Color Me Pucci

When Emilio Pucci set pattern to print, he called on memories of waves crashing along the shore at Capri and brightly colored flags flying at the Palio. Is it any wonder, asks Josh Patner, his signature fashions now speak Italian for the world?

Who can think of Italy without picturing a glamorous woman sipping a Campari and soda in a café at dusk, the bright sunlight teasing glitter from the deep, dark waters around Capri, or young lovers straddling a speeding motorino? And who can think of Italian style without thinking of Emilio Pucci? Wouldn't that pretty lady be less pretty—and less Italian—without her Pucci print? It is impossible—even dreary—to imagine Italy without the great Florentine designer's kaleidoscopically printed silk jersey tunics that have defined The Good Life since the 1950s. You can no sooner separate Pucci from Italian chic than you could the Campari from the soda.

American women, of course, have long loved Pucci. Though not the first to discover the near instant élan of a Pucci wardrobe—Marchese Emilio Pucci di Barsento opened his first boutique in Capri in 1950 after selling to Lord & Taylor on the recommendation of Diana Vreeland—once they owned a piece, obsession set in. Jacqueline Susann penned Valley of the Dolls dressed in his head-to-toe prints, and Helen Gurley Brown led the Cosmopolitan revolution in Pucci. Jackie wore it. So did Marilyn. The love affair continues today with recent openings of a Fifth Avenue shop at the St. Regis hotel and a high-rolling address at Forum Shops at Caesars in Las Vegas. Designed by Italian architects Tiziano Vudafieri and Lena Pessoa, these boutiques—like the new jewel box of a shop near Piazza San Marco in Venice—share the sleekly futuristic lines of Pucci's prints. Summer-bright white walls roll like waves, and the clothes, hanging from transparent poles, appear to be suspended in air.

When the French luxury group LVMH acquired the house in 2000, naming couturier Christian Lacroix designer soon thereafter, Pucci crossed the time line from classic to completely current. Lacroix—who makes lavish color and prints essential in his own collections—has taken Pucci's carefree spirit on a joy ride through today's must-have wardrobe. Chiffon and satin dresses are awash in eye-popping patterns. Dashing capes and coats recall the glory of the Renaissance while maintaining a contemporary swagger. Sleek suits layered with fur stoles are perfect for glamorous city living, and patterned leggings evoke Pucci's mod heyday. But this collection is no retrospective. While Lacroix has surely channeled Pucci's spirit, he cuts clothes with curves that would have made the marchese blush.

Pucci Mania may have put a high polish on the psychedelic sixties, but what Emilio Pucci created was actually quite simple. His signature printed tops and dresses were often no more complex than a T-shirt, and this at a time when Christian Dior's lavish gowns and precise suits were fashion's crowning glory. But an early and extremely popular Pucci look broke away from all that salon-style pomp. The ensemble—nothing more than a crisp silk button-down shirt that came in a rainbow of colors matching a pair of taut three-quarter-length Capri pants, which the marchese named for his beloved summer getaway—gave both style and freedom to women who were ready to take on a changing world. While Pucci's simple tunics and Capri pants are happily still available, perhaps nothing speaks better for the longevity of his vision than Lacroix's updated collection. Today's Pucci may have more sensual draping than the original basic silhouette. But the prints—bold, sinuous, and nearly alive—could have been drawn today.

According to Enrico Quinto, an Italian collector of fine vintage clothing, Pucci's role in Italian fashion is "primordiale, fondamentale." Quinto says, "He gave a sense of Italian style—great beauty treated with nonchalance—that has become the legend Italy continues to promote globally." It's true: Here were Botticelli's exquisite shades of blue and purple, Capri's pink, flowering vines, and the yellow of a girasole sent flaming across a simple silk blouse with both the exotic mystery of a peacock's feather and the urbane flair that is the birthright of noble heritage.

Pucci was drawn to fashion by chance. His noble family traces its roots to the Crusades, and were it not for his own unending appetite for adventure, he too might have lived the typically reserved life of his peers. But instead Pucci went to America, hitchhiked across the country, and graduated from Reed College in 1937. The marchese was a decorated air force pilot and had an affair with Mussolini's daughter. That landed him in jail and eventually led to a brief exile in Switzerland until the war's end.

It was while skiing that Pucci's equal love of old-world elegance and new-world efficiency gave him the idea to customize his own skiwear with newly elasticized fabrics. The streamlined, vividly colored snowsuits made him a standout on the Swiss slopes. When Harper's Bazaar published a photo of the marchese and a ski date wearing his designs in 1947, he converted part of his family palazzo into a small factory and opened the doors for business. Some say Lacroix's skiwear collection has the same sense of innovation.

"Pucci means good times, "says Laudomia Pucci, the designer's daughter and the company's image director. "It represents a dream." And yet for all the jet-set talk that gives Pucci its enduring allure, it is in fact its utter simplicity that won women's adoration. The Italian kitchen gave us the miracle of spaghetti con pomodoro e basilico—basic ingredients used to perfection. Emilio Pucci, Italian to the core, did the same. He took some silk jersey, wonderful color, and a simple shape or two, and let the freewheeling passion of Italy loose to enchant the world.