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By Laurie Brookins | May 1, 2013 | Style & Beauty
Part of Gucci’s celebratory 1953 collection, the classic horse-bit loafer has evolved to include crocodile, leopard-print calfskin, bright, poppy patent leathers, and even an of-the-moment studded version.
A Gucci artisan puts the final touches on a 1953 horse-bit loafer
Director Francis Ford Coppola wears Gucci in his American Zoetrope movie studio in San Francisco, 1970
Gucci Creative Director Frida Giannini backstage with loafer-adorned models at the Spring/Summer 2013 runway show in Milan
Casual glamour—the notion that one could achieve a style that feels equal parts sophisticated, elegant, and yet decidedly effortless and unfussy—is an idea that really came into its own in the 1950s, that post-World War II decade of optimism when mores began to relax, economies prospered, and rock ’n’ roll embarked on its quest to take over the world. A slew of visionaries embraced this new and delicate balance of chic modernity; in Miami, none more so than Morris Lapidus, the famed architect who quite literally transformed the beach with his highly identifiable aesthetic, which applied details often both whimsical and unexpected to create some of the world’s most iconic hotels. Opening its doors in 1954, the Fontainebleau likely will always be considered Lapidus’s masterpiece, even though it was three years earlier that his impact on Miami Beach had truly taken hold, with the 1953 debut of the DiLido (known since 2003 as The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach).
Halfway around the globe, 1953 saw another visionary introduce an icon of a different sort, one that likewise reached for—and undeniably attained—that casual-glamour ideal. Working out of his family’s Florence workshops, Aldo Gucci was seeking new projects to expand the business as the post-war boom was imbuing Italy with a newfound romance. As one of four sons of founder Guccio Gucci, Aldo was considered the most aggressive of his siblings in thoughts of growing the company; he and brother Rodolfo were central to another key happening that same year, the opening of Gucci’s first US boutique, on East 58th Street in New York (Guccio would pass away just two weeks after the store’s debut). Aldo’s visionary status was further established when he recognized the impact Hollywood might have on the cachet of his family’s label, an idea that’s integral to the success of almost any fashion brand today but which was virtually unheard of in the 1950s. The timing was perfect, as the film industry was in the early stages of its love affair with all things Italian: In 1953, Audrey Hepburn, as a princess-in-disguise in Roman Holiday, donned a chic white blouse and a neckerchief to zip around Italy’s capital on a Vespa with Gregory Peck. Hollywood would soon largely transplant itself to Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, producing some of the grandest epics of the 1950s and ’60s, including Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, and The Agony and the Ecstasy.
It was within this burgeoning aura of glamour that Aldo sought new avenues for Gucci—footwear seemed like a natural, especially as wartime rationing restrictions were easing up and leather was once again becoming easily available. Aldo oversaw the design of a classic, divinely simple slip-on shoe that was precisely intended to define casual glamour, a loafer that could be worn in the office and at the country club. As its only adornment, he chose a metal snaffle bit, a two-piece ring-and-bar mouthpiece for horses, as a nod to the house’s earliest days when many of Guccio’s clients were local horse-riding aristocrats.
By all accounts, that 1953 loafer was an immediate success and indeed attracted the collective eye of Hollywood, with Fred Astaire, John Wayne, and Ronald Reagan among its A-list fan base. The Gucci loafer gained a patina of instant, easy sophistication, a midcentury message that the wearer was something of a jet-setter, equally at home in New York or Rome—or, as Lapidus’s Miami Beach became the glitterati’s go-to resort spot, strolling the pool deck at the Fontainebleau or Eden Roc. Even in the middle of the label’s rocky years, that period in the 1980s when Gucci was affected by overlicensing and family infighting, the loafer never seemed to suffer from overexposure; instead, it was installed in the permanent exhibit of the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the latter half of the 20th century, as it secured its place in the pantheon of fashion’s most iconic items, the Gucci loafer arguably became the most-recognized shoe in the world.
Frida Giannini knows this, of course. As a creative director for the house since 2005, she has excelled at diving into Gucci’s considerable archives and emerging with lust-worthy updates, from new interpretations of the Jackie O bag, the hobo style favored by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to a full-on accessories collection celebrating the label’s botanical-driven Flora pattern, which Gucci debuted as a silk scarf in 1966 for Princess Grace of Monaco. (In a fitting bit of fashion symmetry, Grace Kelly’s granddaughter, Charlotte Casiraghi, has appeared in a trio of Gucci Forever Now campaigns, including the latest iteration for Spring 2013, in which she wears a Flora print dress.)
Gucci’s loafer collection proved to be equally inspiring. “Working with pieces from the archive is a dream for me,” Giannini says. “It’s important to respect the origins of the house in order to carry my vision forward each season. My purpose is to create designs that are contemporary and chic while staying true to the traditions that Guccio Gucci started more than 90 years ago.”
Throughout six decades, the Gucci loafer has been tweaked to suit the times: Heels have been raised or lowered ever so slightly, or toe boxes have been widened or slimmed. To commemorate the year-long anniversary, Giannini created a limited-edition collection of loafers for men and women, showcasing its classic shape and a .6-inch heel in a wide array of colors, textures, and fabrications. “When I set out to create the 1953 collection, I wanted to play with new proportions, new colors, new combinations, and new materials, while staying true to the classic beauty and absolute functionality of the shoe,” Giannini says, noting that her starting point for the Spring/Summer 2013 season was “a blatant desire for color to evoke summer,” which is why the commemorative loafer is offered in a variety of brilliant shades in patent leather, from a poppy lemon yellow or begonia pink for women to a bold red or deep orange for men. Giannini also injects some of-the-moment trend into the loafer by offering studded versions and explores a range of textures and patterns, including the aforementioned Flora, as well as crocodile in a range of colors and a leopard-print calfskin that just arrived in stores as part of the Cruise 2013 collection. Each of the commemorative loafers is also adorned with a custom label, gucci 1953 made in italy, featuring the crest introduced by the house after WWII, a red, gold, and green shield that includes the family name and is meant to evoke to firm’s Florentine heritage. Giannini’s goal, she says, was to “bring a tradition from the past 60 years into a contemporary context, creating fashion that is current and desirable for today.”
ucci debuted an exhibition dedicated to the loafer in mid-March at its eponymous museum in Florence. The exhibit likewise pays tribute to its native town in another fashion: Half the proceeds from ticket sales are being donated to the restoration of artworks around the city. “My aim in dedicating an exhibit at the Gucci Museo in the house’s birthplace, Florence, was to celebrate this house icon and reveal styles never previously open to public viewing,” Giannini explains. “With the anniversary this year, it felt like the perfect time to display an array of hidden treasures from the archive.” In addition to the collection, displayed to outline the shoe’s evolution, the show also offers a keen insight into the evolution of Hollywood and how celebrity embraced Gucci via archival photography that features Clark Gable and John Wayne in the 1950s, Jodie Foster and Francis Ford Coppola in the 1970s, and, more recently, Madonna and Brad Pitt, who sported Gucci loafers in 1999’s Fight Club.
Its seemingly endless fan base comes as no surprise to Giannini. “Perhaps the loafer is most fascinating for its relevance,” she says. “Today the design has just as much relevance as when the artisans first crafted it in 1953.”
Indeed, while the word “icon” has evolved into a catch-all term used too liberally these days, you would be hard-pressed to find many items of fashion more worthy of the designation than a chicly simple loafer adorned with a metal bit originally intended for a horse’s mouth. And as the latest generation of fans, including royalty both of the genuine (Casiraghi) and the Hollywood variety (James Franco, a friend of both Giannini and the house, among them), can attest, it’s doubtful the Gucci loafer will ever seem like anything other than the essence of casual glamour.
Especially if Giannini has any say in the matter. “The legacy of Gucci is what drives me in my work; it’s important to respect the origins of the house in order to carry my vision forward each season,” she says. “The idea is not to copy the original, nor to let it disappear, but rather to create a link to Gucci’s past while pushing the design forward into the present and the future.”
photography courtesy of gucci (artisan); opposite: bettmann/corbis (coppola); getty images for gucci (giannini)