Gucci is a hundreds-of-millions-a-year business that likes to present itself as a perfectly turned out temple of sexiness, danger - even sinfulness. Following Envy, Rush and Envy In The Sun, its recently launched women's perfume and men's eau de toilette are named Guilty, and advertised with a film of two leather-clad actors, one male, one female, riding astride throbbing motorcycles down a fire-fringed highway to a horizontally illicit conclusion.
On the headily scented, velvet-cushioned Gucci catwalk in Milan, its designer of nine years Frida Giannini turns out collections for both sexes that are reliably louche, luxurious and lascivious: the men are presented as bohemian adventurers in fur-fringed tailoring and exactingly fitted trousers. The women have warrior-queen make-up and accessorise their sheer golden cocktail frocks and to-the-navel neckline jackets with riding crops and razor heels.
This 21st-century Gucci frisson is a highly effective selling point and, perhaps, a kind of unconscious aftershock too - for, just a few decades ago, Gucci was the epicentre of one of modern fashion's most scandalous sagas.
The Gucci story began in 1921 when Guccio Gucci, the son of a Tuscan hatmaker who in his youth had worked his way to London as a stoker and worked in the kitchens of the Savoy before returning to Italy, opened a leather goods shop in Florence. Aldo (one of his four sons) invented the famous double G logo and the family business quickly gained a reputation for producing innovatively swanky luggage. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Gucci opened a second shop in Rome, and post-war, as visitors flooded into the barely scathed eternal city, they took home Gucci bags as souvenirs.
The company followed them in 1952, opening the first of a network of US stores that found favour with Hollywood men (Clark Gable and John Wayne) and women (Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn). While the women purchased handbags and scarves, the men favoured suitcases and its key 1953 invention, a version of the penny loafer featuring a golden horse-bit buckle. Despite Guccio's death that year, and the slow-burning tensions that simmered between his heirs, Gucci grew into a global totem for La Dolce Vita. Peter Sellers, Rod Stewart, Sidney Poitier and Dustin Hoffman were all loafer wearers and even Samuel Beckett sported a unisex Gucci Hobo handbag.
That year, Gucci became a public company after its family shareholders sold up their last stakes. Under its ambitious young designer Tom Ford, the Gucci image was reset from Grace Kelly bourgeois to its modern sexed-up template. The transformation, and Ford's designs, were so successful they sparked the "battle of the handbags", in which one of France's alpha-male luxury industry billionaires, François Pinault, fought off another, Bernard Arnault, to acquire the company.
These days, Gucci's sinful branding hides an assiduously run business. Ford's successor, Giannini, is a remorselessly adept designer who has led the company's expansion into the emerging markets: that 60 year-old horse-bit buckle loafer is now as big in Beijing as it continues to be hot in Hollywood. Although those shoes are classics, Gucci's masculine side is probably most strongly expressed in its bags. Where other luxe luggage makers often justify their prices by polishing their products just a little too highly, Giannini isn't afraid to make men's equipment that's pleasingly rough around the edges.