As part of its 100th anniversary celebration, the Italian luxury brand recently opened its century-old archive to the public at the refurbished, Gucci-owned Palazzo Settimanni in Florence

For a hundred years, Gucci has showcased the unique Italian sense of style and panache, its legendary craftsmanship and artistry, while pushing the boundaries of high fashion. From the Bamboo bag of the late 1940s to the horse-bit loafer and the  Flora floral scarf of the 1950s, the Jackie bag, the Gucci belt with the GG buckle, the Soho Disco bag, and the more recent Sylvie Purse and Ace Sneakers, Gucci’s iconic creations capture the fashion zeitgeist of its time while breaking new grounds in style. If they were to be all listed chronologically, it would provide a fascinating insight into how high fashion has evolved over the last 100 years. 

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As of July this year, however, visitors to Florence have been able to observe this fashion evolution in person. For the first time, Gucci has thrown open its vast archives to the public as part of its 100 year birthday celebration. The archive is housed in Palazzo Settimanni, a Renaissance-era building in the Santo Spirito, a vibrant neighbourhood of the city where artisans and artists have had their workshops for centuries. Acquired by Gucci in 1953, the building had, over the years, served as a factory, a workshop, and a showroom before being turned into the now splendid museum. 

Thanks to the refurbishment commissioned and designed by Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele, the building has not only been restored to its original character but has also been allowed to tell its own story and reveal its multiple identities. “Palazzo Settimanni, now free of earlier additions, is transformed into a magical place to which I have restored a sense of porousness: you pass through it, the air gets in, you can walk through it as if it were a journey. I’m porous, absorbent, permeable,” explains Michele. “I have restored to the Palazzo a fairy tale aura, which, for instance, allows the small entrance hall to become a gateway to a dream dimension. I envisaged it as a sort of secret place within the House, an inner sanctum from where one sets out for Gucci’s holy lands.”

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The five floors of the building, which include the ground floor and the basement, have been restored to their original glory. They have been carefully stripped off all the fripperies acquired in the recent past to reveal the vestiges of 19th century decorations, 18th century trompe l’oeil, late 17th century frescoes, and even earlier ornamentation; all these elements have been deliberately left intact or restored to their original splendour without being moved or altered. The only significant alteration has been removing the canopy in the entrance hall, added in the 1990s, to let in more light and restore the central portico to its original, graceful proportions. 

Everything has been planned, arranged, and designed with the same sensitivity and attention that has informed the entire repurposing of the building as a home for the brand’s historic collections: from the furnishings to the details of the handles that replicate a pair of scissors, from the glazed Wunderkammer (the cabinet of curiosities) to the lamps, the precious cabinetry, and the large cupboards in glass and iron. To maintain the authenticity, all restorations were entrusted to local specialists, including the terracotta floor tiles produced one by one in wood-fired ovens.

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Like a  treasure chest holding more treasure chests inside, the archive is divided into themed rooms, named after the mantra-like words that are part of Michele’s lexicon. The basement is divided into three halls, Radura (porcelain and household items), Herbarium (stationery), and Maison de L’Amour (leisure items). The ground floor houses the collections of vintage handbags (Hortus Deliciarum hall), small leather goods, and vintage belts (Prato di Ganimede hall — the field of Ganymede), an exhibition room (Swan hall), vintage and contemporary jewellery (Le Marché des Merveilles hall), and vintage luggage (1921 Rifondazione hall).

Textile creations — scarves and dresses — and footwear are housed on the first floor, where the space is divided into rooms with evocative names, such as Orto di Giove (Jupiter’s garden), The Alchemist’s Garden, Serapis, and Aveugle par Amour, to name but a few. Lastly, on the second floor, we find the Façonnier des Rêves hall.

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Most striking is the wall showcasing styles that have maintained their design codes intact while evolving in step with historical events, such as the Bamboo bag or the Jackie, both presented in different versions and materials. In the adjacent jewellery room, which houses vintage items alongside contemporary collections, the mirrors that cover the walls in their entirety erase the concept of dimension, expanding the space to infinity. It also presents a welcome revival of lifestyle accessories, whose function and design are perfectly contemporary, despite being created to complete the brand’s aesthetics some sixty or seventy years ago.

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“The archive is a memory palace,” says Valerie Steele, director and curator of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who collaborated on the layout and curation of the public spaces. Far from being a dusty attic, it is a dynamic system of knowledge production and inspiration. Archives are based on the drive to collect and categorise objects from the past, not because of any nostalgia, but because the style of objects changes over time. This relation to time means that a brand like Gucci, which has a 100-year history, develops archives in order to keep a tangible cultural heritage alive, now and for the future.”