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MILAN — Heritage and Made in Italy craftsmanship.

This story first appeared in the December 15, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Those elements were key for Patrizio di Marco and Frida Giannini during their tenure at Gucci — a brand that leverages its 90-plus-year existence.

After his instrumental role in turning around Bottega Veneta as president and chief executive officer, di Marco took the helm at Gucci in 2009, at the peak of the global economic crisis. The executive and Giannini focused on returning closer to the brand’s origins, from founder Guccio Gucci’s artisanal emphasis and updating staple designs, such as the Flora pattern or the Jackie bag. Gucci’s ad campaigns, dubbed “Forever Now,” featured images of artisans at work. And Charlotte Casiraghi, granddaughter of Gucci supporter Grace Kelly, for whom the Flora was designed, fronts images for the house, including the latest cosmetics campaign.

Di Marco succeeded Mark Lee, who had evolved Gucci after the powerful comeback under Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole. Under Ford and De Sole, Gucci’s reinvention in the Nineties became the industry standard for turning around a business and a brand.

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Under Lee, the company started to give more emphasis to opening price points and aspirational consumers. Di Marco focused on trading up the brand, while Giannini, who had worked with Ford on his accessories team, opted for — unlike what her predecessor had championed — more feminine and less overtly sexy designs. Giannini reworked house icons such as the Jackie, the Bamboo and the Horse Bit Loafer, for example. She became women’s accessories sole director in 2004, after Ford and De Sole left, and took on women’s and men’s wear a year later once Gucci’s parent, then named PPR, decided to go with a single designer rather than the three-person approach that initially included Alessandra Facchinetti for women’s wear and John Ray for men’s products.

“We knew that some would criticize our going back to the archives as a sign of creative weakness,” di Marco said at the WWD CEO Summit last year. “We knew that some would criticize our talking about craftsmanship and heritage as a pure marketing strategy. And most importantly, we knew that to reposition a brand takes time because you need to change the consumer perception, and that is very difficult after years of erratic positioning. We knew all the challenges. But we also knew that branding is about storytelling, and storytelling is about engaging and touching consumers’ hearts. We are far from having completed our journey, but somehow we have managed to touch the consumers’ hearts and started to change their perception of the Gucci brand.”

Giannini’s personal interests have been increasingly channeled into the label, which, today, reflects her views on sustainability, women’s empowerment and education, humanitarian assistance and children’s rights. The designer also spearheaded the Gucci Museo in Florence to honor Gucci’s craftsmanship; with di Marco, she has supported the restoration of artworks, such as 10 16th-century tapestries.

For 10 years, the company has had a partnership with UNICEF that mostly focuses on children and their health and education, as well as other programs focused entirely on women and girls. In February 2013, Gucci launched the “Chime for Change” campaign, with the goal of raising awareness of issues affecting girls and women and helping to fund nonprofit organizations and their programs on health, education and justice.

Giannini initiated the couture Premiere line, which started as a service out of a small atelier in Rome, and was eyeing a home line, given her interest in 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.

“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,” Giannini told WWD in May. “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.”

Her passions aside, Gucci has been flagging in the last few years, partially as a result of the luxury sector’s overall slowdown in China. This put growing pressure on di Marco to turn the company around even as fashion critics were lukewarm about Giannini’s recent collections. To further boost its luxury image, Gucci has been phasing out canvas products in favor of leather and doing fewer logoed products, although Giannini said in May that she continued 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 addressed rumors even then that she was on her way out at Gucci, saying, “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.”

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