Pucci: The backstory of an Italian fashion icon
The backstory of Italy’s iconic fashion designer Emilio Pucci is as wild and colourful as his kaleidoscopic prints, writes Patty Huntington.
Conceived in a palazzo in Florence, on the ski slopes of Switzerland and America, and finally born on the island of Capri, perhaps no other fashion brand encapsulates the concepts of luxury travel and resortwear quite like Pucci.
Founded in 1947 by Italian aristocrat Emilio Pucci, the brand’s revolutionary unstructured, lightweight silk jersey dresses, kaftans, palazzo pyjamas and printed scarves helped put Italy on the global fashion map in the post-World War Two years.
Pucci’s exuberant designs in swirling, kaleidoscopic prints perfectly captured the mood of the nascent jet set and ‘Swinging Sixties’ right at the moment the fashion industry was moving away from stuffy, old-world haute couture and into the modern era of ready-to-wear.
“In the 1960s, to have a Pucci blouse, a Pucci scarf, a Pucci dress, was a complete status symbol,” Andy Warhol’s venerable Interview magazine noted in a profile of the designer in its September 1974 edition. “One couldn’t appear in St. Tropez, Palm Beach or The Hamptons without one.”
Luminaries who succumbed to ‘Puccimania’ – as the fashion phenomenon was dubbed as its popularity soared – included Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Marilyn Monroe, the latter laid to rest in a favourite mint-green Pucci dress, according to multiple Monroe biographies.
Majority-owned since 2000 by LVMH, the brand today comprises 26 of its own stores worldwide, offering eye-catching ready-to-wear collections, handbags, shoes, children’s wear, beachwear and its signature silk scarves, which often use travel as an inspiration.
As does much of Pucci’s ready-to-wear, like the soon-to-drop Resort 2020 collection, inspired by Paul Gauguin’s Polynesia and including sequinned ‘flapper’ dresses, billowing kaftans, ruffled maxi-dresses, ‘50s-look cropped blouses teamed with A-line skirts or Capri pants, and some intriguing black tulle ballerina skirts embellished with ribbons of vibrant Pucci prints.
As recounted by Pucci’s daughter, Laudomia Pucci, in the introduction to Unexpected Pucci – a new book being released in September by Rizzoli – the birth of the Pucci scarf began with a handdrawn map of Capri, her father’s favourite island, which he designed and framed as a work of art.
“From then on, most of his work began with a new scarf design which he wrapped around his bold creations,” added Pucci, who took over the company reins after her father’s death in 1992 and is now Pucci’s deputy chairman and image director. “If it wasn’t on a woman’s body as a dress, it would be on a beach towel, a nightgown, a bikini or even a cup,” she said.
There are more than 20,000 prints in the firm’s archive at the Emilio Pucci Heritage Hub at Palazzo Pucci at Via dei Pucci 4 – known as the ‘Street of the Puccis’ in central Florence – a grand home of the family since they were political advisors to the Medicis in the 1400s.
Unexpected Pucci doesn’t dive too deeply into the designer’s backstory, which has been documented in a number of other tomes, yet reveals a history that in many ways is as wild and colourful as the prints themselves.
Nicknamed by the international media as ‘The Prince of Prints’, the completely self-taught designer was born Don Emilio Paolo Pucci dei Marchese di Barsento in Naples in 1914, a scion of one of Florence’s oldest aristocratic families.
An avid sportsman, at age 17 he travelled to Lake Placid as part of the Italian team for the 1932 Winter Olympics, although he didn’t end up competing.
In 1935, after two years of studying agriculture at the University of Milan, he travelled to the United States again, this time to continue his studies at the University of Georgia, before dropping out to attend Reed, a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon.
By this stage penniless, having been cut off from his family’s bank accounts due to the growing unrest in Europe, Pucci brokered a deal with Reed College for tuition, room and board in exchange for forming and coaching Reed’s first ski team in and around the nearby ski fields of Mount Hood.
Pucci also designed the Reed ski uniform, in addition to the double griffin logo that still appears on college merchandise. His links to the region are celebrated to this day, with a Mount Hood chairlift and glade named after him.
After graduating with a master’s degree in social science in 1937, Pucci returned to Italy and was drafted into the Italian Air Force, rising to the rank of captain. In 1943, he helped to smuggle the diaries of Galeazzo Ciano, Italy’s foreign minister, to the Allies and was later captured and tortured by the Nazis.
After the war, Pucci launched his first skiwear collection through Portland manufacturer White Stag. In 1947, while skiing in Zermatt in his own gear, his streamlined ski outfit caught the attention of American fashion photographer Toni Frissell. Frissell showed the images to legendary Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland, who commissioned several Pucci skiwear pieces to run in the magazine’s winter 1948 edition.
The same year, Pucci designed his first ski and knitwear collection for America’s Lord & Taylor department store.
In 1949, he opened his first boutique in the iconic Caprese beach club La Canzone del Mare. Beginning with swimwear, Pucci quickly moved into other areas, including brightly patterned silk scarves, tapered ‘Capri’ trousers and lightweight dresses and blouses in wrinkle-free silk – the latter at the encouragement of American retail pioneer, Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The designer retained a fondness for America throughout his life and returned specifically to Portland on a few occasions, including a 1987 visit for Reed’s 75th anniversary, for which he designed a commemorative T-shirt.
“Americans are responsible not only for really starting a lot of things in a lot of countries, but also for giving people the confidence to do things they might never have thought to do,” he told Interview in 1974. “I think you could say that Americans have started a lot of projects around the world and I am one of them”.