Tom Ford Talks Gucci, Cocaine and Influence

Somewhere in the multiverse of fashion, there is a branch of reality in which Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole never sold Gucci to PPR. They never bought Yves Saint Laurent or Bottega Veneta or Balenciaga; never left Kering; never started their own brand; and never sold that brand to Estée Lauder for almost $3 billion.

Instead, in this alternate reality, Mr. Ford and Mr. De Sole made a deal with Gianni and Santo Versace, created an Italian fashion mega-group composed of Gucci and Versace and changed the trajectory of not just those houses but, potentially, all of our wardrobes.

That was the plan, anyway, back in 1997 — at least until Gianni Versace was murdered. Or so a new feature-length documentary, “Milano: The Inside Story of Italian Fashion,” reveals.

The film is the latest entrant in a cinematic trend — one that includes a documentary on supermodels from Apple TV+ and one on Vogue in the 1990s airing on Disney+ — that taps into the current pop culture fascination with fashion at the end of the last century. It will have its premiere, appropriately enough, at the close of Milan Fashion Week, on Feb. 26, with a star-and-designer-studded red carpet eager to find out what other secrets have been spilled.

“I’m not sure all the maisons will be pleased,” said Alan Friedman, the former newspaper journalist who conceived and produced the film, which was directed by John Maggio (“Panic: The Untold Story of the 2008 Financial Crisis”) and independently financed. “I think some will be more pleased than others.”

Half nostalgia trip and half corrective to the narratives disseminated by docudramas like Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” and Ryan Murphy’s “Assassination of Gianni Versace,” the movie is mostly a love letter in 10 chapters to the golden age of Italian fashion: the 1980s. It was the decade when Armani and Versace emerged from the stew of family companies to become global superstars, changing the balance of power in fashion and establishing the sex and sensibility dichotomy that still defines the Italian industry today.

“There was this great alchemy from the late ’70s into the ’90s in Milan,” Mr. Maggio said, “when Italian fashion became a cultural export, and Milan was the stage for all of the love, the hate, the passion, the back-stabbing. …”

As such, the film is less interested in salacious exposés than context, eschewing the politics of the contemporary fashion world for the politics of family capitalism, with a rotating cast of 26 fashion figures like Messrs. Armani, Ford and De Sole, Santo Versace, Rosita Missoni and Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce. But while they are mostly content to set the record straight when it comes to their own stories, there are some unexpected admissions and a few juicy sound bites.

Mr. Ford, perfectly color-coordinated in white, black and gray with his background, tells his own tales out of school, mostly involving Maurizio Gucci’s creative approach to pricing and use of cocaine, while poking some fun at himself. (He’s an “equal opportunity objectifier” of men and women, he says in the film.)

Mr. Armani, whom the filmmakers wooed for two years before he agreed to participate, talks about his relationship with Sergio Galeotti, his life and business partner who died in 1985 of AIDS. (At the time the cause of death was kept quiet, but Carlo Capasa, the head of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, which organizes Milan Fashion Week, says in the film, “everybody knew.”)

Mr. Armani also issues acerbic judgments on fashion, especially contemporary fashion, noting: “There is a kind of wager — let’s see if you will wear what I produce.”

He announces, too, that he is not going anywhere. “I am not eternal,” he says. But “at the moment my commitment is to manage the company for my remaining years of life.”

Still, the award for spilling the most tea goes to Domenico De Sole and Santo Versace, who beyond acknowledging the potential Versace-Gucci merger of 1997, reveal that the idea of a merger was revived in 2004, after Mr. Ford and Mr. De Sole decided to leave Gucci Group in the wake of disagreements with the Kering ownership and at a time when Donatella Versace, who had stepped into her brother’s role as designer, was going through rehab.

According to Mr. De Sole, Leonardo Del Vecchio, the owner of Luxottica, which owned the license for Versace sunglasses, proposed bringing in Tom and Dom to run the increasingly beleaguered Versace. Everything was set to go until Donatella heard that Mr. Ford would be in charge of the creative side and threatened to kill herself if that happened. Tom and Dom walked away, and Ms. Versace stayed at the brand, making it into the company it is today (now owned by Capri Holding, which owns Michael Kors).

When it comes to family companies, “things can get very complicated, very messy, very quickly,” Mr. Capasa says in the film. Which may be something of an understatement.

As it happens, Ms. Versace is one of the few subjects who declined to participate in the film, though she isn’t the only glaring omission. Many familiar brands aren’t included (no Fendi, Moschino, Marni, Bottega Veneta), nor are the industrialists, luxury groups and newer designers working today. Mr. Friedman said the goal is to sell the film to a streaming company for a limited release as a kind of curtain raiser, to be followed by a multipart mini-series that will take deep dives into brands that are glossed over in the feature.

“For at least a year, we did try desperately to imagine an event that would bring together Armani, Versace — all of them in the same room,” he said. “But the politics of the Italian fashion world are complex. I began to realize these guys won’t even sit next to each other at a green carpet event with Colin Firth’s wife. They are not going to sit next to each other at a big dinner party.”

At a film premiere about their own history, however? That may be a different story.

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