The Gucci Museo, a museum devoted to the iconic Italian luxury brand, is located in the heart of Florence on the Piazza della Signoria, just steps from the Palazzo Vecchio. One of the first things visitors see is a plaque with a thought expressed by Aldo Gucci, son of founder Guccio Gucci, back in 1938. It reads: "Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten."
To be sure, anyone who spends €24,000 (approximately $37,200) on the new crocodile Jackie bag is not going to forget the price any time soon. But the commitment to quality above all else remains the Gucci legacy in a way that can still be witnessed today.
A tour of the company headquarters in Casellina, a half-hour drive from the museum, is not open to the public, which is why Gucci now has a travelling artisan program that sends five craftspeople from the factory on the road to demonstrate the handiwork required for completion of a high-end handbag. Five of them are to appear March 29 and 30 at Holt Renfrew's new Gucci boutique in Toronto's Yorkdale Shopping Centre.
At Gucci HQ in Casellina, corporate departments are housed upstairs while the craftspeople, or artigiani, work below. This is where future bag designs – often sketched by creative director Frida Gianinni herself – are prototyped into samples that end up on the runway. It is also where all the company's exotic skins are cut.
More and more, chief executive officer Patrizio di Marco's strategy has involved steering the brand away from logoed goods, which means that there is more of a focus these days on crocodile, alligator, ostrich and python. At Casellina, a workstation is covered in brilliantly tanned and painted versions of each. A tour guide points to the plastic tag at the tip of every crocodile hide indicating certification according to the rules of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In 2004, Gucci was one of the first companies in its sector to launch a voluntary certification process along its entire production chain in the area of corporate social responsibility. Three years later, it became the first in the luxury-goods field to achieve official CSR certification regarding the supply chain of its leather goods and jewellery.
But back to the crocodile leathers, which are imported from different parts of the world (including the U.S., Africa and Australia) and are tanned in Gucci's tannery in Santa Croce Sull'Arno, near Pisa. Undyed, the crocodile leathers are the colour of asphalt; subtle inconsistencies also mark each hide. Dealing with these nuances can be a challenge for the artigiani, who must pick the best parts of each hide as well as determine how they will match up. Crocodile, alligator and ostrich are all cut by hand using a tool called a fourreau. A special machine is used for the python because of its delicate scales.
Aside from the prototypes, Gucci does not assemble its bags at Casellina. Rather, it has developed, in a well-oiled system of local outsourcing, long-standing relationships with a variety of Tuscan suppliers who still perform nearly every step by hand. Among the elements that are formed and finished at one nearby factory are Gucci's famous bamboo handles, first introduced in 1947 and experiencing somewhat of a moment again. A bamboo workstation, used mostly for R&D and demonstration purposes, can be found at Gucci HQ. The stalks – all grown so that they are between 14 to 16 centimetres in diameter and half a metre in length – are curved using an upright flame and then blow-torched to give them their caramelized finish (not unlike crème brûlée).
In this same space, two special-order trunks are also on display; both were made entirely by hand by Paolo, an artisan who has been with Gucci for two decades. One of them – a monogrammed fabric version – would retail for €28,000, while the larger crocodile model – made from 28 skins – might cost a whopping €250,000. The pieces are just two examples of Gucci's unique brand of luxury, a glamorous repertoire that includes everything from the famous Flora print designed in 1966 for Princess Grace to a customized, monogrammed Cadillac Seville circa 1979 (on view at the Museo).
The celebrity lustre and occasional excess, however, are really just by-products of the company's business model. Whether you're Sophia Loren or not, knowing that its handbags and other products are still made by hand is what gives them their unique value.
The Gucci Artisan Corner runs March 29 and 30 at Holt Renfrew Yorkdale in Toronto.