As the glamorous fashion label turns 90, we look at the history of a luxury brand so big that it’s opening its own museum – and meet the formidable designer behind its prosperity. This is the story of Gucci…
Frida Giannini, 39, has recently begun to collect Modiglianis. “Just a couple of drawings, so far; not oils,” she says, shifting in her leather armchair. But still. You don’t get to be in the financial position that enables you to start a collection of Modiglianis before your 40th birthday unless you are a serious player. Giannini, who has been the creative director of Gucci for six years, is almost unknown outside the fashion industry, but within it she is a formidable force, having steered a post-Tom Ford Gucci from disarray into pole position in the industry. During her tenure, Gucci profits have risen around 25% to an estimated $1 billion.
You don’t achieve that simply by designing cute handbags. Survival – let alone success – in the luxury industry depends on defining a meaning for a brand that can make owning a piece of it feel unique and valuable. Frocks and handbags are just one way of getting that message across. Gucci has just turned 90, and Giannini has come up with a different, rather more grand way to tell the Gucci story. This week sees the opening of the Gucci Museo in Florence, a new public museum in a 14th-century palazzo in which handbags, coats, and jewelry from the Gucci archive will go on display alongside work by contemporary artists, with an inaugural installation by Bill Viola.
What the museum will do for Gucci (aside from a brisk trade in iPad cases and luggage tags in the gift shop) is show how the brand has outgrown fashion and become a part of our culture. If that sounds highfalutin, consider that the Gucci loafer has been part of the permanent collection of MOMA in New York since 1985. Or turn on the radio: from Sister Sledge to Kanye West, Soulja Boy to Kreayshawn, the list of songs that namecheck Gucci is endless.
Our interview is scheduled at 10am; at 9.59am her door opens, and I am ushered in. There are modernist leather sofas around a gleaming walnut coffee table on which a Dictaphone is prominently displayed, to ensure Gucci has an accurate record of our conversation. Next to this is a square plate of canapés: five tiny choux buns, five exquisite miniature fruit tartlets, and five perfect squares of pistachio cake, lined up with regimental precision.
The canapés are not touched at any point during the meeting – nor are they offered, or even referred to. Possibly they are there as some sort of subliminal statement about image (they are very pretty) and self-control. Control, it becomes evident, is important at Gucci. According to the press release, the museum is “an official account of Gucci’s origins, evolution, and cultural influence”. In other words, it is not simply a celebration of Gucci’s place in popular culture, but an attempt to take control of this. Interviews with Giannini invariably describe her personality as controlled.
Does she recognize that about herself? “Absolutely. I don’t like to lose control, and it is no good for other people, either. When I was younger I had bosses who used to scream and shout. That’s an old attitude. I don’t think it is useful.”
She is tanned, blonde (honey, rather than Donatella-platinum) and dressed in black trousers, a black silk T-shirt, and silver sandals. A small diamond glints at her throat, an enormous one on her right hand. It is a good 20 minutes in my company before her folded arms and crossed legs begin to unwind themselves. Interviewing fashion designers is often a case of trying to make sense of a stream of consciousness, but this is the opposite: she answers each question thoughtfully and precisely, with no additional information offered, and waits for the next one. She tells me she has “a little bit of a military attitude”. She is regimented about getting sleep, about eating healthily, about starting work early.
Guccio Gucci was a porter at the Savoy hotel in London who was inspired by the smart luggage he saw there to open his own leather goods store in his native Florence in 1921. “The soul of Gucci is in the ‘Made in Italy’ label. Florentine culture, Tuscan craftmanship, they are so much a part of what Gucci is about,” says Giannini. ‘Made In Italy’ is a powerful brand in itself, all over the world; what the museum does is hitch Gucci very firmly to that phrase. Giannini’s favorite exhibit in the Gucci museum is a collection of canvas luggage from the 1940s. At a time when it was hard to find quality leather, Gucci hit upon an alternative: the embossed canvas that is now a mainstay of the brand. “It is emotional, for me, that luggage, because you have a feeling of being at the beginning of a story.”
"The soul of Gucci is in the ‘Made in Italy’ label. Florentine culture, Tuscan craftmanship, they are so much a part of what Gucci is about."
Giannini has not always had an easy ride with the critics. She has been panned for designing collections that have been seen as too commercial, too literal in their interpretations of the archive; and then criticized for collections that aren’t “Gucci” enough. “That has been the story of my time so far. Trying to find the balance between respect for the archive, and keeping it modern. So when I do a collection like the one I just showed” – her spring 2012 collection, Hard Deco, was inspired by Nancy Cunard and the Chrysler building – “there is always a connection. Even if perhaps people don’t see it. The enamel tiger heads on the clutch bags were a detail I found in the 1970s archives.”
But for a fashion designer, Giannini has an unusually sanguine attitude to criticism. “For winter I did 70s and it’s ‘too much from the archives’, and then for summer I did 20s and people say, she’s forgotten about the archives. Believe me, it can be frustrating. But I love to hear other people’s points of view. I like dialogue.
Actually, I like tough relationships. I think relationships with conflict are good for you – you learn. But you can’t listen too much. I have a strong point of view, and it’s important that I fight for my ideas.” Possibly one of the reasons Giannini is a good fi for Gucci is that the Gucci woman has always been a tough cookie.
Frida Giannini was born in 1972, to an architect father and a mother who taught art history. She worked in the design studio at Fendi when it was the hot handbag company (remember the baguette?) and became chief handbag designer at Gucci in 2002, during the years when Tom Ford made Gucci the sexiest brand in the world. Three years later, after the departure of Ford and the brief, ill-fated interregnum of Alessandra Facchinetti, Giannini was given the top job. The transition from team player to boss felt natural, she says. “I am comfortable giving people direction. If something is not good enough, my job is to find a way to help them learn from their mistake, and understand that next time I expect better.” It is a marker of how soon she held the respect of her bosses that in 2009, at her request, her design team were relocated from Florence to a new office in her hometown of Rome. “Florence is such a small city. The guys in my team, they are young, they need to go out, meet people. Rome has beautiful light, friendly people, a wonderful lifestyle.”
Giannini says that when she meets people she hasn’t seen for years, “They say I am the same person. I am proud of that.” The job has changed her, though, in some ways. She got married in the same year she landed the top Gucci job, but the marriage ended after three years. She lives alone with her German shepherd dog, although rumors that her close relationship with Patrizio di Marco, Gucci’s CEO, goes beyond the professional have been around since soon after she joined the company two years ago. She is blonder and sleeker and now speaks excellent English, all a result of six years as the public face of an international company.
Eventually, Giannini begins to relax; now you can glimpse the Frida who escapes in her car on a Friday night with her dog and drives to her beach house an hour south of Rome, where she spends weekends cooking, reading, riding her horse, listening to music (she owns more than 7,000 albums, 6,000 of which she inherited from a young uncle who was a DJ in the 1980s). She even does impressions, she says. “In the summer, my hair is curly, I get my guitar and I do Robert Plant. Or sometimes, after I have had a nice glass of wine, I do Madonna, ‘Like A Virgin’ – that’s one of my best ones.” Gosh, I say, is she planning to do either of these routines at the gala dinner for the museum? She throws her head back and positively cackles at the idea. “No, no! I can only be like that when I am in a very tight, cozy environment.” She tucks her arms around herself in a kind of mime of privacy. “That is the only way I can relax.”
Photos: Courtesy of TRUNK ARCHIVE and GoRUNWAY