Frida Giannini, in a dress like a disco ball, its mirrored beads refracting wineglasses and palm trees and famous people of all persuasions, wanted to dance. It was mid-May at the Hôtel du Cap, where Gucci and Vanity Fair were throwing a party to celebrate the second night of the Cannes film festival. Yachts twinkled in the distance. Inside, where soft lights gave everything a rosé glow, Harvey Weinstein was deep in conversation with producer Ryan Kavanaugh, while Naomi Campbell, with her rich and Russian boyfriend Vladimir Doronin, was inviting everyone to her 40th-birthday party. (In her enthusiasm, she snuffed out a cigarette on another partygoer’s forearm.)
Earlier in the day, Giannini, the creative director of Gucci, had lunched with Jennifer Lopez. “Are you going to dance with me tonight?” Lopez had asked.
“Ah, I would love to,” Giannini had replied. “Something like,” she recalled later, breaking into a hum, “‘I’m still Jenny from block.’”
But now, a problema: The DJ was playing “Ring My Bell.” The Gucci crew had already endured “Mack the Knife” and “Build Me Up Buttercup.” This would not do. Giannini, clutching a smudged glass of white wine, withdrew to an outdoor sofa with Bianca Brandolini d’Adda and her beau, Lapo Elkann (the Fiat heir). While they whispered and lit one another’s cigarettes, a Gucci factotum went to have a word about the soundtrack, and another set off to wrangle Lopez, whom Giannini had outfitted in a short, asymmetrical, dove gray cocktail dress with a feathered pouf attached to the right shoulder. Soon, Lopez and her husband, Marc Anthony, were escorted to greet Giannini. The group traded pleasantries, but the music was still not cooperating. After a few tentative shimmies, the disco summit fizzled and Lopez and Anthony swept out.
“Jennifer and Marc said, ‘Let’s go freak, Frida!’” Giannini recalled later. “It was going to be very difficult to be freak with that music!”
A self-described “ponytail girl,” with a taste for motorcycle boots, Marlboros and old vinyl—upon becoming engaged, she got a turntable instead of a diamond—Giannini is more partial to David Bowie or Depeche Mode than to Anita Ward. (Her other favorite bands are Pet Shop Boys, MGMT, Roxy Music and Friendly Fires.) If she were a piece of clothing, she would be a bomber jacket: tough and tanned. In fact, she began her career at Fendi, spending three seasons in ready-to-wear before moving to leather goods, where she helped to birth the seminal handbag of the seminal-handbag era, the Baguette. (If Giannini “cannot claim its maternity,” as she has said, she was at least a midwife to one of the world’s most lucrative pocketbooks.) In 2002 Gucci appointed Giannini to head its handbag department; within two years she had become the creative director for all accessories. The next few years were tumultuous for Gucci. Tom Ford, who had resuscitated the house, turning a moribund, dilute brand—in 1989 the company almost produced a Gucci-series Lincoln Town Car—into an $8.9 billion juggernaut, resigned in 2004. Giannini survived the doomed interregnum of Alessandra Facchinetti, emerging in 2006 as head of the entire label. If industry gossip is to be believed, the transition took place amid court intrigue worthy of a papal conclave. Giannini’s team retains a conspiratorial air. Her aides refer to themselves as “collaborators”; visitors to the company’s design headquarters, in Rome, are known as “externals.”
Giannini has assumed the role of boss woman unabashedly, making Gucci her own with a plush, allusive sensibility and a savvy for marketing that rivals even that of Ford, he of the $3,134 jeans. The only child of Antonio, an architect, and Sandra, an art historian, Giannini had a happily bourgeois childhood in the Roman neighborhood of Monteverde Vecchio. “I was the only daughter in a family of male cousins,” Giannini recalls. “I was always the leader.” She was a scampish ragazza, into motorcross and soccer. Smitten with horses, she trained three days a week on the trails near the Villa Borghese. Her grandmother had a boutique. Giannini remembers fur coats and sketchbooks; soon she was headed to Rome’s fashion academy.
In her professional life, Giannini values action over abstraction. “It’s like she has jumped on a bullet train,” says Patrizio di Marco, Gucci’s chief executive, “changing little pieces of the engine as she goes.” Inspired by her girlhood love of riding (along with Gucci’s heritage, and, undoubtedly, the disposable income of those who love horses and horse bits), Giannini recently designed a habit for equestrienne Charlotte Casiraghi. Her Gucci is not the most cerebral of houses. “She thinks, That’s a woman who’s really a real woman,” one of Giannini’s collaborators says of the designer’s admiration for Casiraghi, the only daughter of Monaco’s Princess Caroline.
In a country in which it is rare to find young women in positions of power—Berlusconi’s veline, television showgirls transformed into cabinet ministers, being the conspicuous exception—Giannini, who is 37, is responsible for every creative aspect of a $2.8 billion company that maintains 284 stores and employs about 7,000 people. (She commands a salary that allows her to indulge her passion for Modigliani—she has three.) Her designs have heralded a return to femininity for Gucci—flounced tea dresses, silky patterned tops with a Forties bent—but there remains little trace of softness in her self-presentation. Under Ford, Gucci employees maintained an antiseptic, monochromatic look. Giannini turned up, on her first day, with platinum-blond hair and a vivid print blouse: a moment that came to be known, in company lore, as The Romans Have Arrived. She used to go to work in Converse All-Stars, but she has adopted a no-nonsense aesthetic since ascending to the company’s top post. She’s been known to send an employee home for wearing Birkenstocks, which she has deemed unprofessional.
The Gucci headquarters in Rome occupy a 16th-century palazzo, just across the Tiber from the Castel Sant’Angelo. (The company also has offices in Florence and Milan. Giannini, bored in Florence, persuaded management to set her up with a design studio in her hometown, to which she returned last year.) A couple of days after the party in Cannes, Giannini was in her office—a boudoiresque affair, with a full-length mirror and flickering, scented candles—sitting on a high-backed leather chair. She was dressed in black: diamondback tights, a scuba-ish dress, T-strap pumps. Her honey-blond hair, parted in the middle and layered, had a Farrah Fawcett feel. On her right pinkie she wore a rectangular gold ring embedded with nine diamonds, like pieces on a chessboard. She had borrowed it from her mother. Giannini said, “When I see her tonight, she’ll say, ‘Listen, baby, give me back my jewelry!’”
Some cookies, beautifully arranged on a silver tray, sat on a lacquered table—none touched, none offered.
“My advice to you is that Frida is very warm to people she likes,” one of her aides had said a few minutes earlier, unprompted, as though she were escorting a petitioner to an audience with a don. Her intimates say that she is exceedingly generous—delivering pints of amatriciana after the birth of a baby, or flying in a fiancé to surprise a staffer on her birthday—but she initially comes across as guarded. Her manner can be brassy. “I want to understand an intelligent glamour, everyday luxury—things a woman can wear with sensuality, not just to show off her tits,” she once said. But Gucci, after all, has never been a bastion of prim politesse. In the Eighties, during a boardroom fight, one of the founder’s grandsons was smashed on the head with a tape recorder by another family member. Di Marco calls Giannini a “very, very smart woman,” and praises her managerial prowess, but, when pressed to identify a weakness, he allows, “From time to time, Frida is so sensitive about everything, and sometimes she takes things a bit too personally. It means she cares, but, at the same time, you have to be a little more detached.”
“What was he talking about?” I ask Giannini.
“I scream at him!”
Giannini confesses that she has a tendency to be “freak control on everything,” and the little details seem to matter to her as much as, or more than, the big ideas. Like a true Roman, she is superstitious—she circumvents ladders, hates to see a pin drop, and says “If you break a mirror, you need to find a virgin girl to make pee-pee in front of you,” before adding deadpan, “which is hard to find in the office.”
To ward off slipping standards, Giannini has appointed herself a sort of roving international quality control inspector. “I am so obsessed with visual merchandising,” she says. “Every time I am traveling in the airport, I am, ‘No, please, that’s wrong! Please change that!’” Wagging a finger for emphasis, she describes her most recent sting, conducted in mufti—a hat and dark glasses—in Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. “We had just launched the Jackie bag, and to me it was so important that it be prominent in the window. There was a beautiful window, but one of the bags was open with the tag sticking out,” she says. “I come around the corner in a furious way. I told them to come and take the bag, and I say, ‘I don’t want to see it anymore!’”
Accessibility, to Giannini, is not a bad word. Her fall 2010 collection, widely considered one of her strongest, was full of things—fur jackets, columnar gowns, drapey dresses in a sophisticated palette of beige and black—that a really real woman could actually wear, even if she’s not European royalty. It is no secret that shoes and handbags, not clothes, generate the serious money in luxury fashion, but Gucci, in promoting an accessories designer to its top creative post, is one of the first houses to acknowledge openly what seems like an obvious precept: that designers should design things that people want to buy. Alessandro Michele, one of Gucci’s accessories designers, says, “Frida is quite easy to work for, because one second, and she knows what she wants.” Giannini, he explains, wants things to appear curato—cared for, thought about. Her sensibility is fundamentally conservative, in that she aspires to make pieces that will appeal to a wide variety of women over a long period of time. “I don’t think that being innovative means making only strange or weird things that you would never see in the street,”
Giannini says. “I feel much more accomplishment to make one beautiful thing—a perfect raincoat, done in suede or ostrich—and to see it on people around the world than to make something that is like a work of art, where people can see it in a fashion show, but if they go to the store, they would never find it on the racks.”
Predictably, there are people who feel that Giannini’s designs are too commercial—the mean joke in Italy is “Guccini di campagna,” a play on a Seventies band called I Cugini di Campagna (“cousins from the country”) whose main gag was to dress like hicks. Giannini bristles at the suggestion that there is something crass about her ability to tap into popular desires. “Sometimes I see comments that are stupid,” she says. “If commercial means that you can save jobs, I am more than happy to be commercial.”
To that end, Giannini has been a pioneer of the current craze for “heritage”—the idea, hugely attractive in the aftermath of the financial crisis, of capitalizing on what a brand is known for, and what has worked for it in the past. Before Dolce & Gabbana’s recent Italian-cinema collection, or Ferragamo’s return to equestrian motifs, Giannini was raiding Gucci’s archives for such iconic elements as the double-G logo, the bamboo handle and the blossomy Flora pattern, which she revived, to the delight of many mothers and daughters, on a series of very ladylike and very profitable floral-print handbags. She has dispatched Gucci’s most skilled craftspeople to Gucci boutiques around the world as part of a promotion called Artisan Corner, a Colonial Williamsburg–like celebration of Gucci’s history in which, instead of churning butter, women stitch and emboss leather. The walls of the Rome offices are covered with period photographs of Gucci-clad women: Barbra Streisand in 1969, Jackie in her Onassis phase. “To me, the Seventies were such a moment of big creativity,” says Giannini, who, while apparently not a fan of the decade’s music, has fond memories of her mother’s embroidered tunics and cork-soled platform shoes. As for the idea that, in translating the disco era for the iPod generation, she’s singing the same songs, she says, “I don’t care at all. If I was not doing anything new, probably our stores would be empty.” She can’t resist adding a sort of taunt to her naysayers. “Unfortunately for those people, our stores are very busy. We survived the crisis better than anyone else.”
Fashion’s self-referential cycle has become so short that even Ford’s clothes—made in the Nineties, to evoke the Seventies—are now considered vintage and thus ripe for reinterpretation. For her fall collection, Giannini drew on such Ford signatures as slightly flared pants and the cutout dress—a smart bit of triangulation, like Obama invoking Reagan. Giannini might be thought of as the consensus builder of fashion. In embracing decades of Gucci design, she has come into her own.
It is Giannini, in fact, who first brings up Ford, saying that one of her favorite movies of 2009 was A Single Man. (Avatar, which “was boring, like a fairy tale for children,” not so much.) “It is a legend from the American press that I can’t talk about Tom,” she says. “I am working in a different way, because I’m a very different person. I would never be a film director in my life.”
“What would you be, then?” I ask.
She pauses a second and breaks into a smile. “A desperate housewife!”
Recently Giannini separated from her husband and bought a large house on the Gianicolo, blocks from her childhood home. It is filled with mirrored glass and Art Deco furniture. It was also filled with her parents, who live just down the street, until, she says, “One day I walked out of the shower and my father was playing with my dog. ‘No!’ I said. ‘Give me all the keys, you have to ring the bell!’” Still, Giannini finds herself so harried that she often has to beg her parents to pitch in with household chores: walking the dog, getting money from the ATM. Though she says she doesn’t want to jinx her love life by discussing it, it seems that she may not need her mama’s help for too much longer. “I don’t want to be indiscreet, but I am in a very different moment from my life a year ago,” she says. When I ask if she’s seeing anyone, she takes a theatrical sip of water, pretending to choke, and responds, “Can I answer another question? All I can say is I’m living one of the best moments of my life.”
Despite her domestic fantasies, it’s apparent that Giannini isn’t any more content to spend her days rolling out ravioli than she is to extract inspiration from the usual dreamy totems. One would be hard-pressed, in her office, to find a picture of Talitha Getty. Instead, tacked to the bulletin board, amid thick-stocked notes from Elle Macpherson and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, is a printout, filled with pie charts and highlighted in fluorescent yellow.
A close look reveals that it is Hermès sales data. “I am very competitive,” Giannini admits.