Early one summer morning in 1984, Sheree McLaughlin walked down to the buzzing port in the Sardinian town of Porto Cervo on Italy’s Costa Smeralda, named for the ocean’s brilliant blue-green hues. The local yacht club had organized the 12-Metre Class World Championship for the first time and was backing the Italian challenger for the upcoming 1987 America’s Cup. The team had attracted some of the best sailors in the world, including her then-husband, an expert spinnaker designer.
Sheree, 26 at the time, was a lanky blonde from Orange, Conn., and a seasoned sailor herself. For the first few days of the competition, she’d been directed to a large yacht that had been chartered to entertain the sailors’ wives, families, and friends. The guests were plied with food and Champagne and followed the race at a distance through binoculars. “Nobody knew what they were watching, and I hated it,” she says.
To find an alternative, Sheree tried to hitch a ride with a film crew in a small motorboat headed out to capture the race. A tall man with sandy brown hair wearing white jeans, a light blue chambray shirt, and aviator sunglasses responded in Italian-accented English. “Are you sure?” he asked. “You’re going to get wet.” He warned that they didn’t have good food like on the wives’ yacht.
“That’s OK. That’s not what I want,” she replied. “I want to watch the race.”
Over the next few days, Sheree taught the little crew about sailing, how to pull up to the racing boats without getting in the way, and how to get tight shots as they rounded the buoys. She got soaked and loved every minute of it. Italy kept winning, and she ended up staying almost four weeks.
The gang called the man with the white jeans and aviator glasses “Mau.” Sheree was struck by how delighted he was by being out on the water.
“It was as though he didn’t have anything like that in his life,” Sheree says. “He had come alive. We laughed so hard. I felt like I had known him all my life.”
And yet she had no idea who he was, and since they were both married, she didn’t ask questions. He would arrive in Porto Cervo by helicopter, sometimes with his wife, a petite, dark-haired Italian who looked like Joan Collins—though she never came aboard the little motorboat.
About three weeks in, she asked one of the American sailors, “Who is that guy that I’m going out on the boat with?” “That’s Maurizio Gucci, Sheree,” the sailor said.
He was an heir to Italy’s most famous fashion dynasty, and their days on the little motorboat would spark an almost seven-year love affair. The relationship would play into his decision to leave his wife, Patrizia Reggiani, and ignite a fierce divorce battle—one that would eventually lead to his murder.
The story of Maurizio Gucci and his untimely death is infamous in Italy—and will soon be viewed by audiences around the world as it’s retold by director Ridley Scott in the film House of Gucci. Adam Driver plays Maurizio, and Lady Gaga portrays Patrizia, the glamorous wife who was eventually convicted of paying a hitman to have him killed. Al Pacino, Jared Leto, and Jeremy Irons play Gucci family members fighting over the future of the luxury brand. (Sheree, whose story was largely unknown until now, is not portrayed in the film.)
The saga in Scott’s film is one I know well. It’s based on a book I wrote 20 years ago, The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed. Back then, I took leave from my job as Milan bureau chief for Women’s Wear Daily. I interviewed over 100 people for it, including many family members and Gucci employees who were present at key moments. But until this year, I never had the opportunity to interview Sheree. Her perspective was a missing piece. This was unfortunate, as she held unique knowledge of the family’s turmoil—and Maurizio’s motivations.
The year before she met Mau on the dock in Porto Cervo, Maurizio’s father, Rodolfo, had died, leaving him 50% of the family company. At that time, the brand’s luster was fading. The fashion house had over licensed its famous logo, which appeared on everything from coffee mugs to plastic toilet kits and Scotch bottles. Meanwhile, Milan had wrested the semiannual presentations of women’s ready-to-wear away from Florence, where Gucci was headquartered, and a tribe of young new designers, with names such as Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, and Gianfranco Ferré, was starting to flourish.
Maurizio, who was only 35 at the time, realized that to remain competitive, his family leather goods company had to find a new direction. He was nurturing a vision to bring the brand to the forefront of the European luxury market and joined the Italian consortium that was sponsoring the 1987 America’s Cup challenger. The historic race captured just the kind of elite viewers in the U.S. and Europe to which the company catered.
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