Gucci’s creative director Frida Giannini has made a surprise exit from the company after principals terminated her contract early, WWD has learned.

This story first appeared in the January 12, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

According to market sources, Giannini was asked to leave Gucci on Friday, more than a month earlier than anticipated.

The designer was slated to exit the luxury goods house following her fall women’s collection in Milan on Feb. 25. Giannini also had been scheduled to present her last men’s show for Gucci on Jan. 19. She was said to be looking forward to celebrating her long tenure at Gucci, and was planning a farewell party with colleagues.

Sources said Gucci cut short Giannini’s contract in a bid to facilitate decision-making about the brand’s future creative direction. “The decision [about Giannini’s successor] needs to be made, so that it can have an impact on the upcoming collections and shows,” said one source.

Industry observers were left wondering why Gucci’s latest decision was so sudden and who exactly would be taking the bow at the men’s show next week and at the women’s one in February.

Gucci could not be reached for comment.

Giannini and Gucci’s chief executive officer Patrizio di Marco, who are partners and planning to marry, revealed their exit from the company last month. Di Marco has already left and was succeeded by Marco Bizzarri, previously head of Kering’s luxury couture and leather goods division.

The failure of the couple to turn around the flagging brand precipitated their departure, setting off a guessing game as to who would succeed Giannini and who might be able to get the brand back on a solid growth track.

Over the weekend, WWD learned that Alessandro Michele, Giannini’s deputy, Gucci’s head accessories designer and the creative director of the Gucci-owned Richard Ginori, is among the contenders to succeed her at the creative helm.

“The Michele option reinforces the idea that Gucci wants to get back on track with hot accessories,” said a source familiar with the company. “There hasn’t been an iconic product for the past three or four seasons.”

The source also underscored how Michele “knows all the inside mechanisms. With a brand such as Gucci, creativity is tied to industrial development. It’s a very scientific machine, where marketing has its say. It’s creative only up to a certain point. Calling in a designer from outside can bring an added touch of allure, but a designer from the inside may work better in the long run.”

Kering, controlled by France’s Pinault family, has a track record of promoting inside talents.

Indeed, when Gucci was faced with replacing its tag-team of Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole when they exited in 2004, it promoted a trio of insiders — Alessandra Facchinetti, Giannini and John Ray — to succeed Ford at the design helm, heading women’s ready-to-wear, accessories and men’s wear, respectively.

Giannini eventually took over as the brand’s sole creative director, ultimately relocating the design studios to her hometown of Rome.

If Michele does prevail, he would become the latest hidden talent inside luxury’s most lucrative category to win a broader creative purview, echoing the recent appointment of Johnny Coca as creative director at Mulberry.

Most recently the head design director for leather goods, accessories, shoes and jewelry at Céline, Coca is to join the British brand in July.

“It makes perfect sense that the creative director would be an accessories designer at a house like Gucci, which historically is a leather goods company,” said Mary Gallagher, European associate for New York-based search firm Martens & Heads. “People tend to forget that it was only in the past 20 to 25 years that houses like Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton had a significant ready-to-wear offering and held catwalk shows.”

In recent years, Valentino’s duo Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, and Stuart Vevers are among accessories designers hidden inside marquee brands to take over the overall design stewardship, underscoring the primacy of the cash-cow category across a broad swath of brands. Vevers, who cut his teeth at Mulberry, emerged as creative director of Loewe, recently moving on to Coach, for which he just unveiled his first men’s effort during the London men’s shows.

A more recent example is Pablo Coppola, who in February was named design director at Bally after six months as the Swiss brand’s accessories design director. During his career, Coppola has designed accessories for brands including Christian Dior, Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, Burberry and Céline.

Such appointments marked a sea change in the industry over the past decade, which tends to have relied on hot names in fashion to rejuvenate brands of all kinds — even if bags represent the lion’s share of business.

Rtw accounted for only 11 percent of Gucci’s revenues in 2013, versus 58 percent for leather goods, 14 percent for footwear and 17 percent for other categories.

Giannini herself was initially Gucci’s handbag designer and rose through the ranks to become its sole creative director in 2006. In an interview in 2007, she cited a potent reason: “There is a lot of competition in the accessories sector, which is highly profitable.”

Gallagher noted that accessories designers are “extremely sought-after these days by brands that know they can add a chunk to their bottom line with the right handbag or shoe collection.”

The headhunter characterized the talent available as a “rather small and exclusive pool” and noted that an experienced, creative bag or shoe designer with technical chops and a strong track record of “hits” can claim a very high salary equal to or better than his or her counterpart in rtw.

Michele joined Gucci’s design team in 2002 and in 2011 was named Giannini’s associate, with direct responsibility for the leather goods, shoes, jewelry and home collections.

In September, he was named creative director of Richard Ginori, the Gucci-owned porcelain brand, and helped to create its new store concept in Florence that was unveiled in June. He has also worked at Fendi, and is a sought-after talent in the industry.

A market source familiar with Gucci said, however, that Michele may be too closely associated with Giannini to be considered for the job: “They can’t afford to make a mistake at Gucci right now, and it would be a strange message to send if the company wants to telegraph a big change, since Michele has been working with Giannini for so long and may just carry on her legacy.”

The source wondered whether appointing Michele would “be a way to cushion Giannini’s sudden departure. Perhaps until a marquee name is available.”

According to sources, Bizzarri has yet to make a final decision. Givenchy’s star couturier Riccardo Tisci and Valentino’s Chiuri are believed to be among other talents being considered for the job, along with Joseph Altuzarra. Kering took a minority stake in Altuzarra’s New York-based fashion house last year and the designer has sat front-row at the Gucci show.

WWD reported in February 2013, citing market sources, that Tisci renewed his Givenchy contract for another three years, which could impede his immediate mobility. It is understood the current pact expires in October. “Perhaps this could be a move similar to Dior’s with Billy Gaytten succeeding John Galliano,” the source said, alluding to the stopgap period between Galliano’s ousting and the appointment of Raf Simons as the French house’s new couturier.

It is understood that Gucci has a lease on its Rome headquarters that runs until 2020, so the designer who replaces Giannini has to be prepared to work between Rome and Milan.

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