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'House of Gucci' author gives her take on the new film adapted from her book

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

And finally today, watching movies in actual movie theaters is a thing again, at least for the moment. This long holiday weekend, a top performer at the box office is a film about one of the most famous fashion houses in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOUSE OF GUCCI")

LADY GAGA: (As Patrizia Reggiani) Gucci - it was a name that sounded so sweet, so seductive.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Come. Meet the family.

ADAM DRIVER: (As Maurizio Gucci) Everybody, this is Patrizia, and this is my family.

LADY GAGA: (As Patrizia Reggiani) They had it all - wealth, style, power. Who wouldn't care for that?

FOLKENFLIK: "House Of Gucci" tells the story of how the Gucci family lost control of the company that still bears their name and of how the company's former CEO, Maurizio Gucci, lost his life to a hitman hired by his former wife, Patrizia Reggiani. The movie, from director Ridley Scott, known for his action-packed thrillers, is inspired by "The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed," the book by former longtime fashion reporter Sara Gay Forden. We called upon her expertise to tell us more about the true story behind the film, and Sara Gay Forden joins us now. Hey, welcome, Sara. Thanks for being with us.

SARA GAY FORDEN: Thanks for having me.

FOLKENFLIK: So I have to ask off the bat - I saw the movie. What did you think of it?

FORDEN: Wow. Well, it was clearly an emotional moment for me. I mean, I spent 20 years waiting for this movie to become a reality. But, no, I spent two years of my life writing this book and went deep into all the twists and turns of this family's saga, and it was really quite incredible to see it on the big screen with a director of the caliber of Ridley Scott and the star-studded cast.

FOLKENFLIK: You spent 15 years covering fashion in Milan. What drew you to the specific story of the Gucci family?

FORDEN: You know, I was a beat reporter working for Women's Wear Daily at the time. I was covering this incredible moment in the history of the Italian fashion industry, as many family-owned labels like Armani and Prada and Versace were making this quantum leap from being family brands to being mega brands. And at the time, Gucci was not really a frontline player at all. It was kind of a has-been. It was sort of outside of the Milan Fashion Circle. And it was a leather goods and accessories company at that time. It wasn't yet a fashion company.

FOLKENFLIK: As I read your book, you know - and in the movie as well in a slightly different way - you know, these characters are big. They burst. And they're also, all of them, flawed, even Maurizio, who starts off seemingly uninterested in the wealth, uninterested in the family practice, uninterested in the glitz of it. All of them have insights about one another. They warn each other about each other's flaws or each other's ambitions, each other's cruelty, and yet they don't see it in themselves. What did you take from these characters as you were sort of surrounding them 360, as you were understanding them and as you were watching them pit themselves against one another?

FORDEN: You know, I had to kind of lose myself in this narrative and in these characters in order to kind of come out the other end with the book. And I really tried to paint each figure as fully as I could and trying to understand the different facets of the personality of each one. But ultimately, because they were also pitted against each other, I had to come to my own understanding of where the truth was. And I felt the truth was going to be somewhere in the middle. And I wanted to be able to tell a reader, you know, this is Patrizia; this is Maurizio. And they think of themselves this way, but the others think of them differently. And so it was really like - almost like trying to do a painting (laughter) of all of these characters.

FOLKENFLIK: No doubt a renaissance painting.

FORDEN: Yes, a Machiavellian painting.

(LAUGHTER)

FORDEN: Part of the foundation for the tension and the infighting in the family had to do with the family's shareholding structure and the fact that, you know, Rodolfo and Aldo each had 50%. And as long as it was just the two of them...

FOLKENFLIK: The two older brothers.

FORDEN: ...Running the company - the two older brothers, exactly - Maurizio's father and his uncle. As long as they had divvied up the pie, things went pretty smoothly. But then when Rodolfo passed on and his 50% went to his son Maurizio, and then Aldo started to divide up his share of the company with his sons, then things started to get complicated. And then there was all these shifting alliances and the push for control.

FOLKENFLIK: Gucci is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding this year. So beyond the salacious headlines the family infighting, beyond even the murder of Maurizio Gucci, what do you think the brand's legacy is moving forward?

FORDEN: You know, I thought it was fascinating to see, I think. They did a mega fashion show in Los Angeles in early November, closing down Hollywood Boulevard. And they had all the icons of the past, including from the early, you know, Guccio Gucci days through the Tom Ford era and up to the present. And, you know, I think that every brand kind of needs a story to sell its wares. Otherwise they're just shoes and handbags. And I think with this - my book, with the movie and, you know, Gucci now moving forward to the next - into its next century, it's really, in a way for the first time, connected its past with its future. Even though it's a messy past, in a way, it's now kind of all tied up with a bow, and it can move on.

FOLKENFLIK: I want to ask you for some of our listeners who weren't around at the time or may not be as plugged in Gucci, can you describe for me the glamour that attached to Gucci and the kinds of events or the kinds of developments that kind of were emblematic of that?

FORDEN: I mean, Gucci has been just punctuated with stars over the years who have embraced it. You know, you go from, as you mentioned, the Grace Kelly, the Flora scarf, Liza Minnelli, Studio 54 - Sammy Davis Jr. bought the exact same white leather couches that were on display in the Rodeo Drive store. But then you have, also, the kind of everyday manifestation of Gucci. I mean, you, as a fellow Washingtonian, may recall that the floor of Congress was was famously nicknamed Gucci Gulch at one point in the '80s because all the lobbyists were wearing Gucci loafers. And so I think the Gucci loafer was an example of a product that was stylish but also comfortable, and you could wear it with ease, and men and women could wear it. So it had an ability, also, to sort of ease into people's everyday lives in a way that wasn't maybe overly ostentatious but showed a sign of style.

FOLKENFLIK: But nothing for ordain - that is, people had to make choices, whether it was Aldo, whether it was Mauricio, whomever, to figure out how much we want to reach down to people who could only afford so much money to pay. How much do we want to make sure to internationalize? How much is it important just to keep our focus on the things that we excel on?

FORDEN: And that's actually - you point to a really critical moment in Gucci's history and a critical question that the family struggled with but that also, you know, its private owners struggle with now. You know, how much do you push the brand, the recognizable, you know, icons, the GG logo, the horsebit, you know? If it becomes ubiquitous, that cheapens it. If it's too minimal, then maybe people don't notice. So it's always, I think, a shifting balance.

FOLKENFLIK: All born out of a family's small shop that specialized in leather goods.

FORDEN: And I - actually, I was just back in Florence in September. And I, you know, went down the street where, 100 years ago, Guccio Gucci opened the first shop. And I actually had a private tour of the archive, which Gucci has added to over the 20 years since I first started writing the book. And it's now filled with objects from over the decades, everything from the first carrying case with the precursor to the GG logo, fabric, to things like desk sets and cocktail sets. So, really, it's a pretty vast history there, in the former artisan workshop in Florence.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Sara Gay Forden, author of "The House Of Gucci: A Sensational Story Of Murder, Madness, Glamour And Greed." The new film based on that book stars Lady Gaga and Adam Driver, and it's out now. Sara Gay Forden, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

FORDEN: Thanks so much for having me, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OF GLASS")

BLONDIE: (Singing) Once I had a love, and it was a gas. Soon found out had a heart of glass. Seemed like the real thing, only to find mucho mistrust. Love's gone behind. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.