How Gucci Got Its Groove Back

Lorenzo Bringheli

Few gave Gucci a fighting chance when Tom Ford left in 2004. But out of the ashes rose creative director Frida Giannini, who has silenced the naysayers by striking a balance between flashy extravagance and understated elegance.

I catch my first glimpse of Frida Giannini, Gucci’s creative director, at the Venice International Film Festival, where she’s attending a screening of Madonna’s new film, W.E. Giannini is wearing a one-shouldered black dress, her deep tan contrasting with her perfectly blown-out blonde hair. She is not, however, the most bronzed designer at the Palazzo del Cinema, or the most meticulously coiffed. That honor belongs to Valentino, who is two seats—and several worlds—away from Giannini, who cites among her eclectic muses both Jackie Kennedy and Iggy Pop. Keeping his back to the Gucci contingent, Valentino spends the next 15 minutes whispering to his longtime partner, Giancarlo Giammetti. It’s fun to imagine what he might be saying. Valentino dressed Jackie when she mourned JFK and, later, when she wed Aristotle Onassis.
He knew and loved Jackie, whereas Gucci’s “Jackie” has two fringed tassels and comes in exotic skin.

The Jackie is a bag, but not just any bag. In Gucci lingo, it’s an “icon” and now has a place of honor, along with the horse bit, the bamboo handle and the double-G, at the company’s new museum in Piazza della Signoria, in Florence. Tourists can walk from the Uffizi directly to Gucci Museo, where instead of contemplating spiritual icons they can meditate on earthly ones. The museum opening is part of the fashion house’s yearlong 90th-anniversary celebration that kicked off with its “Forever Now” campaign. “Forever” is represented by black-and-white stills of Gucci artisans from the 1950s, while “Now” is about the latest collections, expressed in airbrushed photos of sultry blondes clutching status bags. “Forever” is heritage; “Now” is what’s hot and new.

While one might think that balancing such disparate worlds might be tricky, like satisfying a wife and a much younger mistress, nobody does it better than Gucci. Today it is the second-largest luxury brand in the world (Louis Vuitton holds the top spot), and in 2010 it had $3.61 billion in sales. Owned by the French conglomerate PPR, also home to Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Alexander McQueen, Gucci has 345 stores internationally, including 40 in mainland China. Gucci entered the China market early, in 1994, and today it accounts for 21 percent of the company’s revenue. “What happened in Japan in ten to 15 years is happening in China at an incredible pace,” says Patrizio di Marco, Gucci’s president and CEO. “You have nouveaux riches that want to show their status, and the first step is to have a canvas bag with the original ‘GG.’”

The initials stand for Guccio Gucci, the company’s founder, but the familiar logo, which has adorned both bags and bottoms—remember Tom Ford’s thong?—is all about living la dolce vita. That Gucci can still ignite such retro fantasies is a testament to the brand’s seductive appeal. Once you’ve been lured into its red-and-green web, it’s hard to resist its temptations. Like James Franco, the face of Gucci Pour Homme, who is a film director, screenwriter, author, artist and professor, as well as an Academy Award–nominated actor and a daytime soap star, Gucci is hard to categorize. It’s a little bit country, with its equestrian motifs, a little bit rock ’n’ roll—Giannini loves ’70s rock stars—and it’s a lot glamorous, in a flashy, look-at-me way.

Befitting a brand with multiple personalities, Gucci has always attracted a varied clientele. Princess Grace of Monaco was a customer, as were Sophia Loren, John Wayne, Samuel Beckett, Ronald Reagan, Raisa Gorbachev and, of course, Jackie O, whose hobo-style bag has been updated and renamed the New Jackie. The hip-hop crowd has been a fan since the ’80s. “On any given day in the Gucci store on Fifth Avenue, you can see Donald Trump or Jay-Z types, along with conservative investment bankers,” says Jim Moore, the creative director of GQ. “Gucci is its own lifestyle.”

And I’m not sure I belong in it. Even though I’ve been living in a double-G world for several months now, I am not a double-G girl. Even worse, my husband isn’t a double-G guy, which ordinarily wouldn’t be an issue, but we’ve been invited to the Gucci Award for Women in Cinema dinner. (The prize went to actress-of-the-moment Jessica Chastain.) Gucci mentioned it was black tie only after we’d arrived in Venice. I’d packed a pair of black silk pants and a dressy blouse, which I’m hoping will be okay, but my husband didn’t pack a tuxedo, because he doesn’t routinely travel with one. We’re at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection when we get the first of a steady stream of e-mails from a Gucci PR woman. She needs my husband’s size. We’re inside the Church of Santa Maria Della Salute when my cell phone rings. She wants to know what I’m wearing. I tell her. Long pause. “Do you have jewelry?” she asks.

Ultimately I get to wear my own clothes, but Gucci sends my husband to the San Marco store, where he’s fitted into a black suit. (It will later be returned and perhaps used as a VIP suit for a future fashion emergency.) My husband, whose love for clothes begins and ends on a ski slope, is suddenly infatuated with his new suit. “I feel like James Bond,” he says. Clearly Gucci’s got him.

The next morning I meet Giannini at the Cipriani Hotel, where a PR executive sits in on the interview. A digital recorder rests on the table, and it’s already running. Nothing about Gucci is spontaneous. Everyone stays strictly on message, endlessly reciting the words “heritage,” “craftsmanship,” “artisan,” “legendary” and, yes, “iconic.”

Giannini, who is 39, is wearing a long silk dress in a brilliant burnt orange that evokes the films of Luchino Visconti at his most sumptuous. (Gucci donated money to help restore the director’s epic drama Il Gattapardo.) She tells me that Gucci has two souls, one aristocratic and elegant, the other rock ’n’ roll. Today she’s channeling the former. Tastefully made up, with minimal jewelry, she has a pretty face, with dark eyes, beautiful plump skin and a rich, musical voice. Nathalie Massenet, the founder of Net-A-Porter, says Giannini is “the embodiment of the modern Gucci woman”—someone who creates clothes that fit her “glamorous, jet-setting, successful” life. Yet Giannini, like the brand she represents, has a more traditional side. “She loves nothing better than to go to her beach house, ride her horses and play with her dogs,” says Olivia Mariotti, a communication and brand advisor who has known the designer since her days at Fendi. “She’s not a party animal.”

Born and raised in Rome, Giannini is the only child of an architect and an art history teacher. She credits her maternal grandmother, who had a clothing boutique, with inspiring her love of fashion, and her uncle, a DJ, for introducing her to music. After studying fashion design, she was hired by Fendi, where she worked on iterations of its popular Baguette bag. In 2002, Tom Ford tapped the then-29-year-old to design handbags at Gucci—not an insignificant job, given that leather goods account for 80 percent of the company’s business. Two years later, when Ford left after a contract dispute with PPR, which was then run by French tycoon François Pinault and now by his son, François-Henri, she was eventually named his successor.

What was Giannini’s reaction when she learned the news? “I was screaming,” she says—and then, because of mounting stress, she developed stomach ailments and dermatitis and had trouble sleeping. It was not the easiest of transitions. A newlywed, she also faced the burden of knowing she’d be compared to the man who was then the biggest superstar in fashion. She lacked Ford’s charisma, ego and theatricality. She was shy and didn’t like speaking in public. Her appointment had the earmarks of a disaster, except that retailers and customers liked her mix of rock-chic and classic luxe. “I thought she was strong right from the beginning,” says Ron Frasch, president of Saks Fifth Avenue. Critics, however, were cool, if not outright hostile. In 2008, Robin Givhan, then of the Washington Post, penned a withering review in which she criticized Giannini for turning the brand “into just another company hawking handbags and shoes.” Gucci, Givhan wrote, “had lost its panache.”

Giannini admits it took time to find her way. “I didn’t want to imitate Tom,” she explains, “but at the same time, I didn’t want to cancel what he’d done, because Tom had redesigned Gucci in a brilliant way. But the aggressive sexiness wasn’t part of my DNA. I wanted to move from sexiness to sensuality. I was criticized at the beginning. I was a critic of myself as well. I didn’t know what direction was right for the company.”

After a period of trial and error, Giannini found it. “She has made Gucci young and spirited,” Moore says. “She loves music, and all of a sudden in the men’s collections you had these cool rocker dudes. It was brilliant, because everybody’s listening to their iPods. She has given Gucci something that was part of her heart and soul, yet she still maintained the level of luxury.”

Today she’s happy being the woman behind the brand, unlike Ford, who was ultimately bigger than Gucci, which is why, in part, he’s no longer there. (Ford declined to comment for this article.) “After almost ten years, it’s difficult to divide myself from Gucci,” she says. “I love this company, and I have such respect for its history.”

The company’s history is riveting, filled with jealousy, betrayal, murder—and lots of shoes and bags. The story begins in 1921, when Guccio, the original GG, opened a small leather-goods shop on the Via Vigna Nuova, in Florence. After confronting a leather shortage during the war, he developed woven hemp printed with small interconnected brown diamonds. It became Gucci’s first signature. In 1953, Gucci and his son, Aldo, came to New York and leased space in the Savoy-Plaza Hotel, which was then a popular Mad Men hangout. (The General Motors building took the hotel’s place.) With Don Draper’s talent for self-invention, Aldo spun a tale that he hailed from an illustrious line of noble saddlemakers and began incorporating equestrian themes.

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was released in 1960, and Gucci, the first status label to come out of Italy, became synonymous with the hedonistic world of Rome’s café society. To enter that world, Americans needed one thing: the Gucci loafer. Growing up in Oklahoma City, Jim Gold, the president of specialty retail for the Neiman Marcus Group, thought they were the “ultimate symbol of European cool.”

By the ’70s, Gucci had three boutiques on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, where its haughty salespeople earned the ire of New York magazine, which dubbed Gucci “the rudest store in New York.” Equally irritating was Gucci’s insistence on shutting its doors between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. “It was mystifying,” says Frasch. “All I kept thinking was, Don’t people shop on their lunch hour?”

A decade later, Gucci received its comeuppance when Aldo created a line of cheaper products, like lighters and keychains, that tarnished the brand’s image and encouraged counterfeiting. Meanwhile, Aldo’s son, Paolo, implicated him for tax evasion, and Aldo wound up in a Florida prison. With Aldo out of the way, Paolo conspired to get rid of his cousin, Maurizio, who had gained control of the company. Tired of dealing with his scheming relatives, Maurizio arranged with Andrea Morante—now CEO of Pomellato, the Italian jewelry company, but at the time at Morgan Stanley—to find an investor to buy out the rest of the family. After Bahrain-based Investcorp stepped in, Maurizio lured Bergdorf Goodman president Dawn Mello to Florence. “When I first heard, I thought, She’s going where?” says Frasch. It was not a happy marriage. Mello attempted to modernize the brand, creating the Gucci loafer in a multitude of pastels. “But whenever anything got too fashion-y,” says Richard Lambertson, the director of Tiffany’s Leather Collection, who was then Gucci’s design director, “Maurizio got very upset.”

In a few short years, the company lost $60 million, and Maurizio himself was deep in debt. “Investcorp really freaked,” says Morante, who desperately tried to find a buyer but was told the brand was dead. Maurizio was forced to sell his shares, and after 72 years, Gucci was no longer a family-run business.

Ford, who’d been originally hired by Lambertson to design women’s ready-to-wear, became creative director. From the moment in 1995 when model Amber Valletta sauntered down the runway in a pair of blue velvet hip-huggers and an unbuttoned lime-green shirt, one thing was clear: the old Gucci was dead. As if that needed further clarification, a few weeks later, Maurizio was in fact dead—the victim of a hit man hired by his ex-wife and her close friend, a Neapolitan psychic.

During Ford’s eight-year tenure, he turned Gucci into one of the most exciting fashion brands in the world. “Gucci had never been sexy before,” says Mark Holgate, Vogue’s fashion news director. “That all changed under Tom. He understood the power of ’70s imagery. He blended the confident sexuality of New York, when Studio 54 was a sexual playground, with the freedom and the glamour of Rome in the glory days of Gucci. He did it with such wit and style and knowing winks. He was brilliant.”

In just four years, Ford and Domenico De Sole, who was Gucci Group’s chairman and CEO, increased the company’s revenue from $250 million to $1 billion. “The brand became the turnaround story of the nineties,” says David B. Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business School, who discusses the company in his classes. And then, in 2004, Ford and De Sole quit after PPR, which had purchased Gucci three years earlier, refused to meet their demands. “Everybody was so in love with Tom,” says Morante. “But Pinault wasn’t in love. Pinault is a businessman.” Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour speculated that Ford’s leaving would be a “catastrophe.” But it wasn’t. “Gucci’s a hard brand to kill,” says Frasch. “Believe me, people have tried.”

I’m riding in a black BMW headed to Gucci headquarters, located in a suburb of Florence. Thirty minutes later, my driver, who is wearing the kind of super-chic glasses only Italians can get away with, drops me off at an industrial park in Casellina. I could be on the moon, or in a Michelangelo Antonioni movie. Where is everybody? The main building’s interior is bright white. There isn’t a speck of dust or dirt anywhere, even on the white floors.

Several artisans, all wearing beautifully laundered white lab coats, are waiting to greet me. I have entered Forever Land. Piled high on several long tables are huge reptile skins, all in the process of extreme makeovers. Speaking through a translator, the workshop supervisor lifts the remnants of a gigantic python, telling me that Giannini, when she isn’t directing the artisans to paint the skins gold or jade, likes them au naturel. Next we move on to the crocodiles. Did I know there were a number of different types? I did not and never really cared, but crocodiles, when dyed a fabulous royal blue, have a charm they don’t possess in the wild.

I’m passed on to an artisan who shows me how the reptile’s skin achieves its beautiful gloss. He takes a small piece of blue croc and, lightly tapping a foot pedal, polishes it with an agate-stone machine. Another craftsman, using a simple blade, slices a piece of mauve crocodile with the skill and dexterity of a surgeon. It will eventually become a New Jackie, with a price tag starting at $24,900. It can take seven to 13 hours to assemble just one bag, although only the prototypes are made in this workshop, with local subcontractors producing the rest. All of Gucci’s leather goods, shoes and ready-to-wear items are still made in Italy.

A few hours later, I’m in another black BMW on my way to the opening of Mario Testino’s “Todo o Nada” (“All or Nothing”) exhibition in Rome. Gucci, which has enjoyed a long relationship with Testino—he shot ads during Ford’s tenure—is a sponsor. If there’s anything that will make you think fashion minimalism is for the fainthearted, it’s standing around with a bunch of deeply tanned Roman women in tight dresses, sky-high heels and tons of gold jewelry. Why did I wear a plain navy suit? An image of Katharine Hepburn as the spinster school secretary in Summertime pops into my head. That’s the one where she goes to Venice, has an affair with handsome Rossano Brazzi, only to find out he’s married, and returns to Akron, Ohio. Alone.

The next day, as part of my research, I head to the Gucci store on Via Condotti. After I stop at a counter on the main floor to admire a Jackie bag in blue python, the saleswoman urges me to slip it over my shoulder. It isn’t me. I’m not sure the Jackie bag would have been Jackie either, but this is the New Jackie and maybe it’s the New Me. I hear a breathy voice whisper Buy the bag, buy the bag. It’s like being in the Garden of Eden, only the serpent is a python and it’s talking like Jackie with an Italian accent. I head upstairs, where the crowds have thinned out. I spot an elegant suede jacket that’s been marked down 50 percent. It’s a beautiful pale gray that is so impractical, it could only be worn in the World of Gucci. But I’ve found my Rossano Brazzi. I try it on. It fits beautifully. But I’m not a Gucci girl. Or am I? I take it off and return it to the sales rack. Another customer eyes it. I slip it on again, running my hand up and down the material. The leather is so soft and sensual that I feel practically weak at the knees. Now I’m Molly Bloom in Ulysses. Yes, I said, yes, I will. Yes.

Ten minutes later, I’m walking down Via Condotti with a huge double-G shopping bag. I was going to the Vatican Museum, but I think I’ll have lunch first. I order some pasta and a glass of wine. I normally don’t eat carbs and never drink during the day. But life is short, Rome is beautiful, and if I don’t spill red wine on my jacket, it should easily last Forever Now.