Emerging this year as Gucci’s sole creative voice, Frida Giannini is leading the brand through its next incarnation.

One of Frida Giannini’s bedtime rituals is making sure that she has a notepad on her bedside table for when she wakes up in the middle of the night with a flash for a bag or heel shape.

“My husband is used to my 24/7 work attitude. He laughs when I wake up, jot down an idea and fall back asleep,” chuckled Giannini, Gucci’s creative director. “That’s why he banned my BlackBerry during our honeymoon in Capri.”

Technology aside, Giovanni Battista Guida, a Florentine Web designer with whom Giannini tied the knot last July, has grown accustomed to his wife’s nocturnal splurges due to her increased duties and responsibilities.

“Forget resting on your laurels, even in between collections,” said Giannini, who clocks 11-hour workdays. “The adrenalin rush is continuous, to the point I need to refrain in my private life because it takes me forever to unwind. On one hand, I exhaust my staff with a constant flow of ideas; on the other, they are stimulated by my energy.”

Giannini went from Gucci handbag designer in 2002 to sole creative director in March for accessories and men’s and women’s apparel, succeeding Alessandra Facchinetti, who was women’s ready-to-wear designer, and John Ray, who headed men’s design.

To complicate matters, as sole creative director, she followed in the footsteps of Tom Ford, the man whose long-term vision took Gucci from ailing company to megabrand. Despite initial concerns about Ford’s departure, Giannini’s Gucci has seen “excellent sales,” according to PPR, which reported brand sales up 18.2 percent in the first quarter ended March 31, to 508.3 million euros, or $611.2 million.

At 33, Giannini said Ford’s contribution to Gucci, and to the fashion world in general, is well engraved in her mind. “Because of my age, I associate Gucci with Tom’s glammed-out, sexy woman. I forced my parents to buy me the ruched and fringed black dress with embroidery from Ford’s spring 1999 hippie collection and I still wear it,” recalled Giannini.

This story first appeared in the June 5, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Described by her co-workers as a volcanic, relentless workaholic, as well as a people person who shuns collective hysteria, Giannini admits to being more nervous now that she’s in the hot seat, helming men’s and women’s design.

That’s because when she was appointed creative director for accessories in 2004 (Gucci’s cash cow category that includes bags, shoes, watches, fine jewelry, small leather goods, eyewear and luggage), she shared the limelight with Facchinetti and Ray as the trio behind the brand. Of the three, Giannini’s role was the least public.

But since Facchinetti left in March 2005, followed by Ray a year later, the Roman designer has flown solo.

While few question her deft hand in accessories — Giannini’s Flora rendition, inspired by a Gucci Seventies floral print; the new Guccissima line, and spring’s strappy platform in deep jewel tones became must-haves from the red carpet to social circles — her choice for rtw raised eyebrows.

It certainly helps that Giannini’s number-one supporter is Mark Lee, Gucci president and chief executive. “I have total, 100 percent — 1,000 percent — complete confidence in Frida and believe she’s absolutely the right person, the right talent in the right job,” said Lee. “She deserves a huge amount of the credit for what we’ve been able to achieve in the last 18 months.”

Giannini cut her teeth at Fendi, joining in 1997 as part of the fashion design team, later switching to accessories. During those five years, she witnessed the Roman luxury goods house’s evolution from family-run business to a unit of a fashion conglomerate, first as a part of Prada Group and then LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

During her career, she worked with Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli, Karl Lagerfeld, Fendi’s longtime women’s rtw designer — Giannini claims she “nearly had a heart attack” the first time she met him — and Silvia Venturini Fendi, accessories director.

She lived a similar experience at Gucci marked by the LVMH-PPR feud that ended with the acquisition by PPR and subsequent exit of Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole in April 2004.

As much as apparel is still a relatively small part of Gucci’s balance sheet, accounting for 12.2 percent of sales, a successful runway show generates global buzz.

Cruise 2005 marked Giannini’s first foray, followed by a spring runway show that mixed tomboy spunk, rugby stripes and garden-party florals. For fall, disco flash took over with a David Bowie-like collection of metallics and sexy pantsuits.

Giannini described her initial approach to rtw as “scientific and surgical.”

“I applied the same technique I used for the accessories — finding new icons and mining the archives for prints and color schemes, obviously reinterpreted to create a mood based on innovation and tradition,” she said.

Though less stocked with apparel, Giannini can’t get enough of Gucci’s archives, which she describes as “an endless gold mine. I still find stuff in vintage stores or through private families in New York, Rome and even Tokyo that we didn’t even know existed,” she admitted.

To refresh her tailoring notions learned at school and put into practice at smaller Italian companies, Giannini set up a workshop with two seamstresses, pattern cutters and technicians in Gucci’s new Florentine design studio, where all the design departments are united. “This way I can hop over to have a dress altered in two hours. It’s immediate, and this helps move the collection along,” said Giannini. The collections then are produced in Gucci’s Novara factory.

Sometimes, as she sets pen to sketch pad before a meeting with her assistants, Giannini suffers the equivalent of a writer’s block.

“I start panicking. No ideas and a full schedule of appointments and then all of a sudden, they come — a period, a color, a country, a concert, a painting or even an emotional state,” said Giannini. “Once the mood and the colors are set in my head, then I’m on track.”

Giannini believes her aesthetic sense benefited from the fact that her mother was an architect and her father collected contemporary art. At six, they lugged her to the Louvre, the National Gallery and the Tate museum, perhaps a bore compared with candy and amusement parks, but good exercise for her sense of art, color and materials.

As for setting the trends, it’s something that takes time, though her boldly striped cashmere rugby shirt has become a must-have for spring.

“For good or for bad, I don’t like to tailgate other designers and I’m continuously asking my assistants if something is too Prada or Versace,” she said. “It’s fundamental to always keep an identity.”

Identity for Giannini also means being a proud Italian.

“There’s a cultural aspect in our DNA because Italy has the greatest artisans, factories and tanneries. Having direct access is an added value, a hands-on approach,” said Giannini.

She also is working the celebrity ropes, a necessity, given the brand’s prestige and the fact that Giannini’s fans include Madonna, Charlize Theron, Sharon Stone, Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mischa Barton, Katie Holmes and Cate Blanchett.

“Before the Children’s Action Network dinner in Los Angeles last November, I was a nervous wreck,” said Giannini. “But, as I sat next to Adrien Brody and Charlize Theron and we conversed about vacations, dogs and skiing, I realized they are, after all, quite normal people, just like me.”

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