In February, a Nielsen survey revealed that Gucci was still the most coveted luxury label in the world. Not bad, considering the high-profile turmoil that marked the house following Tom Ford’s departure in the early years of this century. The woman who steered the ship back to calmer (and more lucrative) waters is a shrewd young Roman named Frida Giannini. Hired away from Fendi by Ford to design accessories, she has risen through the ranks to assume full creative control. Now she’s spinning the Gucci good life with her own take on boho rock ‘n’ roll. Speaking of spinning, there are more than 7,000 albums in her music room at home in Florence-although she admits that she’s a disaster at mixing. She lets her DJ friends take charge after her dinner parties. That must be one of the rare moments when she -surrenders control.
TIM BLANKS: What are you working on now?
FRIDA GIANNINI: One million things at the same time. Basically, I am working now on the men’s fashion show because it is the next appointment. But we have already started with the women’s fashion show for September. I just finished the Cruise collection last week. We’re going to show it in Rome for the 70th anniversary of the Rome store.
TB: I read that you’re doing the show in Gianicolo, the neighborhood where you grew up.
FG: Yes. Not only that, but it’s in the villa where I had my wedding party, purely by chance!
TB: While you’re designing the men’s collection and looking forward to the women’s, are you imagining them together?
FG: Now, yes. With men, you need to anticipate all your ideas at least one or two months before the next women’s collection, so you need to create a feeling that links with what will happen a few months later. To me, they are really a couple. They live together. They grew up in Italy together. So, not just in the stores or the campaigns, but also in real life, it’s very important for me to create a connection between them.
TB: That Russian story you’re telling in the men’s and women’s collections for fall makes that connection the strongest it’s ever been. Interesting, because when you took over in 2006, the original energy reminded me of the Via Veneto, a very Roman mood. What is it about Russia that’s capturing your imagination?
FG: Well, Russia was not the main inspiration. Of course, Russia was inspiring the fabrics and the textile designs, but the idea was more rock star and the bohemian idea of rock ‘n’ roll-that sort of decadence, but in a luxurious way that to me is always present.
TB: After the last men’s show you said to me that what Rome and Russia have in common is this energy where you could reinvent yourself every day if you wanted to. Do you think you’ve reinvented yourself since you came to Gucci?
FG: You need to reinvent yourself every day when you are doing creative work. I always say that the moment I feel I’m at the top of the mountain and I cannot do more, I would be finished. So that’s why I always feel the earth quake beneath my feet. I always feel myself on the fire. Because I think this is something that gives you the right adrenaline to work and go forward in your professional life. I have reinvented myself, believe me, many times in my life! [laughs]
The idea was more rock star and the bohemian idea of rock ‘n’ roll–that sort of decadence, but in a luxurious way that to me is always present.Frida Giannini
TB: Your own personal style is very straightforward, so when I look at it versus the rock ‘n’ roll, groupie, gypsy, Gucci man and woman, I wonder if this is your fantasy of how you would like to be.
FG: When I approach a collection, I never think too much about myself, because doing fashion and being a designer, you need to dream. Of course, there’s always a part of myself. I’m always wearing what I’m doing. I’m not a party girl, but when I have the opportunity to go out and dance and be crazy for a night, that’s the fall/winter collection.
TB: That’s why model Natasha Poly is such a dream alter ego. She’s the ideal Gucci gypsy with a hint of danger. But you’re using Claire Danes in your campaigns as well, and that’s a very different mood.
FG: Claire Danes was chosen for the fine-jewelry campaign. We used Drew Barrymore a year ago, and we wanted to elaborate on this idea of celebrity-a young actress, a modern golden blonde. They go very well together. And fine jewelry has a long-lasting value, so I didn’t want to use a model who may stop working in a year or so or who may reschedule to do other campaigns.
TB: And James Franco is the face of the new Gucci fragrance for men.
FG: To me, Franco has the dangerous rebel side of the Gucci guy of today. He’s a natural. Of course, he’s not a rock star, but it was difficult for me to find a rock star with such a beautiful face at this moment in the world. [laughs]
TB: Is working on the campaigns a kind of release or an escape from all the pressure of being responsible for Gucci’s sales figures?
FG: I don’t know. The pressure is always very high. I am the client, and when I am the client, I need to fight with the photographer or with the stylists or with all the people that are on the set, because I am the only one who has a very specific vision. I always have the pressure, either from myself or from the company. I am a control freak. It’s part of my culture. I know that I am still working to build a Frida moment at Gucci.
TB: Before, you let the brand speak without you, yourself, being so visible in public. Now I see you hosting the UNICEF gala in New York or the event in Los Angeles, and it seems you’re more comfortable being in the spotlight.
FG: “Comfortable” is a great word. I cannot tell you that I am 100-percent comfortable, but for sure I am more confident of my goals, because I know what I can expect from this kind of event. At the beginning, everything was a mysterious, far-from-me world, and now it’s more accessible. Of course, exposing myself is always very difficult. I cannot say that I’m a shy person, but I don’t see myself as a superstar. [laughs] I will never see myself like that.
I always feel the earth quake beneath my feet. I always feel myself on the fire. Because I think this is something that gives you the right adrenaline to work and go forward.Frida Giannini
TB: What’s the easiest way to break the ice when you meet Madonna or another huge star?
FG: I think the simplest way is probably to try playing on the same level, to discuss everything in normal life. So, for example, with Katie Holmes, we just spent one hour talking about her daughter. Or with Madonna, when we were working on the event in New York, we spent hours deciding every single aspect together, from the dishes to the flowers to the cards.
TB: But you must think back to being a teenage girl in Rome listening to Madonna records. It must be an odd feeling.
FG: Believe me. Now I feel much more relaxed, but the week before my first meeting with her last October in London, I was totally paralyzed. I would continually say to my friends, “You cannot imagine, I have to go to the house of Madonna.” There was no other name to put in there that could compare with that for me.
TB: Not even the house of David Bowie?
FG: No, I don’t think so. I have a different approach with men in general. [laughs] It was very tough with Madonna at the beginning of the meeting because I was very embarrassed. But I’m a strong woman who knows what I want and what I’m doing, and I think that when you have very clear ideas in your life, you can have conversations with everyone.
TB: What did you mean when you said the control-freak thing is part of your culture?
FG: I mean that even the education I got from my parents and my family was a strong preparation for this job. I always had a very strong sense of responsibility, so the minute I started to work in fashion, I was always tremendously serious-too much sometimes. Of course, you can make a lot of mistakes in this job-I still do-but you need to limit them as much as possible. When you’re responsible for such a huge company, you cannot play too much. In the beginning, I was working 20 hours per day and I was going crazy. I learned that I needed to delegate and to trust the people around me, but there is still not one element that I don’t see or edit or discuss with my people.
TB: How many people are working with you?
FG: In all categories, I have about 20 designers. Then I have people who are more technical assistants. In the end, I think there are more or less 40.
TB: Are you a tough boss?
FG: Sometimes. I’m used to spending a lot of time with them. They’re not only collaborators, they’re also friends. It’s the biggest part of your life that you share with these people. But sometimes being on the top of this pyramid, you need to be a little bit tough. This job is becoming very tough for every company because of timing. You don’t have the time to finish the collection before you have to think about the next one. But I am never loud. I don’t like to scream. So we are all working hard, and sometimes you need to reassure them.
TB: But when you have that much responsibility all the time, do you ever just wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, “Oh, God, I just can’t do this anymore”?
FG: I wake up in the night screaming sometimes when I’ve had a fight with my husband, more than with the company. [laughs] I still sleep very well. I take it day by day. I am a very pragmatic person. That’s how I survive.
The Pressure is always very high … I know that I am still working to build a Frida moment at Gucci.Frida Giannini
TB: As a Roman who lives and works in Florence, do you think Romans are tougher?
FG: Yes, definitely.
TB: And do you think they are more tribal?
FG: I don’t know if tribal is the correct word. I think they are more open, probably because of all the tourists that fill the city all year. I think there is pride in the Roman people. Romans are proud more than tribal.
TB: I say tribal because it feels to me what you’re doing in your collections is creating a tribe, especially with the most recent ones. The sense of a group identity being projected through fashion was very strong. You don’t see the Gucci man and the Gucci woman being like anybody else. That’s what I mean about the tribal quality. It’s the sensuousness as well. I think tribalism is quite sexy, and that’s what I was feeling, too.
FG: Yes, I understand what you mean. I can see this world perfectly, not only in the collection, but in Gucci as a brand in general. It has this very strong, specific DNA, and when you capture that, it’s very immediate.
TB: Do you read your reviews?
FG: Yes, of course. Every time. I read them all. Sometimes they can be very constructive, sometimes not, but it’s always interesting to see the opinion of others on what you are doing. Sometimes I am very furious, but I will never say to a journalist, “Please don’t come back to the next show.” Never. Because I think that’s a very stupid attitude. I am very happy when I see the results of the company and when I see people wearing my clothes or my accessories. I think this is the best answer to criticism.
I am not an artist; I am not doing a performance; I’m doing things that need to be sold. And I know my job.Frida Giannini
TB: Do you think your customers understand you better than your critics.
FG: For sure. But I have to tell you, a few people had very controversial feelings about what I was doing with Gucci at the beginning, and now, after a couple of years, they are changing their minds. I want to give journalists the time and space to know me and what I’m doing better. But it’s not a priority for me. At the end of the day, I am not an artist; I am not doing a performance; I’m doing things that need to be sold. And I know my job.
TB: Well, thank you, Frida. Do you have one word for spring as a preview for me?
FG: I can tell you . . . happiness. [laughs]
TB: Good answer. That makes me happy.