Ciano, the son of Mussolini’s Minister of Communications and a man he once designated as his successor, a whirlwind romance began. A charmer and notorious womanizer, Galeazzo Ciano was enamored with the good life. Devoted to the beau monde of movie stars, nobility, and the flock of female admirers that fluttered about him, he nonetheless asked for Edda’s hand in marriage – perhaps for love but with the added benefit of a close proximity to Mussolini, his future father-in-law. In a lavish ceremony attended by 4,000 guests, Galeazzo and Edda married on April 24, 1930 after a brief courtship of only seventeen days.
Though their marriage appeared happy at first, Galeazzo quickly became embroiled in a series of extramarital affairs that caused Edda to contemplate leaving him. Instead, Edda decided that an open marriage would suit her just fine, and took lovers of her own.One man, in particular, gave her great comfort and companionship – an air force captain named Emilio Pucci. A deep, lifelong friendship between the two began, and Edda would rely heavily on that friendship in the tumultuous years to come.
Shortly after their wedding in 1930, Ciano and Edda moved to China where the first of their three children was born. In 1935, back in Rome, Mussolini made his son-in-law the Minister for Press and Propaganda for his fascist regime, and a year later, Ciano was elevated to become Europe’s youngest Foreign Minister at the age of just thirty-three. Despite the fact that Ciano was young and immature for the job, he became Mussolini’s closest confidant, and was dubbed the “dauphin’ of Mussolini’s regime – the prince. Ciano worshipped the Duce initially, to the point of becoming his mini-me, emulating his characteristic and body language, for which he was roundly ridiculed. But all that was to change, as Ciano’s political views evolved and he became less enamored with his father-in-law’s penchant for war and his alliance with Hitler.
In 1943, in an attempt to placate the damages of war, the Fascist Grand Council in Italy passed a vote of no confidence against Mussolini, attempting to remove him from power. Remarkably, Mussolini’s son-in-law participated in that attempt. Voting against his father-in-law, Ciano enraged both Mussolini as well as Italy’s German ally, Hitler. While other members of Parliament managed to escape, Ciano was arrested and put in prison to await his trial for treason, for which he would most likely be put to death. Given the level of betrayal against his own father-in-law, Ciano was made the target of the judicial proceedings. Hitler was enraged and members of Italy’s new fascist Party were in an angry mood. Hitler wanted Ciano’s head served up on the proverbial platter.
Although Mussolini was furious with his son-in-law, he was also deeply conflicted. Edda, his beloved daughter, begged her father for his help in sparing her husband’s life. “There will undoubtedly be a trial, but don’t worry,” Mussolini assured her. “I shall make the necessary provisions for the outcome.” But whether this was an outright lie or a hopeful promise to his daughter, it was not to be. Forces larger than Mussolini were at work now, and fate would take its course.
Mussolini became resigned to Ciano’s death. In Germany after his own rescue now, the Duce tried, and was almost able, to convince Hitler to postpone the trial of his son-in-law until after the war. But the political tenor of the moment persuaded Hitler that Ciano should be condemned without further delay.
In a last ditch effort and from his jail cell, Ciano concocted a plan for his own self-preservation. Ever the conspirer and unbeknownst to Mussolini, Ciano had kept a scrupulous diary of his time spent with his father-on-law as his closest advisor and Foreign Minister, the tone of which was politically explosive and terribly uncomplimentary. The document portrayed Mussolini as a duplicitous ally of Germany with an explosive temperament. It chronicled Mussolini’s disdain for his own people, his angry outbursts, and his personal and political weaknesses, as well as those of his German allies, including Hitler. If published, the document would lay before the world a public humiliation of both Mussolini and Hitler the likes of nothing seen before. Getting wind of the overall tone of the diary, the Germans and Mussolini wanted nothing more than to get their hands on it. Playing his last card, Ciano sent Edda to retrieve the secret document from its hiding place in Italy, so that he could barter his own life in exchange for the papers. Edda dutifully agreed, but it was all too much for her to withstand. Despair befell her – she suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a clinic at Ramiola, near Parma.
AN SS DOUBLE AGENT
As the double-dealing Ciano sat in prison plotting his self-defense, as if the story could not get any more duplicitous, enter Hildegard Burkhardt Beetz. A beguiling young woman and SS agent, Beetz was sent by the Germans to visit Ciano in prison and win his confidence. Trusted with the mission of acting as Ciano’s interpreter with his German prison keepers, her real goal was to dupe Ciano into telling her where the diary was hidden. But Ciano’s womanizing abilities proved too skilled – instead, he won over Beetz’ heart, and she became his friend. Determined to help him, and Edda who was also in grave danger now, Hildegard secretly smuggled out of the prison letters that Ciano had written, addressed to Winston Churchill and the king, which contained an introduction to his diary and placed all responsibility for the war on Mussolini. Acting now as a double agent, Beetz turned these documents over to Edda.
PUCCI AND EDDA MEET AGAIN
In a state of despair and in grave danger for her own life, Edda enlisted the help of an old friend. It had been years since Pucci had last seen Edda. Upon hearing of her plight, Pucci convinced her that she must get herself and her three children to safety at once. On the night of December 12th, Pucci smuggled the three children –
Fabrizio, 12; Raimonda, 9; and Marzio, 6, – across the border to Switzerland, with a plan for their mother to follow shortly. Driving them in the dark of night and at great risk to himself, he delivered the children to safety. Edda planned to rejoin her children in a few weeks, but first, she wanted to help her husband in a final attempt to escape his prison and fate, with the aid of Hildegard Beetz.
Ciano had developed quite an ally in Beetz. She had a plan to save his life. Urging her superior’s in the SS to barter Ciano’s diary for his life, she found they were interested for various personal reasons having to do with their own power. The SS agents and Beetz concocted a plan to have Ciano kidnapped from his own prison cell, under the guise of two SS men disguised as Italian Fascists who would pretend to overpower his guards and steal Ciano away. Beetz urged Edda to go to Italy at once and retrieve the controversial documents from their hiding place, and with the help of Pucci, she agreed. Pucci set off on the arduous journey to Milan where the papers were hidden. Driving through the night over snow-covered roads, Pucci collected the documents, and then he and Edda set off to the pre-arranged rendezvous spot to meet the SS agents and swap the papers for her husband.
The car broke down. In actuality, Pucci got two flat tires. Edda continued on foot, sleeping on the side of the road at night, and arriving late to the appointment the following day. No one was there to meet her when she arrived. She was devastated. Hitler had gotten wind of the plan. Two days before her husband’s trial was set to begin and Ciano’s last hope of bartering a deal – all hope was lost, in one fell swoop.
PUCCI BECOMES A PRISONER OF WAR
On January 8, Edda slipped out of the Ramiola clinic where she had been staying since her nervous breakdown. Sneaking out a cellar door on the evening of her escape, she crept across a grassy field to meet her friend, Pucci, who was waiting for her in his car. By the next night, Edda crossed the border into Switzerland with Pucci’s help. A guide that Pucci had hired kept a lookout for German patrolmen and warned them of their presence. “Go now,” the guard implored, and she crossed the moonlit field, carrying the Ciano diaries under her dress in a pouch that Pucci had fashioned, making her appear a pregnant peasant woman. When SS agents arrived at the clinic the following morning to discover that she had fled, Edda had already safely arrived in Switzerland and was happily rejoined with her children. As if in a movie, the Gestapo and SS agents fanned out across Northern Italy in a desperate attempt to prevent her from crossing the border, but with the advantage of a day’s head start and the great fortune of having Emilio Pucci as a friend, Edda was able to get to safety and to her children for good.
Pucci headed for Sondrio, but his luck was running out. The car he owned was not his friend and was giving him a lot of trouble. Physically running on empty with no sleep, he felt ill. He pulled over to the side of the road and decided to sleep. When he awoke, his car would not start. It was in the wee hours of the morning and he knew he was in grave danger. Flagging down an oncoming vehicle, to his great dismay were four German officers. They demanded his papers, and upon realizing who he was, immediately arrested him, demanding to know of Edda’s whereabouts. Pucci was taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Verona and from there, was transferred to the SS headquarters in Milan. After two days of relentless torture, Pucci wanted to end his own life, and attempted to do so with a razor blade. But he would not succeed. Nor would the guards in getting him to talk.
For three days, the torture continued, until abruptly, on the third day, it stopped. Seemingly a guardian angel, Hildegard Burkhardt Beetz arrived on the scene, once again to save the day. In her infinite genii and beguiling ways, Beetz was able to persuade the authorities that it was much wiser to use Pucci to Germany’s advantage. Rather than imprison him, she prevailed upon the Germans to send Pucci to Switzerland with a message for Edda – that she was never to publish any part of the diaries or she would be killed.
Pucci was smuggled into Switzerland by boat. Badly beaten, dehydrated and with a fractured skull, he was found and admitted to a hospital. Only in late 1944 was he eventually reunited with Edda. Pucci delivered the message to his old friend, and remained in Switzerland until the end of the war when he was eventually decorated with valor. Edda’s husband was shot by firing squad in Jan. 1944.
CAREER AND INFLUENCE ON CULTURE
On military leave in Zermatt, Switzerland, providence found Emilio. He had designed a ski outfit for a female friend. The pant of the skiwear was slim in style and brandished an elastic stirrup. Toni Frissell, a well-noted fashion and WWII photographer who worked for Harper’s Bazzar, happened upon the couple and suggested doing a photo shoot of the outfit. Toni’s photographs were presented to Harper’s editor, the legendary Diana Vreeland, and she was bowled over. Vreeland had a knack for discovering new talent and making stars out of them. Doing what she did best, Vreeland invited Pucci to create a spread for the 1948 winter edition of Bazzar and, in the process, created a star. A winter spread of his designs in the magazine captivated a new group of modern women and led to a commission from Lord & Taylor, among other requests from American manufacturers. Catapulted into stardom and with his first orders in hand, Pucci returned home to his native land, Italy, the war over and free to now focus on his promising career in fashion.
Rather than sell his wares through manufacturers and department stores, Pucci considered more lucrative ways of controlling his financial future and his concepts of design. He opened his first boutique in 1949 on the Isle of Capri, and called it Emilio of Capri. Post-war Europe was returning to some normality, and, after years of war darkness, post-war fashion was hungry for color and a non-restrictive style of dressing. Keeping in mind the casual innateness he had experienced during his American college years, Pucci began to experiment with silks and textiles, and virtually reinvented the color wheel with brilliant new hues for his clothing. Tangerines, limes, shades of blues and yellows, azures…his shantung Capri pants and flowing blouses and scarves became the sensation of the jet set! The Pucci family abhorred the idea that their son, an aristocrat, was becoming a common dressmaker. To save grace, Pucci did not use the signature name in his designs but rather incorporated his first name, Emilio, throughout his initial clothing lines. But with his career on such an upward trajectory, Pucci eventually did open a workshop in his family palace in Florence, officially launching the House of Pucci in 1954. By the end of the decade, his lightweight, easy-to-pack, line of women’s clothing defined effortless decadence and luxury. His Capri pants were priced at $200 in the day – the equivalent of $1,400.00 US dollars in today’s market. His output also included Emilio Pucci rose wine from the family’s vineyards, ceramics, hats, and men’s ties.
Pucci’s second breakthrough came in 1965, when Braniff International Airways hired the New York ad agency of Jack Tinker and Associates to update their image. The agency hired Pucci to design new uniforms for the airline hostesses.
Pucci designed six complete collections for the stewardesses to wear, and the airline advertised its’ new image as “The End of the Plain Plane.” His Avant-guard creations were soon seen on the 1968 Barbie doll – a measure of his influence on society at the time – and are synonymous with the late 60’s and 70’s era of groovy chic.
As a matter of artistic interpretation, psychedelic rock became its own genre of music in the 60’s, attempting to replicate the mind-altering experience of the psychedelic drugs popular at the time. Popular artists such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and The Doors became part of an international music movement and spawned a counter-culture of hippie chic. The kaleidoscope of colors Pucci used in his designs fit perfectly with the times. In terms of cut, Pucci saw that this generation of women was not sitting “stiff and straitjacketed” like their grandmothers. He sought to create designs that were comfortable and that would “enhance the good lines and obliterate the bad ones.” Pucci’s innovative use of color, graphic design and psychedelic pattern, coupled with textile engineering that pushed the boundaries of textile design altogether, created a new version of leisurewear for women around the world.
As a new style of modern woman evolved – elegant, sporty, confident, and chic – Pucci’s designs revolutionized the leisurewear business. In a letter penned from Diana Vreeland to Pucci, Vreeland wrote, “Well, Emilio, you do make such amazingly modern and perfect things – and what we would have done without your shirts, pants, looks, divine color, and designed fabrics, I cannot imagine – you are a full renaissance in yourself and we must all be so very grateful for your wonderful work.”
Pucci’s styles, which featured glorious colors and patterns – some featuring as many as fifteen colors in one design – but also designed with Pucci’s perfection for cut, rocked the world. “Gaiety is one of the most important elements I have brought to fashion,” mused Pucci. “I brought it about through color. Just as a tone can be pleasing to the ear but doesn’t form music, so colors in contrast can be used to form a pattern which expresses to the eye very much what music does to the ear.”
Soon, the most beautiful and luxurious women of the world were seen wearing his creations. Whether on a ski slope wearing a practical but amusing ski suit; at a bistro on the Cote d’Azur; or at a dinner party wearing what looked like the most beautifully elegant pajamas, cut in the most perfect way, as though made for the Princess of Spain; women were captivated and drawn into a world of exotic femininity and sport.
Over the years, Pucci traveled extensively throughout India, Bali, and Brazil, which explain his love for rich color and textiles. The colorful garments of these cultures filtered through his designs, making dazzling dresses, headscarves, blouses, robes, beachwear, shawls and bags. Evening tunics were swathed in sequins, blouses were shrouded with wildly colored wildflowers and geometric designs, and dinner skirts with exotic Balinese-prompted influences adorned women across the globe.
Pucci restored glamour to the post-war world with his flowing robes, vivid colors, and beautifully feminine and romantic silhouettes. His brand became the symbol of taste and original style for women all over the world.
Soon, the most beautiful and luxurious women of the world were seen wearing his creations. Whether on a ski slope wearing a practical but amusing ski suit; at a bistro on the Cote d’Azur; or at a dinner party wearing what looked like the most beautifully elegant pajamas, cut in the most perfect way, as though made for the Princess of Spain;
THE PUCCI LABEL
Emilio Pucci died on November 29, 1992, leaving behind his wife, the Roman Baronessa, Cristina Nannini, and their daughter. After his death, his daughter, Laudomia Pucci, took the reins and continued to design under her father’s name. In 2000, the company formed an alliance with the French luxury goods empire of LVMH Moët Hennessy Group, which bought 67% of the Pucci Empire, and Laudomia became the company’s image director. Major fashion designers such as Christian Lacroix and Peter Dundas were brought on to continue producing the elegant and sophisticated aesthetic that was the Pucci signature.
With the backing of LVMH, the company has expanded rapidly, building a worldwide store network and global fan base. On Pucci, Dundas said, “Pucci is a brand that celebrates the idea of a seaside playground, (and) as a true beach bum, I share its love of the ocean, as well as the freedom, and glamorous spirit that it represents. Spending time in the Palazzo Pucci, one realizes that there is a very seductive lifestyle aspect to the brand that has yet to be explored.” And so he did. During his tenure at Pucci, Dundas unearthed his own take on Pucci style. “I wanted to explore the nightlife part of the label. I found all this fringing that reminded me of Oriental opium dens, and when I started working with gold jacquards, gold lace – it’s nocturnal, a bit dangerous.”
I wanted to explore the nightlife part of the label. I found all this fringing that reminded me of Oriental opium dens, and when I started working with gold jacquards, gold lace – it’s nocturnal, a bit dangerous.”
Marchese Emilio Pucci Di Barsento saw fashion as an expression of a certain historical period. “Designing today means understanding life as it is today – understanding social, political, and economic problems of the world at large and understanding people as individuals – and if you do, your designing has that universal quality which is the best mark of good design,” he once said.
By ‘fashion’, Pucci meant more than just clothing design – he meant the very fashion of life. “This era of ours, this century,” he continued, “started under the insignia of industrial development.” This meant that, for the first time ever, good design was made accessible to the general public through mass production, now making products available that were once only available to aristocracy and the very wealthy few. But taste was another thing entirely. Emilio saw in the 60’s that people were awakening to false materialism and were searching for real values and a pursuit of happiness that had never existed before.
“Possibly the greatest misconception about Emilio Pucci is that the prints that made the brand famous are abstract. In fact they are drawings, often simply inspired by objects, or of Pucci’s home surroundings.” Pucci’s roots, and his love for art and architecture, moved him. You can see it in his work. Rosita Missoni once commented of Pucci, “On my honeymoon in Capri in 1953, I remember going to his shop and being struck by how much the designs resembled Florentine mosaics. It was really extraordinary, although I don’t think a lot of people realized it.”
By the 1980’s, the center of Italian fashion and couture had moved from Florence to Milan, and Pucci had essentially started removing himself from public life, rarely leaving Florence. He made good wine from the family vineyards, collected the works of contemporary American painters, and purchased a small company that made silk brocade on 17th century looms. With names like Versace and Armani, fashion was becoming more egalitarian. He viewed these designer’s collections as nothing more than reworks of his own inventiveness of the 60’s. Emilio had become not only the Prince of Prints but also the Emperor of Italian style – exercising great beauty treated with nonchalance. He shaped a world with his adoration and appreciation for old world elegance, mixed with modern day proficiency. “Pucci means good times,” says Laudomia Pucci. “It represents a dream.” Pucci was perfection.