It’s crunch time in Los Angles as everyone is gearing up for showtime the biggest event called The Oscars. What’s taking place at the Beverly Hills Hotel? The Gucci power couple are at work, and Skype seems to be freezing up. Not only do Patrizio di Marco and Frida Giannini have to look after all the high-powered stars they also have to keep tabs on 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.
Who needs the right shoes, that clutch, and you know what Leonardo DiCaprio will be wearing as will most of the Wolf of Wall Street nominees, Gucci. So in true Italian fashion you have the team that have become lovers, parents and managing what their shareholder calls the spine of his fashion luxury group.
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.
This caused Di Marco phoning François-Henri Pinault—chief executive of Kering, the luxury giant and parent company of both Gucci. 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.”
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 research laboratory for other Kering brands including Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta. 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.
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.
I was introduced to Frieda by Pinault when Gucci had a London office. What I liked about her then was her interest in a shirt I was wearing, that had an open bow tie print on a tuxedo shirt. It was this keen interest that lets you know the person is all about creative ideas “I want to own Venice” and she meant it the city, and the Film Festival the foundation to were Gucci is going where laid and it will be rocking the Red Carpet the parties.