What happened to Romeo Gigli?
Romeo Gigli clothing can still be found on sale here and there. But what about the man who The Los Angeles Times once claimed had single-handedly changed the course of fashion?
He was a highly original, creative, and even intellectual, designer who had a far-reaching influence on both men’s and womenswear throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
And then, at the peak of his success, he just vanished.
What became of this creative force? Where is Romeo Gigli today?
Vintage Romeo Gigli suits are still quite sought after, and very well made. Meanwhile a search of online retailers such as YOOX will bring up various products from a few seasons ago bearing the Romeo Gigli name. But when putting together a quite different article recently, it became evident that whoever is designing clothing under the Romeo Gigli clothing label now, it’s probably not Mr Gigli himself.
Did he just become bored of the whole thing and do “a Helmut Lang”: retreating into purely artistic pursuits? Did he cash in on his enormous business empire in order to live it up on a private island somewhere?
Sadly for Gigli, it appears that neither is the case.
The internet is an increasingly murky and confusing realm. But research for an article on Italian suitmakers a few months back suggested that the Gigli brand had probably been carved up and licensed out to various business interests around the globe some years ago. From this research it also appeared likely that Gigli the man wasn’t one of these interests.
This all seemed quite depressing. However, a little more digging uncovered a story that was even worse than I’d initially imagined.
Romeo Gigli Then
Gigli lost both of his parents in late adolescence: first his mother, then his father dying a few months later. This tragedy prompted the young Romeo to drop his studies in architecture and travel far and wide: Europe, Asia, Africa, South America.
In the late ’70s, after many years on the road, Gigli wound up in NYC, where his eclectic, travel-informed dress-sense caused something of a stir.
Depending on which sources you believe, New York is also where Gigli was given his first taste of the fashion industry, when he was invited to design a line of womenswear for the up-until-then menswear-only tailor Piero Dimitri. Others say Gigli had already designed collections for brands in Italy as far back as 1972.
Whatever the case, on his return to Italy at the end of the decade, Gigli enrolled in a fashion design course, worked for some well-known designers, and by 1983 (or, again depending on who you trust, 1985), he’d launched his own line of womenswear to great acclaim.
Soon after came Romeo Gigli Menswear. This was followed by a diffusion line, and the hugely lucrative Gigli eyewear and perfume spin-offs. On the side, Gigli was also designing collections for the Italian label Callaghan, where he replaced Gianni Versace as director. Gigli’s star kept on rising.
Gigli was good. There’s no doubt about that. But he also had friends in high places. One of these was Carla Sozzani.
Carla is very well known in her own right as a businesswoman, gallerist and, for some years, fashion journalist/editor with both Italian and US editions of Vogue. But if you’re familiar with the Sozzani name it’s more likely to be because of her late sister, Franca: editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia from 1988 until her death a couple of years ago. When it comes to the fashion world, you don’t get much more powerful than these two.
At some point in the mid-’80s, Romeo Gigli and Carla Sozzani were apparently an item. As Gigli tells it, Carla started doing Gigli’s PR in return for a 10% stake in the company. Sozzani also brought in a third partner, Donato Maino, to whom Gigli willingly signed away a further 25% of the company in return for Maino’s business expertise.
Unsurprisingly given Sozzani’s connections, things really took off for the brand now.
Indeed, with the world’s most powerful fashion magazine on his side, by this point Gigli’s place in fashion history was guaranteed. However, let’s just say that Gigli’s own account of what happened next does not entirely coincide with the Vogue fashion-encyclopedia entry for his brand.
By the early ’90s Romeo Gigli, both the man and the brand, were at their peak. But something wasn’t right. Vendors weren’t being paid. Confronting his partners, Gigli was told to mind his own business and leave the day-to-day running of the company to the professionals.
Gigli realized that he was being sidelined and consulted a lawyer. In 1991 he told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that he’d been thrown out of his own boutiques:
“I can’t enter my office, I can’t set foot in my stores. I’ve got 150,000 Lira* in my pocket. What happened?”
*Approximately $130 at today’s rate
Things turned very sour, and it was finally agreed that the business should be carved up between the three partners.
However, although Gigli thought he still owned 65% of the brand, things didn’t turn out to be quite so straightforward. In retrospect Gigli suspects that somewhere in the large piles of English-language documents he was asked to sign by his partners over the years, there likely lay some clause or another handing over a much greater chunk of the company to Sozzani and Maino than he’d understood.
Sozzani got the retail space in Milan – which she turned into the massively successful “concept store” 10 Corso Como. And both Maino and Sozzani walked away with the Gigli-branded perfumes and sunglasses. Meanwhile Gigli himself was just grateful to be left with the rights to his own name.
This relief turned out to be short lived. Yes, Gigli had ownership of his name, but, as he was soon to discover, also all the unpaid bills that came with it. In fact, once the men in suits had gone over his accounts, it was evident that all that remained of the brand Gigli had created was crippling debt.
Gigli was left at the mercy of the creditors, and the Gigli brand-name spent the next 15 years or so being passed from the hands of one holding company to another as part of various deals. Once or twice Gigli’s new owners tried to revive the label, minus its founder, but to limited success. And in 2008 the Romeo Gigli clothing brand was lain to rest.
Despite this disastrous turn of events, until the late 1990s Gigli apparently kept his hand in by continuing to design for Callaghan (a brand, which despite being around since at least the 1960s, now appears to have done a disappearing act of its own).
In fact, this video of Callaghan’s S/S 1997 show in Milan features a quick glimpse (at 0.42) of a man with more than a passing resemblance to Gigli himself.
If it is Gigli, then this is likely the last season he designed for Callaghan. Indeed, perhaps one of the last occasions that Romeo Gigli would be seen in the world of fashion for quite some time.
Romeo Gigli Now
Following his departure from Callaghan, Romeo Gigli seems to have spent the next few years in the wilderness. He certainly doesn’t appear to have been involved in design. But after being left without even his own name, who can really blame him?
Where Gigli went in the meantime, it’s not clear. Although he appears to have done some teaching in Milan. However, given his early wanderlust, I hope for his sake that he also took the opportunity to go back on the road. To recuperate. To find inspiration once again.
At some point though, Gigli resurfaced. Heralded as the return of “the legend,” in 2012 Romeo Gigli collaborated with Hong Kong luxury fashion retailer Joyce on both a men’s and womenswear line (Joyce had actually been one of the first stores to stock Gigli’s designs when he initially launched in the ‘80s).
It’s not clear how long this arrangement with Joyce lasted. But earlier this year Gigli was back again, designing a small womenswear collection for the oddly-named Italian brand Eggs.
There’s apparently also some menswear in the pipeline from this same source.
It’s quite possible that Gigli is now having more fun designing than he has in many years. And perhaps with more freedom than ever before. But there’s no denying that these comeback projects are on a much smaller scale than anything he was involved in during his ‘80s and ‘90s heyday; a time when he was on top of the world.
Meanwhile Gigli’s name rolls on without him, in the form of marked-down suits and humdrum outerwear on fashion discount sites such as the aforementioned Yoox – and even Walmart. Likely the output of a Luxembourg-registered holding company, Eccentric S.r.l., who at last count claimed to own the legal rights to use of the Gigli name.
While Gigli’s past glories cannot be taken away from him, nobody would really want to end their career like this. As sad as this story may be though, many of you are probably asking what the hell it’s got to do with ethical and sustainable men’s fashion.
We’re accustomed to hearing about the poor treatment of textile workers, or the awful plight of cotton farmers. But fashion can be an ugly business at all levels. I love well-designed clothes, but I’m not overly enamored of many of the individuals involved in their creation. So many beautiful people, in such an ugly industry.
In its most basic form, being ethical simply means treating other people well. Treating them as you would want to be treated yourself. Of course, the information we have about Gigli’s treatment at the hands of his business partners comes from Gigli himself (gleaned from various interviews over the years). If we were to ask Sozzani or Maino, they’d likely tell things quite differently.
Whatever the truth of the matter in this particular case, somebody somewhere has been dishonest. Very dishonest.
Setting up a fashion brand? Thinking of going into partnership? Looking for investors?
Choose your collaborators wisely: the same powerful connections that will help to build your brand can just as easily bring it down if it suits them.
Romeo Gigli Pronunciation
We’re all familiar with Italian brand names such as Prada or Valentino, and asking for directions to the nearest Marni store on the streets of Milan isn’t likely to result in too much confusion for most of us either. But the pronunciation of Romeo Gigli is another matter entirely. Just how should you say that second name?
Well, for a start, it’s not “giggly”.
If you’ve noticed, for example, that Armani’s first name isn’t pronounced “gor-ghee-oh” with hard Gs, then you’ve likely already worked that in Italian a G followed by an I is pronounced soft, more like an English J. Making it “jor-joh” Armani (the I is only there to make the G soft, but you don’t pronounce it, hence it’s not “jor-jee-oh”).
But that only gets you half way there, because you don’t say “jiggly” either.
In Italian, a G followed by an L becomes even softer still. So in fact Gigli is pronounced something like “jee-lee”.
And if you want to be really correct, then you should pronounce Romeo with the stress on the second syllable – “ro-mayo” – instead of the first as we would normally do in English.
So that’s “ro-mayo-jee-lee.”
Easy when you know how.