Frida Giannini and Patrizio di Marco, the duo behind the venerable fashion brand, open up about their office romance—and their plans for the luxury brand in the post-logo era
LIKE MANY WORKING PARENTS, Gucci's Frida Giannini and Patrizio di Marco spent a recent morning struggling to Skype with their young daughter. The transmission from their Beverly Hills hotel room froze Giannini's image, raising concerns about how 9-month-old Greta, at home with her grandmother in Rome, might regard this potentially scary picture of her mama.
"We need to figure out FaceTime," di Marco grumbled as the couple fought off jet lag and prepared to tackle a busy A-list weekend in Los Angeles. Rarely do their duties as Gucci's creative director and chief executive require them to travel to the same city, but their schedule on this trip left little time to be alone together. The agenda included attending a film premiere with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as hosting the Art+Film Gala for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Sting performed for a crowd that included Warren Beatty, Amy Adams and Brian Grazer. (The pop star paid homage to his hosts by announcing, "Here I am in my new Gucci suit.")
Together, Giannini and di Marco are warm, not cuddly, and maintain a wariness that suggests they are still learning to navigate public life as a couple. Pairings between executives and designers are not unheard of in the fashion industry, yet news of the involvement between Giannini, who is Gucci's 41-year-old creative director, and di Marco, 51, the brand's chief executive, created a sensation two years ago. Facing global headlines, the couple felt obligated to pinpoint the moment their professional relationship had turned personal—during a June 2009 business trip to open a new Gucci flagship in Shanghai—and to field intimate questions about the fallout if the relationship ever soured.
It's commonly believed that two parents are good for raising a child. But it's possible that, as a couple, Giannini and di Marco are also better at steering Gucci than either would be separately. The fashion industry requires unusually close working relationships between the business and creative sides—and the frank discussions and campaigning permissible between lovers have well served other labels: Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli; Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti; and Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé are but a few examples.
Even so, the Giannini–di Marco partnership began inauspiciously. Di Marco, who insists his dream was to be a comic book artist and paint, was feeling in control and comfortable as the chief executive officer of Bottega Veneta when he was offered the top job at Gucci in 2008. He'd quit smoking and hadn't had a cigarette in four years. When François-Henri Pinault—chief executive of Kering, the luxury giant and parent company of both Gucci and Bottega Veneta—called, di Marco viewed Gucci, adrift after the departures of Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford, as a career risk. "The first thing I did the next morning was go out and buy a pack of cigarettes," he says. "I was anxious."
Di Marco wrote a 150-page document outlining his do-or-die strategy for Gucci, presenting it to Pinault during a three-hour meeting in London in July. By October, they had hammered out the details of a plan, with one vital issue unresolved. Di Marco wasn't satisfied with the products he'd seen in Gucci stores, which were packed with logo goods. Also, Giannini's collections, like her "Flora" print revival, had sold well commercially, but they had largely failed to make fashion critics swoon. "There was just one question mark," he says, "and that question mark was Frida."
Giannini, who had worked at Fendi before joining Gucci in 2002 and taking over its creative direction in 2006, heard rumors that she could be out of a job. But, she says, "Patrizio was the fourth CEO I'd had at the company, and I was still there, so I thought, I can survive." Instead, she worried that he would put the brand's sexiness on ice. "I was scared because I didn't want to go too much in the direction of Bottega Veneta. I thought, We can't lose this edgy sexiness."
Like two lions sizing each other up, they met for the first time on October 10, 2008, in Giannini's former office in Florence. Di Marco took the train down from Milan. Giannini was expecting someone short, based on photographs she'd seen online. Di Marco, who stands more than six feet tall, found himself maneuvered onto a low couch, while Giannini towered over him on her chair. "I thought it was on purpose," he says. He asked to move to a table.
"We were studying each other," Giannini says. Di Marco agrees, "smelling each other. A bit of marking the territory. We had to come to a conclusion."
Giannini produced a thick document detailing her collections and what she had done at the brand and her reasons. It wasn't an approach that he expected from the creative side of the business. "I call her the most German Roman I have ever met," di Marco says.
For eight hours, Giannini and di Marco talked and smoked, without eating, discussing logos, luxury goods and brand image. "The office was in a cloud," says Giannini, who took their mutual smoking as a good sign. Di Marco says he realized that much of what Giannini was designing wasn't making it into stores because the brand was pushing its logo products and not manufacturing her collections. "She did very nice products, but they were just in the showroom, not in the stores." By the end of the meeting, there were no sparks flying, they say. But, Giannini notes with a grin, "When he left the room, I thought, He's quite handsome."
On his return to Milan that evening, di Marco stopped in Modena to visit his mother. Pinault contacted him there, saying Giannini had emailed him to say the meeting went well. At the memory, he smiles.
Things heated up nine months later in Shanghai. Di Marco found himself phoning Pinault—who he often calls his "shareholder"—to ask for a meeting in Paris. Pinault chuckles when he recalls the conversation that took place between the three of them. After explaining their involvement, di Marco offered to quit his job. Pinault batted the suggestion aside. "My first answer, you know what? I've been working with my family for 30 years. What is the issue here?
"It's very demanding," Pinault adds. And if things go sour, he notes, "That's their own issue. I don't want to be involved in their private life."
ALL THE CHATTER about Giannini and di Marco's office romance may have clouded the news of a more tectonic shift at Gucci. Take a look at any of the brand's flagship stores these days and you will witness the reincarnation of the brand's bamboo-handled bags, an array of loafers in every color, plenty of wearable daywear, even a children's collection. You will not see a pile of fabric logo products. The famous GG logo bags, so easily counterfeited, have taken a backseat to luxurious leather goods with more subtle logos—black-on-black embossed leather, for instance.
The once-flashy brand has executed a U-turn as it aims for wealthier consumers, with a focus on sensuality and its Italian heritage. This strategy has paid off, with a 17.7 percent rise in profits before interest and taxes, to $1.26 billion in 2012. Today, 72 percent of Gucci's revenues are of leather goods and shoes, says di Marco, while a few years ago 85 percent was of fabric products. The tricky part has been maintaining Gucci's sexy image throughout.
"What has been done by Patrizio and Frida was to rebalance Gucci," says Pinault. It's only a beginning, he concedes, but notes, "Gucci is already becoming perceived as being more luxurious than it was."
This repositioning is essential to Pinault's plans for Kering. Before he took control of the company from his father, François Pinault, the brands of Kering (then called PPR) were left to operate autonomously, with little reliance on one another. "We were in a format that was called a conglomerate," says the younger Pinault. Now, he says, "More and more we are developing brand synergies at the Kering level."
Those synergies coalesce around Gucci, which Pinault calls "the spine" of Kering. More than its biggest luxury brand, Gucci serves as Kering's innovation incubator. Its leather goods factory in Florence has also been used as a laboratory for production processes for other Kering brands including Alexander McQueen. Its apparel factory in Novara creates samples and prototypes for Kering ready-to-wear lines like Stella McCartney, enabling the giant to leverage the skills of its top artisans across its luxury universe. Di Marco is one of Pinault's key players, with influence that extends beyond Gucci. He now sits on Kering's executive committee, where he may weigh in on issues impacting the company's 15 luxury brands and five sport/lifestyle brands, from Brioni to Puma.
At Gucci, di Marco has backed Giannini in taking a deep dive into the label's own Florence-based archive. Di Marco recently engineered the purchase of a financially distressed Italian porcelain maker, Richard Ginori 1735, preserving both its name and its fine artisanal methods to produce products for Gucci as well as for Ginori.
Gucci is simultaneously moving away from the vampy edge that made the company's name in the go-go '90s, when then-designer Tom Ford riveted attention on Gucci with stunt advertisements (shaving a "G" in model Louise Pedersen's nether parts) and sending a male model down the runway in a logo G-string. Pinault and di Marco pay Ford homage for building, in Pinault's words, Gucci's "fashion authority."
"Gucci as a company exists because of what Tom Ford and Domenico [De Sole, then-CEO] did," says di Marco. These days, the label is downplaying overt sexuality. Buttery silk dresses and stiletto heels suggest but don't shock. A brand film shot by Bruce Weber focuses on a pretty model kissing a foal and long shots of meadows.
It's a tricky transition. Focus groups conducted by Gucci have shown that young people have little memory of pre-Ford Gucci with its demure horse-bit loafers and Jackie bags, says di Marco. They know the brand only for its flash and GG logo and may have a harder time connecting to the new-old Gucci. Removing the high-selling cloth logo bags from stores means leaving eager customers literally empty-handed. Pinault says he is braced for revenue to take a hit in the near term—particularly after such strong growth in 2012—but that the strategy should pay off over time. "This is deliberate," he says. For now, Giannini's ability to create desirable bags and luxe accessories while infusing wearable clothing with decadence—a net top made of laser-cut leather appeared in her spring 2014 collection—has held the attention of the fashion world.
Gucci also recently emerged from a production overhaul, undertaken in 2004 to certify that its supply chain meets the "SA8000" standards of the independent inspection group Bureau Veritas. The effort promotes work practices that, among other things, meet the conventions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Though it's expected to raise Gucci's public image, the move was costly. It took three years and caused Gucci to sever ties with a number of its longtime suppliers in Italy. "You can have your own Bangladesh in Italy: Workers working over weekends; cots in factories. We had to make a lot of changes," says di Marco. "We respect every law. That's a big statement I'm making."
Giannini has also stepped beyond the confines of her design studio, pursuing a scale of philanthropic activity that is unusual for designers. Gucci has become one of the biggest corporate donors to Unicef's Schools for Africa program (cofounded by the Nelson Mandela Foundation), paying nearly $15 million to build schools and cover pupils' fees. It has paid another $3 million for HIV/AIDS relief and disaster response initiatives, according to Unicef. Caryl Stern, president and chief executive of the U.S. Fund for Unicef, says Giannini has been so hands-on that the two have become friends, noting that she doesn't believe their philanthropy is just part of a marketing strategy. "Nowhere do you see 'brought to you by Gucci,' " she says. "What you see is schools and no school fees."
Giannini herself conceived of Chime for Change, a global campaign for girls' and women's empowerment that launched last February and was celebrated with a June concert at London's Twickenham Stadium. The concert was headlined by Beyoncé, Florence Welch, Jennifer Lopez and Mary J. Blige. Violence against women is a particular concern in Italy, where the disturbing trend of women assaulted by husbands and boyfriends has been making headlines. "In the south of Italy, it's like the Middle Ages," says Giannini, who grew up in a Roman household that her parents agree was a matriarchy.
GIANNINI ADMITS THAT when she first came up with the idea behind Chime—as "a new Live Aid, but for women"—in the spring of 2012, the timing was terrible. "Chime for Change was the worst timing for myself," she says. "I started talking about it, and then I learned I was pregnant."
Like their relationship, Giannini and di Marco kept her pregnancy secret until she was so obviously with child that a colleague confronted her at work. This moment was inadvertently captured by a documentary film crew—Giannini forgot she was wearing a microphone—and can be witnessed in The Director: An Evolution in Three Acts, which follows Giannini through two fashion seasons as she designs and shows her collections. The film was produced by James Franco, the actor, who is also a paid model for Gucci.
Franco says the intimacy was a hard-earned moment in the film, which took 18 months rather than the three months he'd anticipated. "In fashion, they're used to controlling their image," Franco says. "They're used to overanalyzing everything they put out. Getting used to the camera is a hurdle for everyone. It just took them longer than most."
The actress Salma Hayek Pinault, whose daughter Valentina Pinault is 6, shared mothering tips with Giannini before she was prepared for some of the grittier aspects of child rearing. "She was giving me a lot of advice about breastfeeding, and I was looking at her like she was a space alien," says Giannini. "Because before you have experienced it, you don't know.
"Salma said, 'You know, if the baby has an ear infection, the milk is the best thing for healing—in the ear.' I was like—what?!"
"Ha," says Hayek Pinault, who is married to Franciois-Henri Pinault. "She was a mother before she had a child." Giannini's large belly preceded her onto the runway the following February as she presented her fall 2013 collection. Greta arrived 10 days later.
In September, Giannini took another runway bow for her women's spring 2014 collection—donning skinny black leather pants just six months after giving birth. Yet she says motherhood has had an impact in invisible ways. "I feel myself more balanced as a person," Giannini says. "I am more calm. She changed my interior balance."
In addition to a nanny, Giannini's mother, Sandra Vellani, an art history teacher, takes care of Greta, and Giannini jokes that her mother looks forward to her departures ("When are you leaving?") so that she can have the baby to herself. During the trip to L.A. in November, with Greta back in Rome, Giannini decided to go shopping. She stopped by Poppy Store, a trendy children's shop in the Brentwood Country Mart. "Two hours free," she says. "And what did I do? I went shopping for Greta. Nothing for me. That's the first time."
With the constant travel demands of the job, Giannini and di Marco spend only eight or ten days together each month and find themselves calling each other's assistants to make appointments to meet. They try not to have difficult conversations on the phone, which might end with someone unhappy and alone in a hotel room. "Because when you have a phone call that's bad, it's really bad," he says.
One might say that disagreements are predictable for two strong-minded professionals whose first meeting became an eight-hour negotiation. Though they aren't married, the two concede it's difficult to live with one's work partner. They sometimes take sticky problems home, where discussions can turn into arguments. "She's like a river of words that goes on for three hours," says di Marco. He says he listens and waits for his turn. "And then I say, 'Okay, now…' And she says, 'No, no, I'm too tired.' "
Giannini nods. "Usually, when I've had enough, I leave the room," she says.
Di Marco wears a simple platinum ring on his pinky—a gift from Giannini. The executive's eyes moisten as he holds it out to reveal the inscription inside, which is a date. It isn't the anniversary of their tryst in Shanghai, nor the birth of their daughter. The ring is inscribed with the date of that meeting where she relegated him to the short couch: 10/10/2008.
Corrections & Amplifications
Gucci's leather goods factory in Florence, Italy, shares production processes with some other Kering brands including Alexander McQueen. An earlier version of this article, and the correction attached to it, referred to it as a research laboratory, but didn't specify that its shared resources are restricted to the production process. The article incorrectly included Bottega Veneta in the list of brands that was developed there. In addition, company executives say they misspoke when they said Saint Laurent uses the facility: Saint Laurent has operated independently since January 2012.
TYING THE KNOT: Former Gucci creative director Frida Giannini and president and chief executive officer Patrizio di Marco are starting a new chapter. The designer and di Marco, who are partners in life and share a daughter, are planning to tie the knot on June 5, according to sources.
The date could afford double celebrations as it is also the executive’s birthday. Details are being kept under wraps, but sources speculate the wedding could be taking place in Sabaudia, a beach resort about 60 miles from Rome, and a go-to vacation spot for Giannini.
The designer and di Marco have been keeping a low profile since their abrupt departures from the Italian luxury group earlier this year, but are said to have reached an agreement with Gucci that settles all contractual issues. The development puts to rest speculation that Giannini was considering seeking damages following her sudden exit from the group. Gucci declined to comment.