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When Guccio Guccison of a Florentine craftsmanopened a modest leather-goods shop in his native city in 1921, he laid the foundation for what would become one of the world's most powerful and recognizable luxury brands. Gucci was wise to the ways of the European aristocracy, having once worked at the Savoy Hotel in London, and his store's wares included traveling articles, luggage, and saddlery with a certain elegant je ne sais quoi. By the 1930's his accessories and bags, distinguished by the horse bit and stirrup motif, had become trendy among the well-heeled set. Over the next 30 years Gucci and his sonsRodolfo, Aldo, Ugo, and Vascocemented the brand's international prestige with the introduction of its iconic bamboo-handled bag (still in production today), green-red-green webbing, and logo of interlocking G's. Further enhancing the company's image were Gucci-wearing style setters like Jackie O and Grace Kelly.
In the 1970's and 1980's the family business expanded into the Far East. As it diversified and added more accessible items to its line, however, its elite reputation began to tarnish. After Rodolfo's death in 1983, his son Maurizio took the reins of the company amid a storm of Gucci-versus-Gucci legal battles and a tax-evasion conviction for Aldo Gucci in 1986. The house was near bankruptcy when Maurizio sold half of the company's shares to a Bahrain-based investment group in the late eighties (the remaining shares were sold in 1993).
Enter Tom Ford. Dawn Mello, then Gucci's creative director, tapped him to design womenswear in 1990. By 1995, new CEO Domenico De Sole was planning a total relaunch; Ford's until-then behind-the-scenes role was expanded and he was named the new creative director. Ford masterminded a new Gucci image of exclusive, sex-fueled hedonism that twinned provocation with a concept of woman as glamazon. Over the next few years, he designed collections that would come to define the go-go days of the late nineties, with such signatures as the boot-cut velvet suit paired with a cleavage-baring unbuttoned shirt (incidentally his own trademark look), the white jersey cutout dress, and the flesh-colored goddess gown sprinkled with tiny crystals. With art direction by Carine Roitfeld and photographs by Mario Testino, an infamous marketing campaign teased the dangerous edges of pornography.
In 1999 the French powerhouse LVMH tried to acquire Gucci, but its rival PPR bested it, snapping up Gucci and creating the Gucci Group, which today is home to Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Alexander McQueen, and Balenciaga, among others. In 2004 Ford and De Sole left Gucci after sparring with PPR executives. Frida Giannini, a former accessories designer under Ford, is the current creative director.
From the moment Frida Giannini debuted her print-happy collection of forties-inspired dresses for Gucci in 2005, the message was clear: farewell, hard-edged eroticism; hello, ladylike sexiness. Just 32 when she landed the post of creative director of womenswear, she had made a splash at Gucci the previous year with a collection of accessories, from canvas totes to loafers, featuring the Flora print created in the 1960's for a scarf for Grace Kelly.
The Giannini years have been characterized by a mining of the archives, with Gucci hallmarks reinterpreted in a fresh and contemporary way. In 2006 Giannini took charge of the entire brand image when menswear was added to her portfoliono small undertaking for a self-described "ponytail girl" from Rome, who inherited her love of fashion from her grandmother, a dress shop owner. After studying at Rome's Fashion Academy, Giannini landed at Fendi as a ready-to-wear designer in 1997. Three seasons later, she moved into the accessories department, which had introduced the seminal Baguette in 1997, credited with igniting the last decade's It bag phenomenon. Though Giannini swore to Vogue that she couldn't "claim its maternity," her talents didn't go unnoticed. Gucci hired her in 2002 to oversee its handbags, and two years later, upon the departure of the formidable Tom Ford, named her creative director of accessories.
While Ford during his reign at Gucci engineered an epoch of overt sex references that reverberated across the retail world, Giannini's talents are more low-profile. She works in the same bohemian, rock-chic idiom, but focuses more on feminine, wearable clothes, less on scandal. The net result: Gucci's bottom line has continued to blossom brightly. "I can't just think of a party girl," she told Vogue in 2005. "I want to understand an intelligent glamour, everyday luxurythings a woman can wear with sensuality, not just to show off her tits."