Faceless Fashion; Top Couture Labels Were Once Defined by Their Big-Name Designers. Now Anyone Can Do the Job

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Byline: Dana Thomas

Quick: name the designer for Yves Saint Laurent. How about Gucci? Celine? Givenchy? Chloe? Seven or eight years ago, the answers were easy: Tom Ford, Tom Ford, Michael Kors, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, respectively. All were fashion stars who had become household names, and their stardom drew the spotlight onto their brands, increasing sales exponentially. Some of those brands grew to the point of doing more than $1 billion a year in sales. In return, the stars commanded multimillion-dollar deals, commuted on the Concorde, were ushered about town in limos and

showed up on red carpets almost as often as the celebrities they dressed. They worked large, and they lived large. They weren't just the creators of luxury fashion; they were its emblems.

But now celebrity fashion designers have gone the way of the power suit: they're so last century. Luxury brands no longer swipe stars from their competitors, as Christian Dior did in 2000 with Yves Saint Laurent's famed menswear designer Hedi Slimane. Instead, they tap young designers who have risen through the ranks of the big brands as assistants and who do their jobs quietly, well--and anonymously. "We don't have to bring in star designers because actually the stars today are the brands," says Robert Polet, who joined Gucci Group as CEO and president in 2004, after 25 years at Unilever. "This is a mind-set change we implemented. The brand is the hero, the king in all we do, and we all work for the brand."

Gucci's creative director Frida Giannini is a case in point. The 34-year-old Roman attended the city's Fashion Academy, where she won several competitions. Shortly after her graduation, she joined the Rome-based luxury brand Fendi as an assistant in the accessories department. During Giannini's tenure there, Fendi's sales exploded, thanks primarily to the wildly successful baguette bag. ("I cannot claim its maternity!" she told American Vogue, though she certainly had a hand in raising it.) After six years, Giannini moved to London to join Tom Ford's team at Gucci as handbag design director. When Ford left, Gucci promoted three in-house designers: Ford's ready-to-wear assistant Alessandra Facchinetti to do womenswear, Ford's menswear assistant John Ray to oversee that domain and Giannini to head the accessories department. After two disastrous collections, Facchinetti left. John Ray followed in January 2006, and Gucci executives asked Giannini to take over the whole shebang.

In her three seasons as Gucci's creative director, Giannini's collections of retro-glam clothes and handbags have been lauded in the press--International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes called the accessories for Fall-Winter 2007-2008 "exceptional"--and the products have sold splendidly. Giannini's Flora accessories line--built around a colorful floral print based on a 1960s Gucci scarf designed for Princess Grace that Giannini found in the archives--has been a huge success. "Since Frida took over the brand, it has had the two best years in the history of the company," Polet said. In 2006, Gucci rang up a staggering [euro]2.1 billion in sales.

Some designers--Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Stella McCartney and John Galliano, to name a few--ambitiously started their own ready-to-wear companies right out of school before going on to work for the big labels. But Giannini says, "I never thought of having my own brand. I like working for big companies. I like all the projects that you can do and seeing my designs on people around the world." She also doesn't mind designing for a brand with a strong heritage and image, instead of exploring her own inner voice. "I like history in general--at home, in art, in life--and I have under my nose the opportunity to explore this archive. Why not?" Above all, Giannini professes to like her anonymity. "I don't want to be a star," she says. "I'm very happy to be behind the scenes, doing my job in a calm and serene way. …