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March 13, 2011

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Designs with an Italian soul

Frida Giannini candidly admits she's type A, all the way.

That kind of rigor may not always be associated with the whimsically impromptu fashion world, yet such traits - like being a detail-oriented perfectionist - were a blessing for a designer who in a flicker went from anonymity to stardom.

When Gucci Group announced in 2006 that the Roman designer was the chosen one to fill Tom Ford's considerable loafers, the daring move inevitably raised eyebrows.

Could Giannini, who in only four years went from the house's handbag designer under Ford to sole creative director - succeeding women's ready-to-wear designer Alessandra Facchinetti and men's designer John Ray - cope with the pressure?

The answer was yes, she could, and she did. Even as a ready-to-wear neophyte, she exuded a cool and calm aura, taking her new responsibilities in stride and proving to be adept and versatile.

The first thing she did when she set out to create her imprimatur for the multibillion-dollar house was to recruit an international design team, which she now describes as "very consolidated and in symbiosis."

"I trust my assistants very much. Designwise, we speak the same language and our relationship gets richer by the day," mused Giannini.

Such trust has led her to delegate more than in the past. "I don't obsess as much over every single key chain and I feel much more mature. In fact, I think that my vision for Gucci grows up season by season to befit a very complex brand, an international brand that still has an Italian soul."

Each season, the design process is meticulously plotted out to avoid last-minute hysteria over last-minute changes to the runway show lineup, she said. "I could never put everything together in three days like some of my colleagues do. Sure, we may change a few looks or add some colors, but nothing major."

Six years later, practice has perfected her method and vision, and her collections demonstrate a more grown-up confidence and style.

"I certainly don't feel I've arrived, but I feel stronger and more independent. I'm also more belligerent than in the past when it comes to defending certain positions or ideas," she said.

Giannini's early penchant for waxing the classic with excessive doses of attention-getting, high-gloss sexiness has morphed into a gentler and less conspicuous aesthetic. But it's still sexy.

In the mid 2000s, when luxe was all about excess and glitz, Giannini went to town with bling, piling on embellishments and steaming things to the max. Today, her designs are more discreet, allowing labor-intensive craftsmanship to do the talking.

"After experimenting with fashion's many facets and drawing inspiration from David Bowie to Russia, I feel that over the past couple of years I have synthesized, edited and cleaned up my act."

Indeed, the current fall and the upcoming spring collections were palate cleansers, with less flash and more controlled elegance, sprinkled rather than drenched with seduction and details.

She also admits that some of the tougher criticism, particularly of her earlier efforts, turned out to be food for thought. "Today, I understand and better appreciate the criticism for certain shows or for my lack of consistency. I wanted to experiment and it didn't always work," she said.

She cited the David Bowie, 1970s-driven lineup for fall 2006 as her least favorite collection, while the upcoming spring season is her most favored.

Vintage fashion, film, music (though she claims she's still waiting for a new generation of trendsetters like Mick Jagger or Bowie) and heritage spark her creativity.

And Giannini has never shied from sharing how inspirational the label's own past has been to her: "The designer of the Gucci house has to share with its audience the huge respect toward the brand's history and past. I was so fascinated the first time I visited the archives, which are full of incredible objects, and it's great fun to bring them back to new life."

Her last two collections were infused with the iconic elegance and sensuality that characterized Gucci in the 1960s and 1970s, when the brand made its international leap and became a favorite of the rich and famous like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren and Anita Ekberg, and, of course, Jackie Kennedy, for whom a Gucci handbag is named.

Giannini revisited the Diamante pattern for the fall season, a graphic diamond-shaped motif that hearkens back to the 1930s and that preceded the double-G logo. As for the latter, Giannini devised a new version of the 1973 classic design for fall: two gold, curvilinear interlocking G's.

"I think the work that I am doing to try to create a strong balance between what is our rich heritage and what is the future and innovation is very important," she said. "At the same time, it's intriguing to work with new technologies, suppliers and new media. We're living in an exciting moment, not only for fashion and creativity but also in terms of communication."


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