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WWD Milestones issue 02/23/2011

Sex sells, and Gucci knows it. It took a while, though, to figure it out.

This story first appeared in the February 23, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

For about six decades, the brand’s advertising tended toward the traditional: text-heavy, focused on quality and craftsmanship. In the early Eighties, it briefly flirted with American-style glamour, using models like Carol Alt and Andie MacDowell as eye candy. But in the mid-Nineties, Gucci ads got aggressive — very aggressive — courtesy of creative director Tom Ford’s ultrasexy vision and backed by chief executive officer Domenico De Sole’s open checkbook. And it paid off.

Ford revolutionized the approach by targeting the MTV generation with sex-charged imagery. At the time, Martin Landey of Landey & Partners Grounds Morris said, “What Gucci has done in terms of the elements, models, males and females, such as a woman wearing the blue pinstripe suit…there’s a sexuality to it, and it’s exquisitely photographed.”

In 1996, De Sole attributed impressive financial results partly to “enhanced advertising programs” — between 1995 and 1996, the advertising budget jumped from $11.7 million to $48 million.

William Flanz, who handed the ceo reins to De Sole in 1995, also credited the decision to quadruple ad spending as a key decision in the upturn of the company’s fiscal situation.

“We had good products and a good campaign, and we had to get it out there and let people see what we had to sell,” Flanz remarked in 1996.

Ford turned up the heat throughout his decade at the creative helm. In 2003, he launched perhaps his most controversial campaign. It featured a female model with a “G” shaved into her pubic hair and a man kneeling in front of her. The spread was barely saved from the Advertising Standards Authority chopping block, and it generated plenty of press.

Another image that season had model Louise Pedersen sprawled across Adam Senn’s knees, as if she were about to be spanked. The photos were shot by Mario Testino in color, on location “in an empty house outside L.A.” and often with spotlight effects. Ford called the mood “sexy and chic.”

At the time, George Fertitta, ceo of New York ad agency Margeotes/Fertitta, said Gucci has “crafted an image that’s gone from completely uncool to in-style and as cool as it gets. [The ‘G’ image] is a small piece of the cool puzzle.”

Gucci’s advertising experienced a considerable about-face after Ford’s departure in 2004. Having established itself as a sexy brand, Frida Giannini dropped the in-your-face approach so she could shake things up her own way.

For one, she chose to feature a celebrity in an ad for the first time in the company’s history — an early inkling of her affinity for Hollywood. Drew Barrymore appeared in the brand’s fine jewelry campaign in 2007 wearing nothing but a few pieces from the collection and a come-hither look, a visual concept that would be reiterated a year later with Claire Danes.

Giannini would later tap James Franco to front the Gucci Pour Homme Sport ads, Rihanna for UNICEF/Tattoo Heart, Evan Rachel Wood and Chris Evans for the Gucci Guilty fragrance and, most recently, Jennifer Lopez and her twins for the brand’s children’s line.

Giannini also spearheaded the maison’s first foray into TV commercials for the launch of her freshman fragrance, Gucci by Gucci, enlisting the avant-garde talents of David Lynch. The 60-second spot featured house regulars Raquel Zimmermann, Natasha Poly and Freja Beha Erichsen dancing to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” in a classic Lynch dreamy sequence.

For Gucci Guilty, Giannini went with director Frank Miller — a fitting choice since he is best known for his graphic novel and film, “Sin City.”

The visuals for Gucci’s print ads also underwent several mini evolutions, in tune with the brand’s changing photographers and changing moods.

Craig McDean bridged the transition from Ford to Giannini with several campaigns that were relatively no-frills compared with Ford’s controversial creations. Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin were brought on board in 2007, and the duo toned down Gucci’s advertising. The new campaigns sported softer and more muted tones, nostalgic vintage beach scenes for cruise to overcast skies behind giant Greek statues for spring, not to mention an ethereal Abbey Lee Kershaw in the Flora ads.

“The Gucci woman we created was a softer, ultrafeminine one,” said Lamsweerde. “Not overtly sexy, but mysterious, glamorous, confident and always in movement.”

In 2010, the baton passed to Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, who had previously collaborated with the house on several beauty spreads as well as the fall 2007 Indy bag ad.

Their first major Gucci campaign featured Poly lazing poolside in a sunny locale with an equally nonchalant male companion — imagery that was aimed less at evoking product lust and more at making a declaration about the brand. It was a fitting start to a year that would see Gucci reconnect with its jet-set roots and celebrity connections, building itself once again as a glamorous and luxurious lifestyle company.

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