JENNY Gucci was once given a T-shirt that said: "My name is Jenny. Yes, I'm living my own soap opera." Married at the time to Paolo Gucci - and hence into one of Italian fashion's most famous families - she frequently had that sensation. Even now, after the final credits have rolled and the soap's denouement of murder, divorce, tax evasion and animal cruelty has receded into the distant past, she still gets it. The fashion world has many big, dramatic stories, but none contain quite the breadth of melodrama as that of the Guccis. At times improbable, at others ridiculous, the story is hard to tell without lapsing into a kind of excitable breathiness. Even the title of Jenny Gucci's book on the subject - Gucci Wars: How I Survived Murder And Intrigue At The Heart Of The World's Biggest Fashion House - oozes sensationalism.

For most people, however, the word Gucci is not synonymous with blood and betrayal. Rather, it conjures up images of a jetset lifestyle: the big-lensed sunglasses, the Jackie O handbag, international playboy glamour, and the personal style of its former suave and minimalist designer Tom Ford. Ford was the creative director who in the 1990s - when the label had lost some of its cachet - brought the fashion house back to form and glory. With business partner Domenico De Sole, he took it from a $200 million a year revenue family business to a $3 billion fashion empire. In a recent survey, Gucci was found to be the most coveted brand in the world: one in five consumers said they would buy Gucci if money were not an issue.

Though it has been through major revolutions in style and leadership, its more dramatic twists have been in the lives of the people behind the GG logo. There are two Gucci stories. There is the story of a luxury brand and there is the story of a family troubled by feuding and resentment. Until the 1990s at least, these two tales were intertwined.

If there is a climax to the family story, then it came in the mid-1990s. Not long after the family members had sold their shares and given up control of the business, a couple of events hit the news. In 1994, the world's press swooped on Paolo Gucci's upstate New York estate and reported that the owner had stopped paying his staff and allowed his collection of Arab horses to starve: the initial death toll was six. A year later, his cousin Maurizio Gucci was shot dead by a hitman in the street outside the Gucci office. Maurizio's former wife, Patrizia Reggiani, dubbed by the Italian press "the black widow", was convicted of masterminding the crime with the aid of her psychic and friend, Giuseppina Auriemma. Although the two events were not directly connected, they do provide a flavour of the fever-pitch of relations in the family.

Jenny Gucci brings to the tale an outsider's view of the inner wranglings and feudings of the family. Not only did she come from outside the Gucci world, but, as a bookmaker's daughter from Mill Hill in London and a former dental nurse, she was also from outside that Italian, patriarchal culture. Her incomprehension at the intrigue and machinations going on around her runs through the book. When we meet in a London hotel, she recalls her bemused response to the frequent arguments and occasional physical boardroom tussles: "Oh what's the matter? You've all got so much. Yet it was never enough." Now in her late 50s, Jenny Gucci still displays the effortless beauty that was the hallmark of her youth. Although smartly dressed, she does not appear to be wearing Gucci.

The Gucci empire was born in Florence in 1921, when straw hat-maker's son Guccio Gucci decided to set up a store selling luxury luggage, having been inspired by baggage he saw while working in London's Savoy hotel. Guccio had six children, though, in traditional patriarchal manner, power was only handed down to the male members of the family: Aldo, Vasco, Ugo and Rodolfo. Within this second generation, Aldo was the real mover who pushed the expansion of the brand into America and Japan. Many of the classic Gucci icons were developed in this era: the Grace Kelly scarf, the Jackie O bag. The family's slide from glory would only begin in the decades that followed. "In the 1960s and 1970s," Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter has written, "Gucci had been at the pinnacle of chic, thanks to icons such as Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Jacqueline Onassis. But by the 1980s, Gucci had lost its appeal, becoming a tacky airport brand."

By the time Jenny Gucci married into the family in 1977, power was divided between six men: Aldo and his three sons, including Paolo, and Rodolfo and his only son Maurizio. From the start she was a little at odds with the family, arriving as she did as a young, sexually liberated divorcee. She had a talent too: a powerful operatic singing voice. Aldo Gucci once said to his son that she was "a lovely girl, but a load of trouble". On one occasion, she arrived late for a dinner and recalls being told sternly by Aldo, the patriarch: "Who do you think you are, coming late to the table? You are a nobody, a nothing." Jenny had replied: "I beg your pardon? Please don't speak to me like that. I am late and I apologise."

This was not the way Gucci women behaved. Aldo's own wife, for instance, backed him whatever happened and was there to clean his dirty washing even when he brought it back after he had been away conducting one of his numerous affairs. "I just wouldn't kowtow to everything they said," says Jenny now. "He would say, I want you to do so and so'. I'd say, Where's the please? I'm your daughter-in-law. I'm not one of your people at work, Aldo'."

Throughout much of her marriage, she was deeply in love with Paolo. For the most part, she didn't perceive the more negative, combative aspects of her husband's character. "I was on his side. When I look back I think maybe I shouldn't have been because I see he was very controversial. Maybe the brothers and the fathers were right to fight him. But in a lot of cases they weren't. Paolo was very forward-thinking. He wanted to do a second line of Gucci which every designer in the world has done and he was the first to come up with that idea. And they absolutely killed him on it. They said, You don't know what you're talking about'. There were things thrown across the room."

It's clear from her descriptions that this was a family business at breaking point. In the end it was Paolo who began the sale of shares in the company that would end the family's ownership. By doing this he betrayed his father and brothers. It was not the first time. He had tipped off the United States authorities on his father's tax evasion and played a role in a plot with Maurizio to oust his father from his role as chairman. Jenny believes Paolo sold out because he was nursing his own grievances. Obstacles had been put in the way of many of his design plans. "I think he was very hurt. They wouldn't let him breathe. They wouldn't let him work. I think it was painful for him."

In some ways, the most bewildering and unfathomable twist in the Gucci tale is not the murder of Maurizio, but Paolo's neglect of his horses. Jenny describes arriving at the stables and noticing a strong smell before she saw the skinny animals with their poking ribs, patched coats and split hooves. "Still to this day, frankly, I really can't talk about it. It was just disgusting and whatever feeling I still had for Paolo by the time that happened vanished. People say, You must hate him'. I say it goes totally beyond hate. Hate is a passion and hate is akin to love. This was like total disdain. If he had been lying in the road I would have stepped on him."

In starving the horses, it seems Paolo was out to prove he didn't have the money to pay his divorce settlement. At that point, Jenny says, he was "totally nihilistic. He had no sense of doing wrong". Yet this behaviour remains one of the real mysteries of the Gucci story. What kind of dark streak ran through the family that might come out in such behaviour? It's a question that is neatly expressed in Jenny Gucci's own response when she was told that Maurizio had been shot: "Good God. You lot! What is the matter with you all?"

Many of the elements of Paolo's character, she believes, had been handed down the generations. From the early days, when Guccio Gucci played the role of stern patriarch, there had always been a culture of distance, severity and tension between father and child. "I think a strain of the family came out badly in Paolo. I think his father was very tough and abusive. For instance, Paolo had a dog he was very fond of as a child and one day he came back and his father had just taken it away. He never saw it again. That is extreme abuse. I mean you might as well just bash your kid up, frankly, rather than that."

Part of the Gucci culture seemed to involve an acceptance that the men of the family would take lovers. In the end, this was what destroyed Patrizia's marriage: Maurizio left her for another woman. It was also what destroyed Jenny's marriage. She recalls, just before the break-up, talking to a psychiatrist who was treating him. "He said, You've got two choices. Either stay and eventually be abused and go on Valium and alcohol, or get a divorce and get out as soon as you can.' I said, I'll choose to get out'. He said, I'm glad you said that. You're absolutely wasting your time trying to reconcile with this man. I've been in practice 35 years, yet he manipulated me, he got me going'."

Though her break-up and divorce were acutely acrimonious, the repercussions were not so momentous as they were for Patrizia and Maurizio Gucci. Jenny recalls the last time she saw Patrizia at her New York apartment before Maurizio was shot. "We were talking about Paolo and Maurizio and she said, I don't know why these boys have changed. Is it just because they've got all the money from the sale of the company? Maurizio used to be the sweetest man in the world, now he's turned against me'. I could tell she was very angry, but I didn't think she would have her husband murdered."

Paolo died a year after Maurizio was shot. He had always had a liver complaint, but there was also a sense in which he had seemed to be driving himself towards death. "I think the stress with the divorce and the horses did contribute to it. Towards the end he just didn't care. He wanted to die and I really believe that." Jenny did not attend her ex-husband's funeral.

When she describes the grand soap opera that once was the house of Gucci, she sometimes refers to the American television drama series The Sopranos. Some of the cast, after all, are considering roles in an up-coming film of the Gucci story. Other times, she talks of Dallas, the soap she followed while she was still married to Paolo. The couple would even joke about which members of the family were JR, Sue Ellen, Bobby and Pam.

But the screen world which most closely resembles the Gucci family was, says Jenny, that of The Godfather. "When I watched The Godfather III, I had to get out of the cinema and get a vodka and tonic," she says. "I was hyperventilating. There it was on the screen, the whole intrigue, the way things were done. It was Machiavellian. It was plotting and silences and telling this one, but not telling someone else. There was no trust."

In fact, this epic and very public soap has done little to damage the fashion house. Any impact on sales has generally been positive. As Sarah Gay Forden, the author of The House Of Gucci: A Sensational Story Of Murder, Madness And Greed has said: "Ironically, the fighting helped fuel the notoriety of the name. It was a rare case where negative publicity wasn't necessarily a bad thing. At one point I interviewed Luigi Pirovano, who was Rodolfo Gucci's driver, and later Maurizio's. He said the family would fight and fight, and people would pour into the stores and the sales would grow, and it was as though there was a connection between the two."

Paolo and Maurizio, while they were the forces behind the dismantling of the family business, were also the agents that paved the way for Gucci to become what it is today: a modern fashion house. In some ways, the Gucci story is also a tale of the fashion industry, of its evolution from small-scale designers to big, global brands. When Ford took over as creative director, he created in Gucci an image that seemed a universe away from these family feudings and wranglings. The Gucci man was smooth, slick, well-travelled and sexually irresistible, created in Ford's likeness, while the Gucci woman was elegant and sleazily glamorous. Though Ford left the brand in 2004, it is still that image it retains under its current designers. It's hard to reconcile this smooth, minimalist global jetsetter with the Shakespearian intricacies of the Italian family who began it all. One is the myth we are sold, the other, unbelievable as it is, is the truth.

Gucci Wars: How I Survived Murder And Intrigue At The Heart Of The World's Biggest Fashion House, by Jenny Gucci, is published by John Blake, £17.99