Gucci houses luxury's history in new museum

FLORENCE Wed Sep 28, 2011 5:55am EDT

FLORENCE (Reuters) - Global luxury brand Gucci opened its first museum in a Florentine palazzo this week, 90 years after its founder started a family leather goods business inspired by English aristocrats.

Stars of the fashion world came out to celebrate the museum's opening at a lavish ceremony on Monday in Florence's treasured Piazza della Signoria, home to the 14th-century Palazzo della Mercanzia that houses Gucci's new exhibit.

"United we're stronger," said Ferruccio Ferragamo, chairman of the Tuscan star shoemaker which bears his name, at the party to launch the Gucci museum, which spans three floors.

Inside the sumptuous confines of the palazzo, Gucci's famed "bamboo" handbags owned by fashion idols Jackie Onassis and Sofia Loren are on permanent display for the first time and the basement houses the Gucci archive, an immense collection of ready-to-wear, accessories and photographs.

Among the museum's pigskin suitcases, golf club bags adorned with Gucci's trademark double green and red band and a Cadillac Seville emblazoned with the famous GG initials logo, also lie treasures prized by celebrity fashion followers such as evening gowns created by current Gucci designer Frida Giannini for Hollywood stars Hilary Swank and Naomi Watts.

"We wanted to create a small jewel," Giannini told Reuters at a red-carpet ceremony next door in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's fortress-like town-hall where towering frescoes remind guests of Italy's Renaissance.

The designer remembered the Gucci handbag her mother used "every day", as well as the first pair of Gucci shoes she bought in the 90s, when she was barely more than a teenager.

"There is a beautiful history of craftsmanship here," Giannini said, wearing a black dress with gold lame fringes.

Star American designer Tom Ford -- who relaunched the Gucci brand in the 1990s, appears to have been airbrushed out of the history on show -- but the museum does feature videos by renowned American artist Bill Viola.

The powerful installation testifies to French tycoon Francois Pinault's passion for art. Pinault, the founder of luxury giant PPR PRT.PA, has owned Gucci since early 2000 and the label's ambitious rise under PPR continues a story that began 90 years ago with founder Guccio Gucci.

Gucci, the son of a Florentine merchant opened a leather goods company and small luggage store in his native Florence, inspired by a stint of menial jobs at London's Savoy Hotel, to create the kind of beautifully crafted goods that would appeal to the refined aesthetic of the English nobility he had witnessed at play in the Savoy.

"Although Gucci is a truly international company today we absolutely remain a Florentine success story", Patrizio Di Marco, Gucci's President and chief executive said.

But in an era of global economic uncertainty, the museum also offers a business opportunity for PPR. It follows in the steps of peers such as Salvatore Ferragamo and Balenciaga, who have opened their own museums to boost their image in an increasingly competitive industry.

PPR, the owner of Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen is looking to bolster its luxury and sports divisions and get out of retail, which includes the FNAC chain.

Gucci makes up about 60 percent of PPR's total profits and was the main driver, together with China, behind the group's forecast-beating earnings in the first half.

"If I could read the future, I would do another job," di Marco told reporters when asked about fears of a new recession. "We need to be reasonably cautious because indicators are worse than in 2008."

(Reporting by Antonella Ciancio, editing by Paul Casciato)