The Gucci wife and the hitman: fashion’s darkest tale

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The Gucci wife and the hitman: fashion’s darkest tale” was written by Abigail Haworth, for The Observer on Sunday 24th July 2016 07.00 UTC

Two years ago, not long after Patrizia Reggiani was released from prison, a camera crew from a trashy Italian TV show turned up unannounced at her Milan workplace. Reggiani had just spent 16 years inside after being convicted of arranging the murder, in March 1995, of her ex-husband Maurizio Gucci, the last of the Gucci family dynasty to run the luxury brand. The former socialite had always maintained her innocence – her best friend had set her up, she said – but the TV crew caught her in a reckless mood.

“Patrizia, why did you hire a hitman to kill Maurizio Gucci? Why didn’t you shoot him yourself?” badgered the reporter.

“My eyesight is not so good,” she lobbed back. “I didn’t want to miss.”

Understandably then, when I try to find her, Reggiani’s inner circle doesn’t seem keen to let her near another journalist. “She’s not here. She’s off work with a bad back,” says Alessandra Brunero, co-owner of Bozart, a Milanese costume jewellery firm that has employed Reggiani as a “design consultant” since April 2014.

Sentenced to 26 years on appeal, Reggiani was required to find a job as a condition of her parole. She turned down her first offer of release in 2011, according to the Italian press, because the very idea of working horrified her. “I’ve never worked in my life and I don’t intend to start now,” she told her lawyer.

Bozart, with its Renaissance-style premises full of sparkling necklaces and chandeliers, was obviously an acceptable compromise. Brunero and her business-partner husband have now become Reggiani’s de facto minders, tasked with ensuring the 67-year-old sticks to her parole and quietly rebuilds her life as a regular citizen.

Reggiani in court in 1998, her face impassive
‘I am a very strong person. I survived all the years in captivity’: Reggiani in court in 1998. Photograph: EPA

“Oh, mamma mia, it’s not easy,” says Brunero, a stylish 40-something. She invites me inside, and I get the impression she really needs to talk. “I cried after that TV interview. It was terrible,” she says, putting her head in her hands. “Naturally, Patrizia was only joking…”

Even before the impromptu “confession”, persuading Reggiani to remain low-key was a lost cause. One of her first acts of freedom was to go shopping on Via Monte Napoleone – Milan’s Bond Street – decked out in gaudy jewels and movie-star sunglasses, with a large pet macaw perched on her shoulder. The paparazzi couldn’t believe their luck. Lady Gucci, as she used to be known, was back.

The gunning down of 46-year-old Maurizio Gucci one morning in the red-carpeted foyer of his office, and the subsequent murder trial, captivated Italy in the late 1990s. It was sensational fin de siècle stuff. This was elegant Milan, not mob-riddled Naples, and execution-style killings of the city’s glamorous elite were unknown. Reggiani, dubbed the “Liz Taylor of luxury labels” in the 1970s and 80s, was an immediate suspect. She had openly threatened to kill Gucci after their split. But, without evidence, the crime went unsolved for nearly two years. A tip-off led to her arrest in 1997, along with four others, including the hitman.

While the public loved it, the Gucci company was less enthralled. After decades of infighting among the heirs of the founder Guccio Gucci, the brand was no longer under family control. Maurizio, a grandson of Guccio who’d ousted his relatives from the business to become CEO in 1992, had been forced to sell his stake 18 months before he died. Ownership was taken over by Bahrain- based investment bank Investcorp. The murder coincided with a thrilling revival of the brand’s image in the mid-1990s under new boss Domenico De Sole and edgy young designer Tom Ford.

“The last thing Gucci wanted was a sordid scandal,” says Giusi Ferrè, a veteran Milan-based fashion writer and cultural critic with trademark spiky orange hair. “The company tried to ignore the whole drama and they wanted everyone else to ignore it, too.” The label’s continued rise over the past two decades has eclipsed memories of the murder even more. Gucci is currently on yet another high. Revenue is soaring, and androgynous new creative director Alessandro Michele recently turned Westminster Abbey into the most hallowed venue ever for his latest collection. Yet the amnesia is odd, because the saga has everything: glamour, greed, sex, death, betrayal, raging status anxiety. It probably says more about the primal allure of a name like Gucci than all the sales figures in the world.

After Reggiani was arrested, the media dubbed her Vedova Nera – the Black Widow – and touted all the stereotypical theories about her likely motives. She was jealous of Maurizio’s girlfriend, she wanted his money, she was bitter about his neglect, she was plain mad. If there is a grain of truth in any of these, there was also something deeper, too. “Everything Reggiani was stemmed from being a Gucci,” says Ferrè. “It was her whole identity, even as an ex-wife. She was furious with Maurizio for selling out.” Even after her release from prison, Reggiani couldn’t let go. She told La Repubblica newspaper in 2014 that, now she was available again, she hoped to return to the company fold. “They need me,” she said. “I still feel like a Gucci – in fact, the most Gucci of them all.”

Maurizio Gucci in a suit and tie
Maurizio Gucci was 46 when he was gunned down in the foyer of his office. Photograph: AP

Bozart’s owners relent a week later and agree to introduce me to Reggiani at their offices. She appears in their grand sitting room wearing a short floral dress. She is tiny, barely 5ft tall, although her enormous hair, now reddish brown, and nude high heels give her extra height. “That’s a lovely dress,” I say to break the ice. “It’s Zara. I don’t earn enough at this place to buy proper clothes,” she replies, throwing a disgruntled look at her hovering employers.

We sit down on matching white sofas to espressos and iced water, and I ask her about life in Milan’s San Vittore prison. “I think I am a very strong person because I survived all these years in captivity,” she says in the heavily accented English she picked up during her jet-setting days. “I slept a lot. I took care of my plants. I looked after Bambi, my pet ferret.” Bambi, she adds, was a special privilege negotiated by her lawyer, but the creature met a sticky end when a fellow inmate accidentally sat on him. “I don’t like to talk about this time at all,” she says, already keen to change the subject. “It is all a bad dream to me.” Reggiani won’t admit out loud that she was in prison, referring to her incarceration as “my stay at Vittore Residence.”

She relaxes more when we start to talk about the past. She was born in a small town outside Milan to a waitress and a much older man who made his fortune in trucking.

They were very rich, but not part of Milan’s high society. As a young woman she liked fine things – her father spoiled her with mink coats and fast cars – and she found her way on to the elite social circuit. “I met Maurizio at a party and he fell madly in love with me. I was exciting and different,” says Reggiani. The Guccis came from Florence so Maurizio also felt something of an outsider. “I didn’t think much of him at first. He was just the quiet boy whose teeth crossed over at the front.” Reggiani had other suitors, but the young Gucci chased her hard with all the riches at his disposal.

They married in 1972 when they were both around 24. The union caused a rift with Gucci’s father Rodolfo, one of Guccio Gucci’s sons, who disapproved of Reggiani’s background and, no doubt, her strong personality. Maurizio was an only child whose mother had died when he was five, and his father had always been overprotective.

“Maurizio felt free with me. We had fun, we were a team,” says Reggiani. Rodolfo softened after she gave birth to a daughter, Alessandra, and he could see that she “really loved Maurizio”. The elder Gucci bought the couple numerous properties, including a luxury penthouse in New York’s Olympic Tower. Early adopters of celebrity coupledom, the pair rode around Manhattan in a chauffeur-driven car with the personalised plate “Mauizia”. They hung out with Jackie Onassis and the Kennedy brood whenever they were all in town.

“We were a beautiful couple and we had a beautiful life, of course,” says Reggiani, throwing her hands in the air and briefly leaving them there. “It still hurts to think about this.” She perks up when she remembers the lavish colour-themed parties she threw in the early 1980s – “one was all orange and yellow, including the food” – and the trips to private islands on their 64m wooden yacht, the Creole, which Maurizio bought to mark the birth of their second daughter, Allegra. (Worth millions, it is still owned and sailed by the couple’s two daughters). Their charmed world also included a ski chalet in Saint Moritz, a holiday home in Acapulco and a farm in Connecticut.

It all started to unravel after the death of Rodolfo in 1983, Reggiani says, when Maurizio inherited his father’s 50% stake in Gucci. “Maurizio got crazy. Until then I was his chief adviser about all Gucci matters. But he wanted to be the best, and he stopped listening to me.” The Gucci brand had been losing prestige from over-licensing its famed double-G logo and from mass production of canvas bags. Maurizio had a plan to restore it to high-end glory by reverting to the exquisite craftsmanship the company was built upon.

He fought for years with his uncle and cousins, who jointly owned the other half of the firm, until he pulled off a plot to buy them out with the help of Investcorp. The couple’s marriage imploded along the way. Apparently weary of Reggiani’s constant “meddling”, one evening Maurizio packed an overnight bag and left. Meanwhile, the company lost millions under his control. Reggiani had been right, at least, that Maurizio was mismanaging business and not creating enough revenue to execute his grand ideas. His personal fortune was dwindling and he was forced to sell Gucci wholly to Investcorp for $120m in 1993.

Gucci and Reggiani as a young, glamorous couple in the 80s.
‘We were a beautiful couple and we had a beautiful life’: Gucci and Reggiani in the 80s. Photograph: Rex Shutterstock

“I was angry with Maurizio about many, many things at that time,” says Reggiani. “But above all, this. Losing the family business. It was stupid. It was a failure. I was filled with rage, but there was nothing I could do.” She turns her head and drops her voice so low I can hardly hear her. “He shouldn’t have done that to me.”

Giuseppe Onorato was sweeping away leaves inside the arched doorway of Via Palestro 20, the graceful building where Maurizio Gucci had his private office, at 8:30am on 27 March 1995. “It was a lovely spring morning, very quiet,” says Onorato, now 71, the former building doorman and the only person who witnessed what occurred next. “Mr Gucci arrived carrying some magazines and said good morning. Then I saw a hand. It was a beautiful, clean hand, and it was pointing a gun.”

The gun fired three shots at Gucci’s back as he went up the steps, and a fourth into his head as he collapsed. “I thought it was a joke. Then the shooter saw me. He lifted the gun again and fired two more times. ‘What a shame,’ I thought. ‘This is how I die.’”

Onorato can’t remember how he made it to the foyer’s steps after he’d been shot twice in the arm, but he was sitting there in a pool of blood when the carabinieri arrived. “I was cradling Mr Gucci’s head. He died in my arms,” says the ex-doorman.

Speaking on the phone from Sardinia, where he has a small holiday house, Onorato still sounds incredulous that he survived. “I still have stabbing pains in my left arm, but every day for the past 21 years I’ve woken up thankful I’m alive.” The gunman vanished into Milan’s Monday morning rush hour. The aftermath wasn’t easy for the doorman.

As the only direct witness, Onorato was terrified that the killer would return. “I was a poor man, so I had to go back to work at Via Palestro 20 when I recovered. I had a panic attack every time an unfriendly looking stranger approached.”

After Reggiani’s conviction, the courts ordered her to pay Onorato compensation of the equivalent of roughly £142,000. He has yet to receive any of it, he says. Reggiani’s daughters, who are now in their late 30s and have always stuck by their mother (at least publicly), directly inherited Maurizio Gucci’s millions, as well as the yacht and properties in New York, Saint Moritz and Milan. Reggiani declared herself nullatenente – the Italian word for bankrupt, meaning “a person who has nothing”.

“I’m not bitter,” says Onorato, “but I do wonder, if a rich person had been wounded in that doorway instead of me, whether they’d have been treated with more respect.” He has a point. When, for instance, Gucci’s lawyers proposed a divorce settlement to Reggiani of £2.5m plus £650,000 per year, she rejected it as “a mere bowl of lentils” and landed a better deal.

Onorato isn’t the only person whose life was turned upside down by the murder. Paola Franchi, now 61, had been Gucci’s live-in partner for five years before his death. The couple shared a palatial apartment on the city centre boulevard, Corso Venezia, along with Franchi’s 11-year-old son Charly, and had planned to marry. Tall and blonde, Franchi didn’t fare much better than Reggiani in the trial’s media coverage, which often portrayed her as a glamorous gold digger.

The hitman and getaway driver behind bars during the trial in 1995.
Hired hands: the hitman and getaway driver behind bars during the trial in 1995. Photograph: Luca Bruno/AP

“Oh, they always resort to these stupid types,” Franchi says. “Actually my previous husband, whom I left for Maurizio, was even richer, so it was all nonsense.” An interior designer turned artist, Franchi lives in a converted porcelain factory in Milan and spends half the year in Kenya. Her home is stuffed with books, paintings and exotic souvenirs. She’s chatty and quick to laugh, with a lightness of spirit that I wasn’t expecting.

During the trial it emerged that Reggiani had put pressure on her hired accomplices to carry out the murder quickly, before Franchi and Gucci’s wedding. Reggiani’s one-time best friend Pina Auriemma, who confessed to arranging the hitman, testified that Reggiani couldn’t bear the thought of another woman taking her place as Mrs Maurizio Gucci – and with it, the power, status and money that she “had earned”.

She also feared that her daughters could lose some or all of their inheritance if the couple had children. “Patrizia was stalking us,” says Franchi. “She still had spies in Maurizio’s circle and she knew all about our plans, his business dealings, everything. She called many times abusing him and threatening to kill him.”

If Gucci didn’t take Reggiani’s calls, she sent him diatribes on cassette tape, later played in court, saying he was “a monster” for neglecting her and their daughters, and warning that “the inferno for you is yet to come”.

“I begged him to hire a bodyguard,” says Franchi, “but he refused. He didn’t believe Patrizia would go through with her threat because of their girls.”

Gucci and Franchi had crossed paths briefly in their youth on the Euro-rich-kid party circuit. They reconnected by chance when they were both reeling from unhappy marriages. “We fell in love immediately. Maurizio used to tell me” – Franchi starts to cry – “that we were two halves of the same apple.”

The day after the murder she received an eviction order from Reggiani to move out of the grand apartment she’d shared with Gucci. The notarised timestamp, Franchi noticed, showed the papers had been drawn up at 11am the previous day – less than three hours after Maurizio died. “In those days co-habiting couples had no legal protection. Charly and I were out, just like that.”

Franchi slowly began, as she puts it, “to build a different future”. But five years later she suffered another tragedy. While visiting his father over Christmas, her son Charly killed himself at the age of 16. “It was completely unexpected,” she says. “He was a happy, shining boy, greatly loved. We think it was a flash of teen madness.” Franchi has photos of Maurizio and Charly all over her house, but says they’re not there so she can dwell on her pain. “I like to have their faces around, to say hello. For a year after Charly died I felt a rage in my soul, but then I got on with life. I’m the kind of person who has to keep moving forward.” She poured her emotions into painting and writing, she says, and is also active in a charity for troubled or suicidal teens, L’Amico Charly, that her ex- husband set up in memory of their son.

When Franchi moved out of the Corso Venezia apartment, Reggiani moved in with her daughters. She lived there in luxury for the next two years, until one of her accomplices boasted about the murder to the wrong person. The man informed the police, who launched a sting operation to trick Reggiani and her four paid accomplices – her friend Pina Auriemma, a friend of Auriemma’s who set up the hitman, the hitman himself and the getaway driver – into discussing the crime on wiretapped phones. It succeeded. Among other evidence they found at Reggiani’s home was her Cartier diary, which had a one-word entry for the day of Gucci’s death: “Paradeisos” – the Greek word for paradise.

In court, Reggiani admitted she’d paid Auriemma around £200,000, but denied it was for the murder, claiming Auriemma had arranged the hit herself and was threatening to frame her if she didn’t pay. “But it was worth every lira,” Reggiani then added, confusingly, unable to help herself even then. All five involved in the murder plot were found guilty. Despite the Gucci company’s supposed indifference to the scandal, on the day of the verdict the Italian media reported that Gucci shops around the country hung silver handcuffs in their windows. (Gucci declined to make any comment at all for this article.)

Paolo Franchi in her decorative garden
‘I begged Maurizio to hire a bodyguard’: Paolo Franchi, who Gucci lived with for five years after leaving Reggiani. Photograph: Uli Weber for the Observer

At Bozart, Brunero’s husband and co-owner Maurizio Manca gives me a tour of Reggiani’s new workplace. It seems almost too perfect for her. The jewellery the upmarket firm creates is designed to be big, ornate and dazzling. Manca, who is dressed all in black and has a mop of floppy grey hair, freely admits the 60-year-old company had its heyday in the 1980s when “there was corruption everywhere and the money was flowing”. Stars, including Madonna and Pamela Anderson, have worn Bozart’s designs which, best of all, supplied all the glitz worn by Linda Evans’s character Krystle Carrington on the set of Dynasty.

When she’s at work, Reggiani spends much of her day advising Bozart’s design team and reading fashion magazines. “She’s like our Michael Schumacher – she keeps on top of trends and test-drives our creations,” says Manca.

“I prefer Senna. He has much more class,” Reggiani says, emerging from her portrait shoot with the Observer photographer. There’s a pause while everyone remembers the unfortunate fates of both drivers, and the analogy is quickly dropped. Reggiani says she enjoys the job, but admits that she hasn’t found it easy to adjust to the modern workplace. “I don’t like computers. They are quite evil.” Manca points out, in her defence, that the fax machine was still cutting-edge technology when she went to prison. Still, he adds that they had to remove her computer from their internal network after she permanently deleted Bozart’s entire photo archive.

Nobody says it directly, but it seems clear a big reason for taking on Reggiani was to generate publicity and try to rekindle the firm’s edge of flashy danger. If so, it hasn’t been straightforward so far. When Reggiani first arrived she helped to design a collection of rainbow coloured jewellery and evening bags inspired by her pet macaw, Bo. Bozart held a launch in Milan in September 2014 and invited the fashion press. “Everybody came and it was a big success,” says Manca. “But it happened to be on the same day that Gucci was having a runway show up the street. The next day there was nothing at all in the newspapers about Patrizia’s collection.” Manca says the journalists later told him they’d been leaned on by “someone at Gucci” not to publish. While Gucci wouldn’t confirm or deny, an Italian fashion editor friend later doubts his claim. “The fashion corps probably just didn’t like the parrot designs,” he says.

All the same, Manca and Brunero appear to be genuinely fond of their employee. As the afternoon goes by, Reggiani gets tired and cracks in her bravado appear. She talks about how, by court order, she lives in a Milan townhouse with her 89-year-old mother, who is still in good health. “Sometimes I wish I was back inside Vittore Residence because my mother is very difficult. She berates me every day for no reason.” Reggiani’s daughters Alessandra and Allegra, who were 18 and 14 when she was arrested, are both married and now live in Switzerland. Unimaginably rich thanks to their father’s estate, they haven’t visited Reggiani much since her release.

It’s almost the stuff of Greek tragedy. “We are going through a bad time now,” says Reggiani. “They don’t understand me and have cut off my financial support. I have nothing, and I haven’t even met my two grandsons.” She says she has “no idea” what the future holds when her parole ends, possibly in a few months. She may continue to work at Bozart and says she’d like to travel when she’s allowed to leave the country again. She seems to have given up the idea of trying to find a job at Gucci, even if she hasn’t quite let go of the past. “If I could see Maurizio again I would tell him that I love him, because he is the person who has mattered most to me in my life.” I ask her what she thinks he’d say to her in reply, and she sounds a note of realism at last. “I think he’d say the feeling wasn’t mutual.”

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