Wheter creating handbags under Tom Ford or designing one of the most profitable and fashion-forward labels in the world, everything FRIDA GIANNINI touches turns to gold; her genius cannot be ignored.
Most non-fashion people—by which I mean those just not that into fashion—can never understand the collective anguish brought on by the departure of a fashion figurehead like Tom Ford from Gucci. Nor can they fathom the uncertainty of having a then unknown designer, like Frida Giannini, pick up the reins. It’s a consternation born of pouring not only your money into the brand, but the emotional investment of getting to know and admire their style season after season. That was the state of the fashion fraternity when Ford exited the Italian label in 2004.
However, Frida Giannini, with her six years designing handbags at Fendi (1996-2002) and two more doing the same under Ford (2002-’04), rose to the challenge. From 2004, she spent the next two years consolidating Gucci’s creative processes, and was named sole creative director in 2006. And over her 10 years at Gucci, Giannini has systematically rebuilt the label to her specifications, rooting out almost everything that was Gucci under Ford. In doing so, she has deepened the foundations. The contrast is stark. She countered Ford’s debauched designs with cerebral concepts like luxe-sportswear, one of her go-to signatures and—increasingly—the flavour of future fashion. “Of course our way of working is different,” she says. “We are different. I am a woman; he is a man. I am Italian; he is American.”
But taking over after Ford is hardly the sum of Giannini’s achievements at Gucci. In the time that she went about reinventing the house into a more feminine entity, she designed a commercially successful (if panned by the press) line of clothes inspired by a vintage floral scarf designed by Gucci for Princess Grace of Monaco in 1966, and introduced Flora, a successful fragrance as a follow up. She also went about re-forming Gucci’s image in the minds of the public. And it wasn’t so much a makeover as it was a do-over. “My own first memories of Gucci are from the ’70s, as I was born during this decade,” she says. And that translates into her work today (she has often said that this decade inspires her most), like her Spring 2011 collection with intense jewel tones colour-blocked into pant-suit combos and safari influences galore, all topped with gold, fringed accessories. She has also revived the jumpsuit, going back to it season after season, and has made a statement out of bold prints, flowing cuts, and languid fabrics. “It was a time of revolution in fashion, and a golden era for the house,” she says of the ’70s. And she would see those heady days returned.
“Of course our way of working is different,” she says (about Tom Ford).
“We are different. I am a woman; he is a man. I am Italian; he is American.”
Here’s how. In the past decade, Louis Vuitton monopolised the art-meets-fashion space by doing special collections and limited-edition handbags with artists like Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami, and Yayoi Kusama, sparking off a worldwide, me-too phenomenon. Collaboration became a byword in fashion; you weren’t doing anything unless you had someone to do it with. Parallel to and independent of that, Giannini was perfecting her own method. And her medium of choice was the performing arts.
But it wasn’t just anybody who made the cut. They had to be young, hot, and about to happen. Take Rihanna, for instance, whom Giannini partnered with in 2008 for the brand’s Tattoo Heart collection of handbags, 25 percent of the sales of which went to UNICEF (this at a time when the world was just beginning to sway to Rihanna’s Umbrella, in the year that the Barbadian beauty and Jay Z got a Grammy for the song). Next came Florence + The Machine lead singer Florence Welch, to whom Giannini dedicated her Fall 2011 collection. She went on to design Welch’s stage outfits for the band’s North American tour. And last year, one of Hollywood’s hottest talents, James Franco, turned producer for a behind-the-scenes documentary on Giannini. They all added ‘cool’ to Gucci, and made everyone want to keep up with Giannini.
That’s not all. Giannini also roped in Hollywood powerhouses Madonna, Beyoncé, Salma Hayek-Pinault, and Jennifer Lopez for Chime For Change, a global campaign for female empowerment. All these partnerships, creative or advertising led, have helped Giannini re-forge Gucci’s image as a global fashion powerhouse with an intelligent edge. They are—counter to Ford’s svelte debauchery—celebrities of the ‘thinking’ kind, the public interest in them kindled not only because of their beauty, but also their talent and their personal back stories. How does she pick them? “Intuition,” she says. “Needless to say that all my work is team-work, and that I have a strong team of collaborators. I enjoy working with celebrities because they often share my ambition to innovate and evolve,” she adds. “When joining forces, energy is very important—I am optimistic and look to work with people who share this positivity.”
It’s telling that she uses these words often: Share and Positive. Maybe because she isn’t your typical designer and had to reinvent the rules, she doesn’t play by them today. She isn’t commodified into being a media phenomenon by a PR machinery keeping her under wraps (we could name names here). She is easy to access, and fantastic to interview. On one hand, she has made a success of her first ever job as head designer, and on the other, she is a mother who loves to holiday at her seaside residence, south of Rome, “where I can do all the things I never have time for, like horse riding, cooking, and reading”.
But perhaps even this perfect balance isn’t the true measure of her. Maybe it lies in the fact that she has been able to raise over $18 million for UNICEF in an ongoing partnership. Maybe it has to do with helming a global behemoth with consummate ease, the same ease with which she has taken art deco illustrator Erté’s illustrations, and mixed in her love for sport for her Spring 2014 collection. Or maybe because her husband and Gucci CEO Patrizio de Marco, says “I don’t have to tell Frida to do anything other than to be herself”. Maybe we’ll never know. But so long as she continues to do what she’s doing, we’re happy.