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Gucci is taking its red-carpet wear to another dimension.

The Italian luxury brand is breaking into the rarefied world of haute couture with the launch of Gucci Première, which will offer celebs one-of-a-kind gowns like the slinky burgundy one-shoulder dress Salma Hayek wore on opening night of the Cannes Film Festival Wednesday.

This story first appeared in the May 14, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Gucci creative director Frida Giannini says the couture division was launched in response to strong demand for standout red-carpet outfits.

“We frequently received many requests from celebrities, actresses and singers, and it was very difficult because, of course, Gucci was born as a ready-to-wear brand, so we were not prepared to offer this kind of service and to deliver something so special,” Giannini says. “Our ready-to-wear factories do a great job — they have great tailors, but the craftsmanship and the finishing of everything is very different.”

Giannini will design a capsule collection, to be renewed twice yearly, and create additional bespoke gowns on request. Gucci is working with seamstresses, embroiderers and other craftspeople in Paris, the traditional home of couture, to execute the designs.

But don’t expect Giannini to join the ranks of other Italian designers showing haute couture on the catwalk. The house of Valentino has been showing couture in Paris since 1989, and fellow countryman Giorgio Armani unveiled his Armani Privé line there in 2005.

“We don’t have any kind of plan in this direction for the moment,” says Giannini. “It’s more an intimate approach between the house of Gucci and the stars and the celebrities. I don’t think, honestly, it’s in the soul of Gucci to do a haute couture fashion show.”

The 38-year-old designer hopes to dress several more celebrities in Cannes, and will transform into a walking billboard for her skills when she dons a full-length Gucci Première gown for the screening of the restored version of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 classic “The Leopard” tonight.

Giannini will later slip into an embroidered cocktail dress of her own design for a dinner in honor of director Martin Scorsese, which she is cohosting with Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc on Saturday.

“To me, cinema is always a great source of inspiration,” she says. “And I have never worn couture myself, so it’s a good opportunity for me!”

Reflecting Gucci’s long-standing links with the film world, the designer will join Scorsese in celebrating the 20th anniversary of his Film Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and restoring classic films. Its board boasts other film luminaries such as Woody Allen and George Lucas, both of whom are expected in Cannes this week.

Gucci has donated $1.5 million to date to the Film Foundation and recently revealed it had granted a further $900,000 toward the restoration of “The Leopard” and Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and is due to be screened in its original glory at the Rome Film Festival this fall.

Scorsese credits Gucci for helping to rescue one of the “great treasures” of cinema.

“‘The Leopard’ is a grand symphonic hymn to Sicily itself — the people, the perfumed air and the landscape, its beauty and its violence. Visconti’s film is one of the greatest visual experiences in cinema, and over the years, restorations have proven to be extremely difficult,” he notes.

Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon, the stars of “The Leopard,” are expected to attend tonight’s premiere along with Hayek, Lucas and French actress Léa Seydoux, the granddaughter of Pathé president Jérôme Seydoux, who also contributed toward the restoration of the film masterpiece.

Later during the festival, Hayek will auction off her dress in aid of the Haitian Relief Organization at an event organized by her friend and “Bandidas” co-star, Penélope Cruz.

Even if she is a newcomer to couture, Giannini has drawn plenty of inspiration from movie heroines and their fantastic wardrobes. By her own estimation, she has seen “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” some 50 times and is fascinated by Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of eccentric socialite Holly Golightly.

“It’s one of the movies that I constantly watch again — every month, basically,” Giannini admits with a laugh. “She is a very eclectic, strong, independent woman — very modern, chic, sophisticated, a bit crazy, but very, very romantic in the end. Probably I feel a little bit of myself in this character.”

Growing up, the designer often watched movies from the Forties and Fifties with her mother and developed a strong interest in designers like Hubert de Givenchy, who dressed Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Funny Face” and other films.

She also discovered Hollywood costume designers such as Adrian, whose elegant evening gowns were featured in films like “The Women” and who routinely worked with Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn. “Adrian, for me, was a great designer, a great stylist — he was not only a costume designer,” says Giannini.

Living in Rome, she was only a stone’s throw from the Cinecittà studios and was influenced by the classic movies of Italian directors such as Vittorio De Sica, as well as actors like Vittorio Gassman and Marcello Mastroianni.

“I have very strong memories of movies from [Michelangelo] Antonioni with Monica Vitti, Silvana Mangano in ‘Bitter Rice’ or Fellini, of course, for all his incredible creativity,” she recalls. “So I have a lot of images always in front of me and in my memories.”

Taking Gucci to Hollywood was therefore a natural progression, though Giannini confesses she still gets pre-red-carpet jitters, since actresses often choose their outfits at the last minute.

“It’s always like a race. Until the end, you never know,” she says. “I am very happy with Salma on the red carpet, and I will see tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”

And the designer is confident she soon will make her mark with stars in her creations appearing in the best-dressed pages of entertainment magazines.

“For the moment, it’s a newborn baby, so we’ll see, but we’re very open to receiving requests for a one-of-a-kind dress for a specific event or for a private event,” she says. “Before, we were not always very well prepared to react in just five days. With this project, now we are.”

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