Her head in her hands, brow furrowed, a bemused laugh on her lips, Frida Giannini tries to remember what she was talking about. She is just minutes into an exclusive interview with The National, sitting in her former office on the third floor of what is now the week-old Gucci Museo in Florence, only days after her Milan catwalk show and a few hours away from the spectacular launch event that is the culmination of two years of preparation. Tired must be an understatement.
A gentle prompt, and she's back on form. She is clearly a woman who, as the creative director of Gucci, wields with confidence and control the enormous power at her fingertips - this is, after all, one of the world's most famous fashion brands. Indeed its double-G logo carries such prestige in the UAE that there have even been suggestions that Gucci seat belts could be the only way to mitigate the apparent stigma of buckling up in a car. But Giannini says that the extraordinary opportunities of her life - an early job at Fendi, working with Tom Ford as the head of handbag design at Gucci and then, six years ago, succeeding him as the creative director - were never part of a grand plan.
"To me, everything happens like a big surprise in my life," she says - before immediately qualifying her statement with a serious caveat: "Of course, I put a lot of effort and sacrifice into achieving my role today."
You get the feeling that this is a life-loving, vibrant, creative woman who is all too aware of the weight of cultural (and financial) expectation. That evening's excited, smiling, gold-clad music fan introducing to her guests a private performance in the Palazzo di Vecchio by one of her favourite bands, Blondie, is hard to reconcile with this formidable, prolific designer and businesswoman dressed top-to-toe in black.
"[Taking over from Ford] of course was very scary for me because I was thinking, to my predecessors, what a huge responsibility I had from that moment on my shoulders every day," she admits.
Heading up a brand such as Gucci demands an extreme work ethic. It's not simply silhouettes and catwalk shows: at just 39, Giannini's reach now extends from womenswear, menswear, childrenswear and perfume through to charitable work with Unicef and a film foundation dedicated to restoring iconic works of film. Half of the €6 (Dh30) entrance fee to the Gucci museum will go towards restoring Florence's historically priceless buildings and artworks.
And for the Italians, Gucci is not just a fashion label: it's the poster brand for Italian luxury, heritage and craftsmanship around the world. "Being an Italian, I grew up with the culture of craftsmanship and this great company, and I have memories of my parents, my mum, my grandma, always having pieces of Gucci in the wardrobe," says Giannini.
It's also one of the beacons of hope for a country whose economy is, to put it mildly, damaged. Gucci's sales were up 23 per cent in the half-year results released in July, and that is the continuation of a trend for the PPR-owned company.
"It's not only Gucci, but all the brands that have a history like Gucci," she says. "I think it's quite rare, and that's why from the first crisis in 2008 people prefer to buy a very important piece that has the perception of the quality and craftsmanship; something that can stay in your wardrobe more than one season, more than the hit bag of the moment - though that we also have," she adds.
Balance is a skill that Giannini has learnt on the job. "I remember at the beginning of my job as creative director, I tended at that time to not delegate at all; I wanted to be in control of everything," she says. "And you can be in control of everything but at least you can give some space to the people who are working for you and trust them, and so I cannot literally see every single wallet, every single ballerina pump. I had to leave the space for communications, for events, for travelling around the world with initiatives."
It's hard to see where she finds time to relax, but she is adamant that it is possible. "I consider myself very lucky because I'm having fun while I'm working - I have fun every day. We are always laughing. Of course we take everything very seriously but always with some lightness. As for fun in private life, we're talking about just a few hours, but I tend to be surrounded by happy people, very optimistic. I prefer to live in a lighter way in my personal life."
Lightness is not an attribute of her most famous extra-curricular passion: collecting vinyl records. Her 8,000 records, built on a collection she inherited from her late uncle, a DJ, are so heavy they require a whole wall full of special cement-strengthened shelves.
"All the people that know me, for birthdays they think a good gift is always a vinyl record," she says, smiling. "Unfortunately, I'm continuously moving from one city to another one, and every time I have to rebuild this wall." Even this, though, doesn't escape the designer's eye. "In this vinyl collection, the most important things are about the 1970s and 1980s, which I think is one of the most exciting moments in music - and visually speaking you can find incredible covers; more than once it was for me an inspiration for a collection."
Indeed, while the equestrian snaffles or the glossy tan leathers or even Giannini's beloved Flora pattern are quintessentially Gucci, the constant speed of fashion's merry-go-round means that the search for inspiration will always go far beyond those newly displayed archives.
"I always think that Gucci has this double soul, so on one side you have very bourgeois, very chic, very understated, but it needs also to be a very glamorous brand, and that's why we have to do all the fashion shows, the new campaigns, the new initiatives," she points out.
The 90th anniversary has seen those initiatives go into overdrive, and while Giannini's early years were played out in the shadow of Ford's huge presence, by 2008 her designs were clicking into place with the brand's house aesthetic and her public image clicked, too. "That was when I understood this continuous balance between the past and the future vision for what could be Gucci in the next 10 years," she explains, though she allows herself no slacking: "To me, the moment has never arrived yet, because I'm still experimenting. Every collection to me is a starting point; it's a new moment in my career."