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Frida Giannini on Milestones, Rumors and More

Warming up for her 10th anniversary as creative director of Gucci, Giannini has a busy 2014 ahead — including a round-the-world trip in seven months.

FLORENCE — Frida Giannini will mark her 10th year as creative director of Gucci in 2015 — an impressive milestone in itself for a female designer whose name is not the same as the brand’s. As she has evolved at Gucci, Giannini’s passions and beliefs have been increasingly channeled into the label, which today strongly reflects her stance on sustainability, contributions to women’s empowerment and education, humanitarian assistance and children’s rights.

This story first appeared in the May 23, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Warming up for her anniversary, Giannini has a busy 2014 ahead — a round-the-world trip in seven months with her first jaunt to Brazil beginning May 27, followed by New York and Milan in June; Paris in July; Rome and Milan in September; Tokyo in October; Los Angeles and Moscow in November, and Miami and Paris again in December.

Also, after two-and-a-half years in the making, Giannini is gearing up to launch Gucci’s new cosmetics line in September, fronted by a friend of the house, Charlotte Casiraghi. “This is a very ambitious project. Makeup always creates a trend at every fashion show, and it’s like an accessory; it completes a look and it completes our design,” said Giannini, who was clad in a black top and pants and black closed-toe sandals with golden spikes on the vamp, during an interview at the Gucci Museo here — a project which she spearheaded.

The designer juggles more than 10 collections a year for one of the biggest fashion groups in the world, as well as her new life as a mother, and her other tasks as a cofounder of Chime for Change, which raises funds and awareness for girls’ and women’s education, health and justice, and as a UNICEF collaborator. While the pressure of the industry and exacting schedules have left their mark on a number of Giannini’s peers, the designer heeds the strictest organization to keep up.

“I scientifically plan and organize, and I am always punctual,” said Giannini, who friends call “the Roman Swiss” because she combines Helvetic precision with a southern friendly and easy disposition. That said, the designer admits she sometimes asks herself how she does it. “You do feel the pressure and you always have to find new resources within yourself, but I know I am privileged to be working in this industry and for a company that respects its employees and protects them,” said Giannini, who credits her staff of 80 — between tailors, seamstresses and technical professionals — and her daughter Greta, now 14 months old, for her bouts of fresh energy. “She is my antistress, my joy and she makes everything good,” she said, her hazel eyes brightening. She confesses that she had always felt “a piece was missing,” before the baby.

Giannini mentions Greta, whose father is Gucci president and chief executive officer Patrizio di Marco, several times during the interview. Case in point: Giannini hopes to return to Malawi, where Gucci has been supporting UNICEF on several projects, possibly with her daughter, as a formative experience. Also, speaking of the restoration of movies with Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, she pointed to the value of “La Dolce Vita” or “Il Gattopardo” and how she would hate for her daughter and future generations to miss enjoying such works of art.

Her pregnancy also comes up when the designer expresses regrets that rumors were circulating about her displeasure with Christina Voros’ documentary “The Director: An Evolution in Three Acts,” which was produced by another Gucci friend, James Franco. It was claimed she did not want to be in the spotlight, since she was followed by the film crew for about 18 months beginning in 2011.

“‘The Director’ was a fun experience, I had given my word to do it but filming started at a time of personal pain, so I had the cameras aiming at me when I didn’t feel my best and I don’t like to watch myself again for this reason,” she said.

“I am very happy with the results, there is a sense of irony and it shows how I work with my team. It has nothing to do with being unavailable, I just didn’t feel at ease, and I feel bad now when I see myself back then as I was going through a very difficult period personally,” Giannini added, referring to the discovery just before the filming that she had a tumor. The silver lining was that the successful treatments led her to health and motherhood. (Shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in April for the first time, Giannini and Franco will premiere “The Director” during the Rome Film Festival on Sept. 3, and the movie will open in cinemas in Italy on Sept. 8.)

Even her trip to Brazil stirs mention of her pregnancy. The trip has been in the making for two years, but was delayed by the pregnancy. The designer will travel to São Paulo on May 27, where Carlos Jereissati Filho, chairman and ceo of Iguatemi Group, will host a dinner in her honor and in the presence of Kering chairman and ceo François-Henri Pinault at the JK Iguatemi Mall. Iconic pieces from the Gucci Museo will be displayed at a dedicated space at the mall for about a month. “This is the museum’s first proper traveling exhibition,” said Giannini. “Only a few small objects had been shown in Korea and Japan.”

On May 30, she will travel to Rio de Janeiro for a conversation with students at the Museu de Arte do Rio. “Brazil is still an important market, where customers are looking for precious materials. They have special requests for exclusive objects, evening gowns and special orders as they have an intense social life, made to order for men, and Premiere pieces for women,” she said.

Giannini said the couture Premiere line started as a service out of a small atelier in Rome, and, while still “not a business area, rather more about image and a courtesy to our ambassadors, if we get well-organized, we will develop it more — it’s new territory.”

She also admitted to her dream project, “a home line — sooner or later,” given her passion for interiors and furniture. A first step was Gucci’s acquisition of Italy’s historic luxury tableware and ceramics firm Richard Ginori 1735 SpA last year. Rescued from bankruptcy, Gucci first has to restart the company, stressed Giannini.

On June 3, the designer will present Gucci’s cruise collection in New York, and, on the following day, will host a dinner in honor of Casiraghi, a fellow equestrian. “The relationship with Charlotte was born spontaneously — we met in Rome during a competition, she wanted a new jacket that would not be too technical, that had character and was more luxurious,” explained Giannini. “I know the fitting needs of a rider and we started this big conversation on horse riding,” she said with a laugh. Musing on the reasons for Casiraghi also fronting four Forever Now ad campaigns, Giannini described the princess as “young and sophisticated, she is an icon and comes from a fairy-tale family.”

Gucci has strong connections with Casiraghi’s grandmother, Grace Kelly, for whom the Flora scarf was designed. “Charlotte knows what she wants, and she did not want a pure endorsement, and for us it’s important to have a real woman with a story and not only a model.” Following the men’s show in Milan on June 23, the designer will be in Paris in July during couture week for the Gucci Gold Cup at the first Eiffel Jumping, part of the Global Champions Tour show-jumping circuit, and to host a Vogue Fashion Fund gala dinner at the Musée Galliera.

Remarking on the connection between Gucci’s equestrian history, her own passion for riding (she keeps her horse, Bientôt, in Sabaudia, near Rome) and today’s association with the sport, its fashion and symbols, Giannini sees everything coming full circle. She does not believe anything happens by chance. “Ever since I decided to be a designer, my dream was always to work for Gucci. I grew up in the Sixties as the brand was booming, but of course I would never have imagined I would one day be its creative director,” she said in her fast-paced manner. “The first thing I asked Tom [Ford] was to visit the archives. I was passionate and fascinated by the idea. These are two passions that went hand-in-hand.”

While discussing her own interest in history, and enthusing about Gucci’s archives that could spur “billions of new collections” and that reflect the history of Italy, Giannini said she is also aware of the pitfalls of looking back. “The brand’s archives are fundamental. I am instinctive, almost animal-like in identifying the objects that can be made contemporary — not all of them can — and I fall in love with them, but, at the same time, talking about the archives too much sometimes leads people to think you lack in creativity.”

Looking back at her first 10 years at Gucci, and “drawing her conclusions,” Giannini said they “flew by.”

“I don’t disavow anything,” she related. “You do so many things, some better, some not as well. I went through different organizations, managements and dynamics. Now, with my 10-year maturity, I think I have identified the strategy, the path to follow, synthesizing, experimenting and channeling all the information that can bring the brand to that level of sophistication and elegance, with a bourgeois element, that is expected. Although it is a big brand, it should be even more exclusive.”

Giannini and di Marco have prioritized quality, the importance of Made in Italy production, checking the network of suppliers, verifying the choice of craftsmanship “so that all the processes are done only by the best hands and people. It’s about the culture,” she said.

Gucci has been feeling the financial pinch of further raising the level of the brand and phasing out canvas in favor of leather — the brand’s sales fell 5.5 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, and rose only 0.2 percent at constant currency rates — but Giannini continues to believe in the strength of its historic logo. “Yes, there’s been an overexposure of the logo, but it should not be forfeited. It’s very important: A logo is telling of the identity of the brand, and you don’t invent it, but it depends on how you treat it. There are companies that would do anything to have a strong logo,” she said.

For the upcoming cruise collection, she said she is working on finding the right balance between fabrics and leather, each “raising the level of the another. Gucci was born with leather, and this is an important challenge and very interesting,” she said, noting that among the best-selling bags are the bamboo shopper, the SoHo and the Nice. “The average price is very high, but customers choose these items.”

The designer also does not see fashion shows going away anytime soon. “They are fundamental. The magic, the vision, the dream can’t be replaced and it’s hardly replicable in a showroom, it adds salt to the dish.” Giannini said she did not understand the general weariness of the industry with runway shows or the “endless complaining.”

“We are all very much privileged, it’s a beautiful industry, and it opens us up to so many different things, it should be respected and appreciated.”

Nor does the designer buy into the gossip the industry seems to generate faster than new seasons come and go. Asked to address persistent rumors that Giannini would exit Gucci and be succeeded by the likes of Riccardo Tisci or Joseph Altuzarra, she calmly responded: “These rumors are self-generated, and even engaged François-Henri Pinault, who came to Rome and told me they were not true. Actually, he was concerned that the rumors would not let me work serenely.”

She also noted she has just renewed her contract. “We don’t want to [officially] deny such absurd rumors stemming from nothing. It would be stupid. There is good harmony, although we know it’s a delicate moment for the markets,” said Giannini.

Pressed to find a reason for such ongoing speculation, after thinking about it for a moment, she wondered if it had to do with her fairly “normal” life outside fashion. She said “perhaps this normality and the fact that my partner [di Marco] works with me is annoying to some,” as well as her longevity at the brand.

In her level-headed and practical way, the designer added: “If you ask me if I will be here at 60, I would say no. I think that at a certain point there must be a change and you have to make room for the new and younger generations.”

No matter, in the meantime Giannini is mapping out her more immediate plans. In October, she will be in Tokyo to host a dinner for Gucci Japan’s 50th anniversary in honor of UNESCO and in November she will chair the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Gala dinner in Los Angeles with Leonardo di Caprio and Eva Chow. That same month, she will host a dinner in Moscow to celebrate the opening of the brand’s flagship store in the city and in December she will fly to Miami for the International New York Times Luxury conference, where she will be a keynote speaker with Pinault. Gucci will support the Kris Knight exhibition at Miami Art Basel. A few days later, she will be in Paris to attend the sixth edition of the Gucci Masters equestrian tournament.

On June 3, Giannini will host a cocktail party at the renovated Gucci Fifth Avenue store to celebrate the first anniversary of Chime for Change. “Last year it was a fantastic concert [in London], the initial moment to shout out the project. It has captured the world’s attention, also of those who are not interested in fashion, as you don’t have to pass from Gucci [to contribute],” she said.

A new advertising campaign portraying Giannini and cofounders Salma Hayek Pinault and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter will appear in the July and August issues of Hearst Magazines. Also, the organization has partnered with Kellogg’s Special K brand aimed at reaching 25 million households starting Oct. 25, and with P&G through the Gucci fragrance license. To date, Chime for Change has raised $4.8 million to fully fund 310 projects. It is also supporting the Bring Back Our Girls campaign with a Catapult fund-raising platform dedicated to Nigeria. Giannini reiterated that Gucci never wanted a commercial return with Chime for Change.

“We are investing more time and resources in activities we believe in. Obviously, without the company’s support none of this would exist. François-Henri Pinault is very sensitive to all this and he is the first to motivate you and ask for suggestions,” she said. Through Gucci’s partnership with UNICEF, which spans almost a decade, the company has raised $18 million. “It’s a drop in the ocean, but it’s now part of my job to give back.”