By Cynthia Sanz
April 24, 1995 12:00 PM

FOR A MAN WHOSE VERY NAME had come to symbolize elegance, Maurizio Gucci’s death was sadly déclassé. The 46-year-old descendant of the Italian fashion dynasty had left his Milan apartment just after 8:30 a.m. on March 27 for the short walk to his office 50 yards away. Stylishly clad in a suit and tie—and, of course, Gucci loafers—he strode past the public gardens and into the building at 20 Via Palestro. But as he headed up the short flight of stairs, witnesses say, an equally well-dressed middle-aged man fell into step behind him. Armed with a 7.65-mm pistol, the man fired twice at Gucci hitting him once in the shoulder and once in the lower back Gucci spun around, collapsed onto the red marble floor and lay there as the gunman shot him once in the face before fleeing.

“It was clearly a premeditated murder,” said Maj. Paolo La Forgia of the carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary police force. But while police admit they so far have no clear motive or suspect, the Italian press is rife with speculation about who could have killed Gucci, with most theories centering on the Mafia or former business associates.

The fact is, Maurizio Gucci had no shortage of enemies, even within his own family. In 1984, in a move of Machiavellian duplicity, he ousted his three older cousins—Paolo, Roberto and Giorgio—and his uncle Aldo from the Gucci board and took full control of the famed leather-and luxury-goods company founded by his grandfather. Even Gucci’s ex-wife Patrizia Reggiani, 42, the mother of his daughters Alessandra, 18, and Allegra, 14, seemed less than devastated by news of his death. “From a humanitarian point of view, I am sorry,” she told the Italian newspaper La Stampa shortly after the murder, “but I can’t say the same is true on a personal level.”

Indeed, although the Gucci family is not believed to be responsible in any way for the murder, for years they’ve had a history of feuding so bitter they’ve been dubbed Dynasty on the Arno, after the river that runs through Florence. It was there that company founder Guccio Gucci, a onetime waiter at London’s Savoy hotel, first established the saddlery that gradually evolved into the famed House of Gucci. The family squabbles began in 1953 when Guccio died and his sons Rodolfo and Aldo took over the company. The two fought over everything, even reportedly sometimes slapping each other’s faces when they wearied of verbal combat.

As Rodolfo’s only son, Maurizio, and Aldo’s three sons, Paolo, Roberto and Giorgio, moved into the company, things only got worse, and soon the various heirs were trading lawsuits the way most families exchange phone calls. A 1980 action filed by Paolo against his father and uncle over product licensing ultimately led to an IRS investigation and resulted in Aldo’s serving five months in a U.S. prison for tax evasion. “My father blamed me,” Paolo once said, “but I warned him of the risks he was running. You run the risk, you’ll get burned.”

Another low point came in a 1982 board meeting at Gucci headquarters in Florence, when Paolo, convinced that the rest of the family was plotting against him, pulled out a recorder to tape the meeting. A brawl ensued, and when it was over, Paolo was bleeding from what the family called a scratch on his face and what Paolo said was a gash. He immediately filed a $13.4 million lawsuit, alleging that his brothers and his cousin Maurizio had assaulted him at Aldo’s behest. “I had to sue them,” he later said. (The suit was dismissed.) “I was bleeding like a goat. It was enough to kill the pride and the ego of any man.”

But even that was a mere flesh wound compared with the hurt a year later when Maurizio—who had inherited 50 percent of Gucci after his father’s death in 1983—persuaded cousin Paolo to join him and a consortium of Bahrain-based investors called Investcorp in an over-throw of the Gucci board. As soon as his takeover was complete, Maurizio dumped Paolo and hired cousin Giorgio as his vice president. “The Guccis are unbelievably charming, but underneath they are crooked,” says Jenny Gucci, 47, Paolo’s ex-wife. “They think they are above the law but you can’t go on defying everybody all your life.”

Although Maurizio’s takeover resurrected the Gucci name to its former exclusiveness—he scaled down the number of stores (there are now 130 around the world) and stopped production of such low-price items as coffee mugs and key chains—his lavish spending caused concern among his Investcorp partners.

Chief among Gucci’s whims were renting a new Milan headquarters at a cost of $6 million a year and a company-paid $100,000-a-year apartment for himself complete with a bowling alley, game room and gym. Maurizio, of course, had a notorious taste for luxury. His main passion outside of work was his 206-foot, three-masted yacht, Creole, originally built for Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos, which carried a crew of 23.

He also kept two Ferrari Testerosas—one red and one black—then worth an estimated $350,000 each, as well as an extensive collection of art and antiques at his apartment in Milan and his official residence in Saint Moritz, Switzerland. The high living eventually left Gucci with an estimated debt of $40 million, and in 1993 he sold his half of the family firm to Investcorp for a reported $170 million.

For the past 15 months, Gucci shared the two top floors of a four-story, 18th-century Milan palazzo with Paola Franchi, 44, an interior designer and childhood friend whom he had begun dating in 1990. Franchi’s 10-year-old son, Charly, lived with the couple, but Gucci’s daughters, who lived nearby, seldom visited or called. (When Maurizio and Patrizia separated in 1987 after 15 years of marriage—they divorced in 1992—the girls remained with their mother.)

“This was his great cross to bear,” Franchi told Milan’s Corriere della Sera after Gucci’s death. “He wanted all for them, but he didn’t want to impose. He never would have gone to a judge or to police to force them to meet [with him] against their will.”

Despite his family troubles, however, Franchi says Gucci seemed carefree and confident in the days before his death. “He was calm,” she said. “If he would have had any problems, he did not talk to me about them. Each morning he ran in the park. This did not seem to me like the actions of a man who felt he was in danger.”

Authorities seem equally puzzled. Though the investigation has so far centered on suspicions that Gucci’s plans to open a casino in the Swiss resort town of Crans Montana could have displeased the Mafia, who might have demanded a share, police are not ruling out any suspects. But even those with longstanding grudges against the Guccis don’t think anyone in the family capable of murder. “The Guccis are not violent people,” says Jenny Gucci Maurizio’s former sister-in-law “They are crazy as loons, but they are not violent.”