SOME years ago, in the grasping 1980s, there was a famous Gucci board meeting at which blood was spilt. Literally. The Guccis are an Italian family but this saga of fraternal in-fighting was Greek in its dramatic quality. Wits said that at Gucci you did not wear a suit, you filed it - preferably against your closest relative. Maurizio Gucci was the heir to Guccio Gucci, the company founder, but that did not prevent him being the subject of legal action regarding his inheritance. Aldo Gucci pleaded guilty to federal income tax evasion in the United States, and the Italian courts took control of the company for a time. Meanwhile, the counterfeiters were busily debasing the Gucci name and logo. In 60 years, the company had gone from a high-class leather goods shop and saddlery in Florence, to Bangkok back streets in which tackiness, not tack, was the style prerequisite. Frankly, if you fancied yourself as a style guru, you did not want to be saddled with any Gucci product. The fall of the House of Gucci seemed imminent. And yet . . . the fickle gods of fortune decided to play a different game with new players. The bickering cousins had their share of the company bought up by Investcorp, a Bahrain-based investment bank which realised, very wisely, that the name of Gucci, tarnished though it was, still meant something on the fashion scene; an Investcorp handbag was unlikely to have the same cachet. The name was retained, therefore, and so, after the inevitable suit, was Maurizio Gucci. Appointed chairman, he he began to restructure his tottering house. The first thing he did was the most vital act of all: he appointed Dawn Mello, from the New York department store Bergdorf Goodman, as the company's creative director. Mello - and even the name sounds suitably like the heroine of an exhausting blockbuster who overcomes all difficulties to triumph in the end - did an extraordinary thing: she made Gucci desirable again. She consigned the vinyl luggage range and the famous red and green stripes to oblivion; she cut the number of items produced from 20,000 to 4,000. She realised that, on the whole, customers who purchased coffee mugs because of a Gucci logo emblazoned on the side were customers the company could, and should, do without. She also brought in Tom Ford, who had been working for Perry Ellis. Ford - another good name, sensible, no-nonsense - arrived at Gucci in 1990. The pair worked as a team for four years trying to bring back quality to Gucci. But there was one more act in the family drama. Maurizio Gucci was spending money like - well, like it was going out of fashion, which it was. While his company was advocating restrained good taste and the quiet appeal of the classics, Maurizio was shrieking his expenditure all over Europe. Investcorp did not think this was a good idea. Neither did the Italian workers, who eventually went on strike. Finally, in September 1993, Investcorp bought out the last Gucci for US$170 million. Mello left in June to return to Bergdorf Goodman, leaving Ford as creative director of a company which had come back from the dead twice. TOM Ford used to be an actor. He did a lot of commercials, so he knew about the art of selling. When he was a teenager he did some modelling, so he knew about appearances. He is, he says, exceptionally nice to models. He remembers what it's like. He has just arrived at the Mandarin from Paris, and is jet-lagged but charming, with the chiselled face of a Roman emperor. He likes to hang out with fashion journalists so he's at ease with the press, maybe too much so - he gives the impression that he would rather gossip (what Linda said, how Cindy looked) than be interviewed, but as it's all off the record, it's not terribly useful. On the other hand, he's a businessman and he's here to sell a company image. That's the point about Ford: he's creative and commercial, a visual person who knows about sums and is not given to vapours or nervous breakdowns. Perhaps this is because he came late to fashion, via interior architecture which he studied, intermittently, at the Parsons Schools of Design in New York, Los Angeles and Paris. He dropped out of school for a while to pursue his acting and at one point he was in 25 television commercials. 'I was successful financially but I wasn't in control of it . . . you're basically a mannequin that can walk and talk. I suppose I wanted to be Cary Grant - who wouldn't? - but I'd settle now for Hugh Grant.' He switched to fashion when he took a job with Chloe for six months. Although this was in the press department and mainly involved sending clothes out on photo shoots, he was sufficiently taken with it to spend his final year at Parsons studying fashion design. Technically, he still graduated in architecture, a fact he was canny enough to conceal on his resume; neither did he tell anyone that his work at Chloe had been entirely confined to minor public relations. Cathy Hardwick, the Korean designer, took him on in 1986, when he was 25. Two years later, he was hired by Perry Ellis; Ford knew both Robert McDonald, the company's president, and Marc Jacobs, its designer, socially. (He has good contacts - he is also friendly, for example, with Liz Tilberis, the British editor of American Harper's Bazaar - and has an excellent memory for people's names.) And two years after that, came the call from Dawn Mello. 'Dawn is incredibly talented,' he says now. 'She gave Gucci back its credibility. I wouldn't have considered joining but for her. I remember reading it in the papers when she went there and I thought then - she's out of her mind.' The pair went through a gruesome time while Investcorp battled it out with Maurizio. 'We lost almost all our design staff. I was designing 11 product categories. I didn't sleep for weeks.' Mello is on record as saying that this capacity to design everything - gloves, luggage, skirts - was what attracted her to Ford. He does shoes (the stiletto moccasin, for which there is a global waiting list, is his creation), bags (the baby bamboo backpack, another worldwide best-seller, is his), image (renowned photographer Mario Testino has been signed up by him for the new advertising campaign) and, naturally, clothes. He says now that he doesn't think he can go back to designing just one collection any more. Nevertheless, the future of Gucci must lie heavily on his Gucci-clad (he also handles the menswear division) shoulders. He has not had a day off for months. 'You do get obsessive. It's like a sickness, it feeds on itself. I'm a total Virgo so it's never perfect, it could always be better. We've taken enormous steps but we have a long way to go.' As a result, he says, he has no time to go shopping, which after Maurizio's excesses (yachts, jets, palaces) is bound to be music to the ears of Investcorp. IT'S two days later and Ford, still jet-lagged, is in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt. In a few hours, Hong Kong will see the Gucci spring/summer collection as modelled by, among others, superwaif Kate Moss. The creative side of Ford doesn't altogether approve of catwalk shows - 'It goes against my nature, I don't design for the runways, I design for what people want to wear' - but the businessman in him can see it makes perfect sense to have 300 of Hong Kong's well (and probably Gucci) heeled gathered together in one place to view his work. Kate appears and waits to be photographed. She looks small and mottled in the air-conditioning. She has a great London accent ('Oh rack off, me hair isn't damaged,' she cries out to Le Salon's Kim Robinson in a bit of stylist/model badinage), a real heh-heh-heh laugh, and, unusually in a model, she looks considerably prettier when she's giggling and talking than she does when she's in a sulk and nothing else in the Calvin Klein commercials. Still, to be frank, you wouldn't look twice at her in an Essex high street unless you were a clever talent scout. Standing in the wings, observing Ford and Kate being photographed, is a sweet-faced young woman who turns out, staggeringly enough, to be Kate's mother, Linda. 'Waiting's what it's all about, isn't it?' she remarks conversationally. She has never been to Hong Kong before and says she and Kate are dying to go shopping. Her daughter teeters over in a pair of vertigo-inducing Gucci heels and skimpy shorts which are gaping open at her bony hips. 'They made them too small to close,' she announces. 'But no one will notice, will they?' 'Course they will,' says her mother, sensibly. 'You'll have to get them fixed.' Kate wants to buy Chinese antiques. They politely contemplate the Macau option. It's difficult to talk to her with any ease because she has said she doesn't want to be interviewed and, in any case, there is to be no mention whatsoever of Johnny Depp, her actor boyfriend; the perverse result is that it's hard to stop thinking Depp thoughts. Anyway, what can she say? She likes Gucci, naturally, and that's about it. At the show, that night, she looks uncomfortable. William Flanz, chairman and CEO of Gucci, makes a speech of welcome to the first supermodel to come to Hong Kong. The lights dim, the music swells and wee Kate comes out in her fixed shorts, unsmiling and unremarkable. The clothes, however, are a definite success. Ford has gone for the classics - pedal-pushers and twinsets and full skirts and singing prints. The look is 1950s Via Veneto, very Audrey and Grace and Jackie, all of them past Gucci customers from an era when la dolce vita meant having the style and the money to shop at the family's Italian boutiques. Hepburn, Kelly, and Onassis, of course, are dead and the Gucci family has gone with the wind. Now the company is looking for younger customers who want quality not quantity: the perfect shoe, the perfect bag, the perfect pair of trousers. Tom Ford thinks he can tap this market and give it what it wants. He has made an auspicious start. Just at the moment, it seems the gods are smiling on Gucci.