by Karen Alberg Grossman
Gil Szczesny

Some people seem to float through life spreading their joie de vivre to those around them. Gil Szczesny is clearly one of these enchanting souls. Her energy, determination and inner light are ever apparent in both her smile and the sparkle in her eyes. Whatever she’s doing, she radiates joy. (Just don’t even think about crossing her.)

As an emissary of the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) for the past quarter-century, Szczesny is one of the savviest, most charismatic fashion ambassadors around. In addition to her unique personal style, she understands branding, marketing and retailing better than most, and her generous spirit means she’s always willing to share her expertise and ideas. She’s brought countless Italian brands to America over the years, helping them fine-tune their product to grow their business in the States; she’s also helped scores of American retailers cultivate a made-in-Italy business in their stores.

Yet she takes little credit for any of this. “It’s not me, it’s the people I work with,” she says of Maurizio Forte, trade commissioner, and her colleagues Alessandro Greco and Stefania Milella of the Italian Trade Agency. (And beyond doubt, the support the Italian government gives to Italian manufacturers to promote and distribute their products abroad is truly remarkable.) But no one has the innate ability to connect with people—all types of people—like Szczesny. Both opinionated and diplomatic, she is also a star negotiator.

Szczesny grew up in Italy near Verona, a strong-willed child with a mischievous streak. Sent to a Catholic boarding school (where she became an atheist), she dreamed of becoming a flight attendant so she studied in London and Paris. Perfectly fluent in English, French and her native Italian, she went to Milan for the interview. While the airlines loved her spirit, language skills, and intrinsic charm, a few centimeters in height precluded her getting the job.

She then married an American military man who was stationed in Vicenza and moved with him to the U.S. in 1970. She took a job at Gimbels Herald Square as temporary Christmas help; they asked her to stay so she went through their executive training program, learning retailing and fashion from the ground up. From there, she did showroom sales for a French jewelry designer, had a daughter (her beloved Chiara), worked for a French raincoat company and, in 1994, took an Italian Trade Commission job that was advertised in WWD.

“My job is to help Italian companies come into the States, to give them ideas to promote Italian fashion, to help them with pricing, marketing, in-store events, whatever’s needed,” she explains. “And to support the U.S. trade shows. I love all of it, and the companies I work with seem to appreciate my efforts, mostly because I’m honest: I tell it like it is, even if they don’t want to hear it. I believe most people need guidance; nobody knows it all. So, I give them advice on how to reach their goals.”

Asked how she’d describe herself to someone who doesn’t know her, Szczesny doesn’t hesitate. “I’m honest—I don’t lie. I’m intuitive and I read people well (it’s a Scorpio trait). And I’m a hugger and like to express my feelings for people I care about,” she says. “I also love speed: I have friends who hold onto their seats when they ride with me because I drive really fast. I guess you’d say I’m a risk taker and a bit of a rebel. I choose to live on the edge but not go over it. I truly like who I am but if I could change one thing, I’d learn to be a little less giving, that it’s sometimes OK to receive something back.”

On the topic of style, she describes her own (the bold eyewear, the platinum hair, the fabulous clothes, and accessories) as unique and eclectic. “I like to be different: I don’t follow rules; whatever the fashion, I go a different way. Maybe this reflects my insecurities, I don’t know. Believe it or not, I’m actually quite shy.”

On Italian style, Szczesny claims she can always distinguish Italians strolling the streets of Manhattan. “I pick them out immediately, even if they’re wearing jeans. It’s the sweater tied around the shoulders, the hands clasped behind the back, a certain way of walking; it’s hard to explain. But Italian style is recognizable and difficult to learn. You have to be born with it. You either have it or you don’t.”

Asked about mentors, Szczesny mentions Jack Mitchell (“because he wrote the book that describes how I live”) and Lizette Chin, president of men’s at UBM. “She’s an incredible woman, my role model since I started working with her on the trade shows in 2008. She’s a thoughtful leader, with an innate ability to express her ideas. I’ve learned so much from her, most importantly how to be gentle and tough at the same time. She continues to inspire me.”

Claiming no regrets in life, Szczesny views all of her choices (even those that haven’t worked out so perfectly) as learning experiences. “I don’t like negative people; I stay away from them. I believe life should be fun so it’s always been my mission to make it so.”

Her fun in life these days, in addition to friends, food, wine, work, and travel, is centered around her life partner Bernie, her beautiful daughter Chiara, her son-in-law Seth and her two energetic grandsons—Owen (age 5) and Dylan (2). (No surprise to his grandma, Owen wants to grow up to be a Formula One driver!)

“So proud of my mom for getting the recognition she deserves for her hard work, dedication, and commitment to Italian fashion, all the while staying humble and always a bit edgy,” Chiara wrote on her Facebook page. “I can only hope to one day be as much of an influencer as she is to so many, not just in fashion, but by simply being an amazing human being.”


  1. Brava Karen! You have finally chosen to highlight one of the most consistent “sottovoce” voice in the Italian export fashion world. Gil has been “forever” at the Italian Trade Commission Office (or ITA now) in New York. She has seen Commissioners come and go, but she has been the rock for everyone who has needed help or guidance. I am now retired, but I have worked as an Italian companies executive in New York for over 30 years and whenever I needed any Italian contact, Gil was always there. Brava Gil!

  2. Congratulations Gil! This is well deserved! You are always a breath of fresh air and inspiration! We love you! Kelli, Amy & Stevi

  3. Gil is a total class act! I met her three decades ago and always enjoyed our conversations,
    her fashion insight and infectious personality. Congrats Gil…well deserved recognition!

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