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“We must move on, move on, move on,” Frida Giannini insisted to her design team last March when she took over the reins as Gucci’s new creative director for women’s ready-to-wear.

At the time, she faced a daunting challenge: designing her first apparel collection ever while trying to escape the long shadow of Tom Ford.

“I would be stupid and arrogant to say that I didn’t feel Tom’s weight, because he did a tremendous job in building the brand’s image,” Giannini says months later, following her charming and pretty spring collection in September. “But I drilled [the notion of change] into my assistants’ heads because I wanted to clean the slate—to change the work method and the product by introducing color and prints after many seasons of black, brown and navy.”

Giannini, 32, presents an unperturbed exterior, but has proved herself to be a maverick multitasker. In addition to the women’s collection, she has overseen Gucci’s thriving accessories business—men’s and women’s bags, luggage, small leather goods, belts, footwear, eyewear and fine jewelry—since Ford’s departure in April 2004. She’s used to changes and challenges: When she was at Fendi, Giannini lived through the tug of war between squabbling parents Prada and LVMH. And the tranquility she hoped to find at Gucci was shattered with the turbulent exit of Ford and Domenico De Sole.

Immediately afterward, Giannini became part of a creative triumvirate with Alessandra Facchinetti, in charge of women’s wear, and John Ray, heading men’s. When Facchinetti, who stuck close to Ford’s aesthetic, resigned only days after her second show, the torch passed to Giannini.

“Of the three, I was the most ‘virgin’ when it came to working with Tom, because he was very focused on Yves Saint Laurent” during her tenure, she says.

The inspiration for her first collection came from a snapshot of her grandmother and great-aunts in postwar Rome. “It struck me to see these ladies dressed to the nines in a bombed-out city with scarce food,” she says. “They exuded a desire to start a new life. I wanted to lose some of the drama and aggressiveness that was so Gucci these past years.”

In doing so, Giannini chose two directions. The first focused on sporty tailoring with tomboy spunk: little jackets over lean pants, and shorts worn with cashmere polos, or sweet printed tops in motifs updated from the house’s pre-Ford archives. The second centered on Forties-inspired dresses, sometimes backless and slit, all accessorized to the max.

Giannini replaced Ford’s steamy and sultry girls with a bevy of pretty coquettes with broad appeal. “A collection can never please everyone,” she notes, “but today, unless you’re a niche brand, you need a good balance between salability and image for women from Tokyo to Toronto who still want a slice of luxury and refinement.”

That said, she bridles over the term “commercial,” which some critics used to damn the collection. “Come on, Gucci has never been about experimenting à la Margiela or Yamamoto,” she asserts. “I watched all of Tom’s collections from 1995 to 2000, and they were always about pants, sweaters and coats—[though] certainly glammed out. I think Tom expressed a good dose of his sexual message through the ad campaigns. Aside from the season he showed the thong, there were never bare breasts or butts or slits up to there.” Still, sexiness for Giannini is something less ostentatious. “It’s innate—something you exude even if you don’t dress like Jessica Rabbit,” she says. “That’s passé.

“I lean toward color and prints, whether graphic or sweet florals, but the amount will depend on the season,” she says. “Currently, I feel that the consumer wants more joy and optimism from Gucci.

“After all,” she concludes, “I’m me, and Tom is Tom.”

This article appeared in WWD The Magazine, a special publication to WWD available to subscribers.