Roman Empire

Shifting its creative base to the Eternal City, Gucci sets up shop in a stunningly refurbished palazzo.

by Alessandra Ilari


Designer offices are often swanky temples of luxury, but Frida Giannini’s Roman workspace boasts a rare perk—an ancient travertine altar. While Gucci’s creative director heartily dismisses the notion that she uses it to invoke the fashion gods, the altar befits what Giannini dubs the “monastic” atmosphere that permeates Gucci’s new design headquarters in the Eternal City.

“If there’s one thing I regret, it’s not being able to spend more time here because of my hectic schedule. It’s so tranquil and serene, plus I can smoke as much as I want without getting into trouble,” Giannini says of her office. As she leans forward from her perch on a gray velvet sofa, Giannini’s image, along with the ornate gilded wood ceilings bordered by frescoes, is reflected in the mirrored top of the coffee table in front of her.

But it’s not just the posh surroundings that have Giannini feeling so chipper these days. After five years in much sleepier Florence, she’s happy to be back in her hometown—accompanied by her entire team of 30 designers, no less. And the fact that they’re now toiling away in a building of major provenance, the centuries-old Palazzo Alberini, makes the move that much sweeter.

Located on Via del Banco di Santo Spirito, the nine-story palazzo was commissioned by Giulio Alberini, a wealthy merchant, and erected circa 1515. It was designed by Raphael and his pupil Giulio Romano, and according to Giannini, “you definitely feel Raphael’s hand” in the trapezoid-shaped beige brick and marble building, which wraps around a charming courtyard. It is a stone’s throw from the Tiber River and a five-minute walk from the bustling cafés dotting Campo dei Fiori, one of Giannini’s favorite hangouts.

When Giannini happened upon the palazzo through a family friend, it had just undergone a historical renovation by architecture firm Studio Gigli. Inside, new bathrooms and lighting fixtures had been added, and the frescoes were painstakingly restored. Outside, the facade had been scoured of all that big-city smog residue. But while those changes made the task of converting the building into Gucci design command central easier, restrictions imposed by the Ministry of Arts and Culture created their own set of challenges. All those storyboards and sketches Giannini was used to pinning on her walls for inspiration? Basta. Due to the precious frescoes, “I can’t hang anything, let alone put lights up,” Giannini laments. “Everything has to lean on the floor.”

For his part, architect Federico Gigli says he and his crew labored mightily to undo decades of neglect and to maintain the character of the building while gently coaxing it into the 21st century. “The interiors were not in a terrible state but showed the abandonment that they suffered for almost 20 years,” he says. “The main challenge was to make it able to hold all the technological infrastructure that a modern office building needs,” including such basics as Internet lines and fire safety systems.

From top: Frida Giannini; a close-up of the refurbished Renaissance frescoes.

The crux of the piano nobile, the second floor, which houses Giannini’s office, is a long hallway, its walls tinged with pale lilac-blue. The only dark notes are from the cagelike wrought-iron chandeliers. Unlike Giannini’s office, the hallway is a fresco-free zone and thus is hung with white-framed, black and white photos interspersed between a row of sturdy wooden doors and big windows. There’s Sophia Loren exiting Gucci’s Rome store in the Seventies, a Gucci-clad Veruschka walking dogs in 1971, Jackie Kennedy toting a double-G bag in New York, and Gucci fans Alain Delon and Romy Schneider relaxing in Cannes in 1959.

Fanning out over the remaining floors (Gucci occupies the first seven stories) are the men’s and women’s ready-to-wear design studios; the leathergoods, eyewear and jewelry offices; and archives, storage and a library. The footwear team works on the top level, which leads out to a small terrace that offers a killer view of the city’s terracotta-tiled roofs.

The classic architecture and Renaissance frescoes juxtaposed with modern fixtures exude an overall vibe that is at once zen and back to the future. For the decor, Giannini plucked furnishings from the blueprint she masterminded for the brand’s flagships in New York, Rome and Shanghai. Tables are crafted from shiny Indian rosewood, often bordered with rose gold–tinted brass; divans and chairs are made from mohair velvet; and smoky or clear glass inserts gussy up the doors.

Save for the initial brouhaha normally associated with a move (Gucci’s took place this past March), readjusting to Rome wasn’t a major undertaking. Giannini lives in the hills of the Gianicolo district, a 15-minute drive from the office. And clearly she values her mobility; the lack of international flights in and out of Florence was one of the chief reasons for the headquarters shift.

A seasoned globe-trotter, Giannini moved from Rome to London in 2002 to join her then boss Tom Ford, Gucci’s former creative director. When Giannini assumed the title of creative director of accessories, in 2004, she relocated to Florence. And for a while she immersed herself in what she calls “Guccization,” or the opportunity for her and her foreign staffers to dip into Gucci’s history. “It was a great way for all of us to familiarize ourselves with Gucci’s palazzo on Via delle Caldaie,” she recalls, “with the factories, the suppliers and the structure.”

Before long, however, the love affair with her adopted city began to wane, and two years ago the idea of returning south started swirling in Giannini’s head. When she began losing valued assistants who were tired of living in Florence, the move became a priority. At issue, in addition to the dearth of flights, were lifestyle bugaboos such as “not being able to watch a film in its original language” and an absence of international gathering spots. A decided shortage of modern art exhibitions was also viewed as a liability. “Creative energy doesn’t necessarily stem from the city itself,” she contends, “but it can be sparked from an interesting exhibition or an opera.”

Still, Giannini was determined to keep the Gucci design office in Italy. She chose Rome over Milan because in the latter, she imagined herself stuck in a dead-end fashion alley. “I didn’t like the idea of going out at night and running into this and that designer or assistant with inevitable fashion conversations,” she says. As for the competition, the Rome houses of Valentino and Fendi aren’t exactly neighbors, as they sit close, respectively, to the touristy landmarks of Piazza di Spagna and Via dei Condotti. Giannini instead opted for a quainter district where traditional trattorias, tiny antiques stores and workshops share the sidewalk.

Luckily for the designer, what she describes as the current “mega-galactic economic crisis” exploded after her bosses—PPR CEO François-Henri Pinault and Mark Lee, Gucci’s then CEO—had greenlighted the relocation. “It’s not like they jumped for joy when I told them my idea, but they understood my reasons,” Giannini explains. “It would be an entirely different story today.”