Frida Giannini is all heart and out to make a real change. By Sasha Slater. Photographed by Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott.
Gucci creative director Frida Giannini is set to change the world
In September 2013, Gucci sent a phalanx of top models down its gleaming mirrored catwalk in a high-octane Latin take on sports luxe, while swirls of art nouveau patterns inspired by Erté flickered on floor-length dresses, slashed to the thigh. Supermodels Joan Smalls, Liu Wen, and Anja Rubik sashayed to techno in metallic Lurex and mesh bras, and pivoted on leather stiletto boots whose heels called to mind inverted Shards. Spring/Summer ’14 at Gucci was a tour de force of power, confidence, and sexiness. Indeed, power radiates from the very stones of the brand’s office in Milan. The lobby is floor-to-ceiling bronzed mirrors and polished white floors. Black-suited guards hover in the hallway; acolytes and supplicants, of whom there are many on the day visit, have to show a passport to get past the reception desk. But gradually, as you penetrate the building, the atmosphere softens. The staff canteen may be a minimalist white space, but it has art books dotted around, and staff chat on the terrace as they sip cappuccinos. Up on a higher floor, I discover the reason for both the power and the warmth. Frida Giannini, creative director of the label for the past eight years, is a slim 41-year-old blonde, clad head to toe in unremitting black, some of it high-sheen. She’s wearing lethal heels and looks the epitome of the efficient fashion tycoon – until she smiles. And then the joy breaks through.
“I am really finding a new energy,” says Giannini excitedly. “I’m starting again in a new life and new career. I am living a moment like a phoenix.” There are three strands to this rebirth: the arrival of her first child, a daughter called Greta, in March last year; a renewed focus on her role at Gucci; and her charitable work on behalf of women the world over. There is a buzz about her that
Giannini’s whole life appears to be an elegant equilibrium between love and work, precision and passion.
she feels has been absent in the recent past. “On the personal side I was suffering a lot because the baby was not arriving,” she says. “I was looking for a baby and I had a couple of years that were really quite tough for me personally. So now, finally, I had a baby and I can find a balance and it’s just a matter of some organisation.”
Happily, organisation is one of her strong suits. She’s teased by her friends for being a Romana Svizzera (Swiss Roman): half clinical efficiency, half inspiration. Indeed, Giannini’s whole life appears to be an elegant equilibrium between love and work, precision and passion.
The daughter of an architect father and art-historian mother, she spent her childhood partly in and around Rome’s galleries and historical monuments, and partly on horseback. Having studied fashion in Rome, she joined Fendi in 1997 as a ready-to-wear designer, but was soon promoted to designer of leather accessories. In 2002, Tom Ford recruited her to Gucci as his design director of handbags. When he left the company in 2004, Giannini became head of women’s accessories, and two years later she was promoted to creative director of the label. Such extraordinary career leaps don’t happen by accident; they’re the result of ferocious hard work, vision, and ambition. The secret behind her final promotion was, perhaps, the Flora collection. For this, she took an archive design of a scarf Gucci made for Princess Grace of Monaco and reimagined it on handbags, totes, minaudières, dresses, more scarves and, eventually, as the inspiration for a successful perfume. She also united the heritage of the Gucci label with that of the Monegasque royal family when Princess Grace’s granddaughter, Charlotte Casiraghi, herself beautiful, alluring, ambitious, and with an outstanding pedigree, became a face of the brand. It’s the same play of past and present, sex and class, which has made Giannini’s Gucci such a success for nearly a decade.
The success also comes about because Giannini, essentially, designs for herself. “The Gucci woman,” she says, “is all about attitude, a strong personality, and a strong sexuality and femininity. She’s very, very busy in everything she does – in her family, her job – but with a great energy. She has power.”
She also has a heart. For to think of Giannini as being merely extraordinarily commercially successful would be a mistake – a strong streak of philanthropy runs through her. In the past, she has collaborated with Rihanna to raise funds for Unicef, but now she’s working for another cause. “I wanted to do something for women’s empowerment – it’s such a current problem, and not only in the developing world but even here in Italy,” she says. This drive to improve the lives of the most downtrodden women around the world led Giannini to link up with Salma HayekPinault, the actress and wife of FrançoisHenri Pinault, the CEO of Kering, Gucci’s parent company. As Hayek-Pinault told me herself: “It’s Frida who had the genius idea of Chime for Change, and it’s because of her that we’re doing this. She’s really ambitious, she’s really courageous, and she had the infrastructure to say, ‘We’re going to do this.’”
Chime for Change is a giant umbrella organisation linking thousands of small women’s charities – some focusing on health, some on education, and some on women’s access to justice. What’s important to Giannini, though, is that while many of these operate in the poorest countries in the world, others engage with women’s issues in the West, such as one in the heart of her home town, Rome, that helps to dissuade desperate mothers from abandoning their newborn babies. Along with Hayek-Pinault, Giannini recruited Beyoncé. “I wanted to do something with music, I wanted to do something like Live Aid,” says Giannini. “We wanted
to involve Beyoncé and Jay Z as they know many, many artists. We called her and in a very short time we put together all these people, and then there we were,” she says insouciantly. And why not? After all, the women know each other well and, these days, Gucci designs Beyoncé’s spectacular sequinned outfits for her live shows.
It all came together in the summer of 2013 with a sell-out concert, the Sound of Change Live, to raise awareness and money for the initiative. With the line-up of Beyoncé, Florence + the Machine, Jay Z, and Jennifer Lopez, the show attracted an audience of more than 50,000. And the venue for this philanthropic extravaganza of music, Hollywood, and fashion? Twickenham Stadium. “London is the most international place at the moment, even more than New York,” explains Giannini. “And music has such a heritage here.” She knows London well, having spent a year in the city in 2002, though she says she never got used to the weather. She stays in Claridge’s when she comes back. “I love the Art Deco design. It’s very me,” she says with a smile.
Her house in Rome is decorated with Art Deco pictures and furniture – as well as the odd Modigliani – and Greta lives there, but not her father – or at least, not yet. Giannini’s partner is Patrizio di Marco, Gucci’s CEO, who joined the brand in 2009 after a stint at its sister company Bottega Veneta. “Her father still has to live in Florence for work,” says Giannini in her deep voice, speaking excellent but accented English, and breaking into Italian when words escape her. “We don’t have so many chances for seeing each other during the week, but we’re very well organised about the weekends. It’s quite tough, but in the end it’s not bad.”
A few years ago, Giannini chose to move her creative team at Gucci away from the claustrophobia of the brand’s Tuscan home town to Rome. Her employees didn’t seem to mind the change of scenery – they, like her, enjoy the fact that they’re only 20 minutes from a beach – but it makes life hard for the new family. Meanwhile, it’s Giannini’s mother, Sandra, who looks after Greta while her mother works. “My mum is always at my side,” she says. “She’s here in Milan with me and the baby now. I didn’t want Greta spending the whole day with a nanny – it’s never as good as a grandma.”
And so the new mother continues her delicate balancing act, combining her designing and philanthropic roles with the demands of a baby. “I am very passionate about my job, so it’s not difficult. Of course, there are days when I’m very tired and when everything has to come together. On the day of the show, I hosted a cocktail party and then a dinner, and at the end I was completely exhausted. And the next day I had to start all over again. But I feel privileged to do this job and I enjoy it.” Spoken like the true Gucci woman.
Joan Smalls modelling Gucci Spring/ Summer 14