Frida Giannini is a designer who unashamedly loves clothes, lives for fashion and celebrates that fact each season with her roll out of super-sexy, super-desirable Gucci collections. Frida is the fabulous figurehead who has successfully driven the Gucci brand through the noughties and into a blistering bright future with sexy supermodels in the passenger seat, major musicians in the back and Hollywood heartthrobs waving as she rolls by! As she stars in The Director, a documentary produced by James Franco, and sends swinging Sixties Londoner's down her autumn/winter 14 runway, we look back to her interview and steamy poolside shoot with Mr Franco in The Inside/Outside Issue, 2009...
Frida Giannini understands that when fashion, film, art and music collide, then magic truly happens. She is the gobsmacking goddess currently sat astride the Gucci throne as its Creative Director. Giannini is the genius responsible for the iconic Gucci collaborations with David Lynch, Rihanna and Chris Cunningham among others, which successfully marry the avant- garde with the mainstream and have duly produced incredibly successful results. Now working on a limited run of trainers with producer Mark Ronson, with UNICEF on a limited run of ‘Snowman In Africa’ bags and with Mary J Blige on a limited edition ‘Twirl’ watch to benefit Mary’s ‘Foundation For the Advancement of Women Now’ (FFAWN), Frida gives back as much as she receives. The iconic soul singer Mary J, speaks highly of their collaboration. “Working with Frida on this partnership has taught me that extraordinary things can be accomplished when people join forces for a higher purpose.” Further elaborating, “Gucci will make a real difference in the lives of many young women who are seeking hope. Frida’s dedication to helping us open the Center for women in my hometown of Yonkers, is showing the luxury world that at some point, we all must realise our call to stand for something truly meaningful by giving back to the community that supports us.” Another important collaborator comes in the form of the award winning actor James Franco, seen cradling Frida on this cover and in this exclusive accompanying feature. Whether playing a ‘freak’ in cult TV show Freaks and Geeks, the original rebel without a cause, James Dean in the TNT biopic of the same name, or playing Sean Penn’s lover in Gus Van Sant’s award winning Harvey Milk biopic Milk, James is attracted to the left of centre, the subtly subversive and the role of ‘the outsider’. He is creddited as actor, director, writer or producer in over forty movies and plays and as well as being tall, dark and devilishly handsome is also an accomplished painter too. Is there no end to his skills? The campaign for the Gucci by Gucci Hommes fragrance is a first in advertising for Franco, which has seen his working relationship with the brand grow into a supportive friendship with Frida. Shot on location on the set of the new Gucci fragrance campaign, Frida and James, were so hot and steamy, they needed to cool off, but rather than skinny dip, their outfits were so positively cool, they decided jump in, fully clothed! Taking a dip with the Queen of hip, Franco collided with destiny, and floated alongside Frida, with her looking like an angelic Ophelia, with her platinum blonde hair sitting atop the pool. They live in the sunshine, swim in the sea and drink in the wild air, take a glimpse into the glamorous world of Gucci.
“I don’t care to see a piece on the cover of a magazine and then not have the piece in the store. To me it doesn’t mean anything. It’s important that people can go into the store and find it. Because if not, it says what you are doing is a joke.”
Frida Giannini is telling me about how things have changed for her at Gucci. “I will tell you a story,” she says. “Four, five years ago, I was only Creative Director of accessories at Gucci. My first collection was the Flora bags, and believe me, lots of people within the company were not confident with that project at all.”
It was a collection of floral prints on bags, with multiple options and bamboo handles. It was totally unlike anything that had been done in the Tom Ford era. “After Tom, everything was black, everything was so dramatic. And so this floral pattern, they thought, ‘what does it mean? This bamboo, it looks old.’ But I was 100% sure that it would be a success. I was sure that people were waiting for it. And it was a huge success. You need to strongly believe in what you do, and defend your ideas always. That was a very particular time in the company. Now I don’t have to fight with anyone.”
I like this woman. Through the second half of this closing decade, Giannini worked out what was right not just for herself, but also for her brand, while also predicting pretty accurately how the luxury market would shift, and what it would want next. While others seemed to panic at the thought of replacing Tom Ford at Gucci, she kept her head together and trusted her instincts. She did all this with little praise from the fashion industry, and indeed much public ridicule. But, recently, the tide of opinion has finally been turning back in her favour. She’s canny, this one.
It is spring and we have met in London, where Giannini has come to shoot the autumn/winter 09 campaign, as well as re-open the Sloane Street store. It’s the latest in her global rollout of her vision of Gucci. “The mood and the meaning of the new concept is that I wanted to open up the window and allow the light to come in,” she says. She is on a work treadmill, which sees her do the cruise collections, prepare for the spring/summer 10 shows, then fly off to China to spend pretty much a month touring new stores and visiting charity projects which the brand has sponsored. Meanwhile, she has just moved her entire design team from Florence to Rome. Note they are not where you’d expect Italian fashion to be: in Milan.
“The space in Rome is beautiful, so full of energy, the guys they are super happy, super excited and they are living a new life.” When Giannini became the sole Creative Director of Gucci (if you remember, the original plan to replace Ford was to have three Creative Directors, one each for women’s, men’s and accessories. The other two faltered, Giannini rose to the occasion), one of her first decisions was to move the design team out of London and back to Florence, the city of the brand’s birth. It was a fundamental step in the development of Gucci. Ford had necessarily avoided any real connection to the past, because when he took over the brand in the early 90s, it was in such a state that any connection would have been damaging. It’s testament to the strength of Ford’s work that, by the time he had left, the brand name had been polished so thoroughly that it was possible for Giannini to look to the past once more. Hence the bamboo, hence the floral, hence the move to the city where the Gucci archive is held.
“Florence was a very important experience when I decided to move the office there from London, so we could understand the roots and the heritage,” she says. The move also meant she was closer to the suppliers who had worked for the company for generations. “Florence is one of the most beautiful places in the world, something that’s very inspiring, but after a while, it’s like a village.” For Giannini, this wasn’t so much a problem, but for the design team: different matter. “I’m one of the older ones,” she says. “For a design team that’s basically full of 23, 24 year olds, it was really oppressive. It was too small.”
For Giannini, Milan was out of the question. “When I have one hour free, I don’t want to sit in a bar and be surrounded by all the people from the fashion industry,” she says. “I want to talk about other things, not prints, not fashion shows, not criticism. For a designer, Milan is very much like that. Some might like it, but I don’t.”
In Rome, where she grew up, Giannini has sunlight and air and a different milieu from which to be inspired. “There’s more free spirit, it’s more joyous, more bohemian in a way,” she says. “I think Rome is the place in Italy that gives you this more than any other place. It’s the energy, and the fact that after a long day you can go out and take a drink in the Campo di Fiori together with thousands of people from every part of the world.” As with everything, loyalty is a big test, and it is one that she has so far passed in uprooting her team. “I cross my fingers, but so far everyone is happy. It was a risk, of course, but I haven’t lost one person.”
Alongside the obvious traits of Gucci - glamour, luxury, all that - what matters most to Giannini is that it is wearable. “You know my philosophy is to do wearable things that people want to buy,” she says. “I was never a conceptual designer, and I’m not working for a conceptual brand. So I think
it’s correct for me to create something that has exclusivity, that is really Gucci, but at the same time is something I want to see on people. It’s not only for editorial, which is important of course, but it’s nice to see it followed by something more real. I don’t care to see a piece on the cover of a magazine and then not have the piece in the store. To me it doesn’t mean anything. It’s important that people can go into the store and find it. Because if not, it says what you are doing is a joke.”
Giannini points to the thigh high boot, which opened the autumn/winter 09 womens show. “The boot was an incredible success,” she says. “It was totally unexpected for me. The price was very high, with the craftsmanship, the detail of the heels, the construction of the platform; it was so complicated. But in spite of this, the success in selling was huge. It was a very strong item and it’s something I’m sure will be copied everywhere.” she pauses. “Not made in Italy.”
She is very frank about how she sees herself. Her words are quite stark, and maybe if English were her first language she’d be more coy, but I think not. We had been talking about the difference between brands. “Can you imagine a world where all did exactly the same thing?” she says. “Gucci can never be an intellectual brand, because nobody cares about this for Gucci. And I’m not an intellectual. Tom was not an intellectual as well. The DNA we’re based on, the glamour, it’s always been there since the Gucci family decided to go out of Italy and open the first stores in America. This glamorous world, which is still there.”
I don’t like to hear people put themselves down. What you’re doing is still clever, I say to her. “Sometimes in the past we have been compared to other brands,” she says in answer. “I don’t want to mention which brands, but to me it’s very ridiculous to have this kind of comparison. It was a brand which is based on a story and an image, and that’s it. It’s a brand that I like and I wear, but it’s simply different from what we’re doing here. We need to make it work for more than 240 stores in the world. It’s not a game.”
Which is the crux of the matter. Giannini understands the weight on her shoulders and deals with it by removing herself from the usual fashion melee, setting up with a young team in an international city, and creating an imprint for the future rather than getting stuck in a tussle with her contemporaries. In doing so, she has suffered the barbs of the industry around which she has sidestepped, but that industry is now seeing the intelligence in her actions. The most important thing is that her decisions are right for herself, and, therefore, for Gucci. “I think it’s important for a job like mine to really strongly believe in what you do,” she says, “because if you don’t you go home very depressed. You want to put your mark, no? But it’s not ego. It’s because it’s helpful for the company to have an entire vision. Everything is the same spirit.”