Some people have all the luck. Take a look at Signor Emilio Pucci. Born in 1914 to one of Florence’s oldest aristocratic families, the Italian fashion designer grew up with few cares, other than perfecting his moves on the ski slopes and tennis courts, that is. The gifted athlete did so well that he even skied for the Olympic team—twice. Later on, the now heavily decorated (naturally) Air Force captain perfected a fresh, new image: that of the quintessential European playboy and Renaissance man. He loved sports, fast cars and beautifully dressed women, and even created outfits for his lady friends whose wardrobes didn’t quite suit his tastes. But it’s tough to hate on Pucci, who died on this day in 1992. Sure, the handsome designer was handed just about every privilege a person could ask for—his haughty lineage even granted him the title of marquis at birth—but he was no stranger to getting his hands dirty. The same man that the New York Times described in 1959 as “tall, dark and with dashing distinction…resembling the hero of a romantic novel” later proudly claimed he was the first person in his family to work in 1,000 years, and told Time magazine, “Money is not the goal. If you do something good it falls in your lap. I measure my success by my leadership.” Pucci’s boast wasn’t lip service. The designer clearly possessed an enthusiasm for life, an appreciation for beautiful things and a sharp mind for business, and through a series of fortuitous events, smartly combined the three into a legendary fashion empire.
Pucci’s journey to success is the stuff of fairytales. He never studied fashion design or arts of any kind, but he had a passion for politics, earning advanced degrees in education and political science, and dabbled in clothing design as a hobby. In 1947, Harper’s Bazaar photographer Toni Frissell was shooting in the Swiss Alps and caught sight of a ski costume Pucci had designed for a friend that featured the first slim stretch ski pant with an elastic stirrup. Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland saw the pictures and did what she did best: Created a star. A winter 1948 edition of the magazine featured a spread of Pucci’s designs which led to a commission for Lord & Taylor. By 1949, Pucci had opened a boutique in Capri and a workshop in his palace (remember he was a marquis), and officially launched the House of Pucci in 1954. By the end of the decade his lightweight line of psychedelic-print women’s clothing defined effortless decadence and luxury. His output also included Emilio Pucci rosé wine (from the family vineyard, natch), a line of ceramics, hats, men’s ties and his now famous Capri pants and splashy scarves, the latter priced at just under $200 (more than $1,400 today).
Okay, so I haven’t provided many reasons to not feel supremely jealous of the ever-superlative Pucci. But there was more to the designer than an exploitation of wealth and leisure. When Italy warred on Ethiopia in the Second Italio-Abyssian War, trade and exchange regulations restricted the family income, leaving young Pucci with little money for college. Though a staunch supporter of Italian Fascism, he headed to America where he briefly studied agriculture in Georgia before landing at Reed College, a tiny liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon. College President Dexter Keever “arranged for Pucci to form a ski team and to be the ski instructor in exchange for room, board and classes to complete his master’s degree,” according to notes from the school archives. President Keever went on to record that Pucci’s “academic performance was first rate. And so was the zest and the good will with which he tackled a variety of lowly chores on the campus—waiting on tables, washing dishes, scribing—to acquire a bit of cash to supplement the bare subsistence being provided for him.”
Pucci confirms this story, telling Life magazine in 1964 that, “I began working my way through Reed as a dishwasher and was promoted to waiter. The intellectual climate at Reed was about the most stimulating I found in America.”
Pucci designed the outfits for Reed’s ski team, working with White Stag, then a Portland-based skiwear company, his first professional clothing commission. After serving in World War II, Pucci worked as a ski instructor in the Swiss Alps, where his fairytale picks back up. But his works of altruism did not end with the founding of the House of Pucci. In the mid 1950s, Pucci poured a considerable amount of money into a nearly 300-year-old silk factory, saving it from the wrecking ball and restoring it to its former glory. He had long abandoned his admiration for Fascism, and stood for Parliament in 1964 on the Liberal list, and served as a deputy in Rome for nine years. He was also active in the city politics of Florence, leading the Liberal group in Palazzo Vecchio, a bold thing for an aristocrat to do at the time. But for all his political achievements he will be remembered as someone who brought verve and playfulness to mid-20th-century clothing.
“Gaiety is one of the most important elements I have brought to fashion,” he said in 1964. “I brought it about through color. Just as a tone can be pleasing to the ear but doesn’t form music, so colors-in-contrast can be used to form a pattern which expresses to the eye very much what music expresses to the ear. ” —Ali Basye
Photos: Top: Life magazine, 1959. Middle: (left) Toni Frissell for Harper’s Bazaar, 1948 and (right) Pucci dressing a model in Rome, unknown photographer, 1958. Bottom: Pucci dressing a model in his studio, photographer unknown, and a detail of the uniforms Pucci designed for Braniff Air in the 1960s.