Frida Gets Gucci

updated 12/05/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/05/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

Call it the Giannini Manifesto. "My generation doesn't need a very, very short hemline to prove they are sexy," says Frida Giannini, Gucci's new creative director for women's wear. Meeting a reporter for tea, she illustrates the point. Dressed in her own designs—white pants, a barely buttoned blouse and a leather bomber jacket that Madonna loved so much she bought it in five different colors—Giannini exudes the confidence required to, as she has, step into a superstar designer's shoes. But unlike predecessor Tom Ford's forthrightly sexual notion of Gucci customer (who loved his skintight dresses with cutouts and strategic hardware), Giannini says, "My woman likes to party but also likes to work. She's more balanced. She has a real life, with family and maybe children."

Balance? Reality? Children? This isn't the stuff of Ford's sleek, chic and wildly profitable fantasy. After his 10-year reign as creative director ended in 2004, the pressure to re-create his success at the $2 billion brand "was incredible—and still is," says Giannini, whose appointment in March made her the second designer to attempt it. (The first, Alessandra Facchinetti, left after two rocky seasons.) Still, Giannini isn't trying to be a new model Ford. In addition to body-conscious trousers, she has offered up ladylike dresses that recall the '40s, prompting influential style critic Suzy Menkes to call Giannini's September debut in Milan "powerful and accomplished."

Having won over the fashion industry, the 33-year-old Roman—who previously raised sales by 30 percent at Gucci's accessories division—has now set out to seduce Hollywood. On Nov. 16 Giannini had what amounted to a coming-out party at the Bel Air, Calif., home of restaurateur Michael Chow, also hosted by Tom Hanks, his wife, Rita Wilson, and Kate Capshaw and husband Steven Spielberg. Many of the 150 guests who received the event's engraved golden invitation turned up in a Giannini-designed outfit. "I'm not a gown-y girl, but I'm loving it," Eva Mendes said of her dress. "It's just elegant."

Even though her own frock for the evening was briefly lost in transit from Italy ("A nightmare,'' Giannini growls in fluent, accented English), she never betrayed any jitters. Nor did she twitch before presenting her debut collection in June. "I am very optimistic," she says. It helps that Ford (who recently created a makeup and fragrance line for Estée Lauder) had faith in her; he hired Giannini in 2002, and, she says, "taught me how to edit a collection."

The daughter of an interior designer father and art history professor mother, Giannini grew up going to Rome's cultural monuments ("Rome has been so important to me for its visual richness," she says) and helping out at her grandmother's boutique, "arranging mannequins' hair and draping them with furs," she recalls.

After fashion school, Giannini designed furs, then jeans, before landing at Fendi in 1995. But Gucci went to her roots. Last year her Flora bag paid homage to the print on a 1964 Gucci scarf created for Grace Kelly—and to her mother and grandmother, who both wore Flora scarves. Says Gucci president Mark Lee: "Frida understands the inherent strength of Gucci's heritage and is poised to write the next chapter of the brand's history."

As if this year hadn't been life-changing enough, in July she married Web designer Giovanni Battista Guidi, 35, wearing an unfussy embroidered gown she made. As yet, there are no plans for maternity wear. "I have no instinct for children right now," Giannini says. Her Gucci girl may be more realistic than her old boss's, but don't look for her at PTA meetings just yet.

Allison Adato. Alison Singh Gee and Jenny Sundel in Los Angeles

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