NEW YORK — When Gucci’s Frida Giannini and Rihanna light the UNICEF snowflake on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street tonight, they won’t just be adding a festive spirit to the city. The ceremony will also kick off the Italian brand’s first worldwide campaign featuring the songstress to benefit the organization.

This story first appeared in the November 19, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The celebrations, which will be followed by a VIP dinner at the Oak Room, will underscore Gucci’s ongoing commitment to UNICEF. Since 2005, the luxury brand has raised close to $6 million for the organization’s programs through special limited edition handbag collections and the gala at the United Nations here last February benefitting Raising Malawi and UNICEF.

“This collaboration is really important to me and Gucci because for the past four years it has not only supported programs for children in Malawi and Mozambique, where over one million children have been orphaned by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but it has also increased awareness,” Giannini said. “I feel that many people aren’t conscious of the staggering number of human tragedies and preventable deaths in Africa. Through UNICEF, I have been able to understand the heartbreaking facts about the situation and how everyone’s involvement can truly make a difference.”

In Malawi, the funds raised through Gucci initiatives reached 150 community-based child-care centers and 50 children’s corners, which offer counseling, support and recreation opportunities. In Mozambique, where over 600,000 children are affected by HIV/AIDS, Gucci-raised funds have helped establish 141 schools.

Last week, Mark Lee, Gucci’s president and chief executive officer; Daniella Vitale, Gucci America’s president; Caryl Stern, president and ceo of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, and Robert Thompson, senior vice president of development for the organization’s U.S. Fund, traveled to Malawi to see some of the achievements on the ground.

“Words don’t describe the amount of need,” Lee said. “UNICEF is doing a fantastic job. I hope, more than anything, that we can continue to raise the money. The bottom line is that it’s about saving the lives of children.”

Vitale praised the partnership and called it mutually beneficial. “The majority of our consumer base cares about corporate social responsibility,” Vitale said. “They care about what companies are doing as it relates to CSR [corporate social responsibility]. We are a highly successful company, and we have an obligation to do it. It’s part of our DNA and something that continues to evolve. As a strategic part of the company, CSR is as important as the sales increases we are expected to post.”

UNICEF’s Stern said the trip underscored the nature of Gucci’s relationship with the organization, which goes beyond just financial aid and has the executives personally involved in the programs.

“The field trip was an amazing thing,” Stern said. “Gucci is supporting HIV education programs…that will educate children on how to protect themselves, on what they need to know about the disease and, if they have the disease, where to go. We went and visited an HIV awareness club after-school program. These kids write music, do skits and campaigns across villages and schools to educate their peers and take the taboos away. It’s one of the things Gucci is helping make possible.”

In another village, Gucci’s support allowed for the creation of a borehole well. “The women of the village wanted us to see where they used to have to get the water, so we agreed to walk with them to the river,” Stern said. “As we are walking, they broke into song. This is what they do, and they sang us to the river and back. It was an amazing experience, and very heartening.”

Lee declined to disclose sales projections for the new white Tattoo Heart Collection, of which 25 percent of sales will benefit UNICEF, but he said he expects the funds to be unprecedented — particularly because the campaign is global and features Rihanna. (See the trailor for the Rihanna/Gucci campaign here>>)

“Children in need is something I take very seriously,” said Rihanna, adding the issue is something she works on within her own foundation. “When Frida told me about the programs Gucci has been supporting through this partnership, I knew it was something I wanted to be part of.”

For Lee, tonight’s event will be one of his last at the helm of Gucci. He is leaving the company at the end of this year and will be succeeded by Bottega Veneta president and ceo Patrizio di Marco. Lee said he was proud to end his time at the firm on this note. “It works as a closing bookend to my Gucci career,” said Lee, who plans to take some personal time and aims to “re-center” in New York.


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