Meet Joanna Ranucci (Wiseberg) Our Founder

Gianna Ranucci Joanna Wiseberg red scarf equestrian founder

The small village of Campotosto, with its own legend of the appearance of the Madonna, holds a treasured place in the heart of the Italian-Canadian fashion designer Gianna Ranucci (Joanna Wiseberg). The village lies in the Abruzzo region of central Italy, in the Apennine Mountains at an elevation of 1400 metres. ( The area is known for its fair skinned and blue-eyed inhabitants, and for its skilled artisans such as wood workers, cabinet makers, shoe and boot makers. The area has, very unfortunately, suffered significant damage from earthquakes. 

When her father, as a small boy, would attend the Santuario di Santa Maria Apparente in the village of Campotosto, he must often have been reminded of the legend of how the building had come to be. The legend had it that a young girl by the name of Rosa Angelica Palombi, who was mute from birth, went to the river to wash clothes. There, on the second day of July 1604, she saw the appearance of the Madonna. The Madonna directed the girl to go back to the village and ask her uncle, the village priest, to build a church for her in the place which the Madonna outlined with snow. Rosa obediently went to her uncle, and then was favoured with a miracle. Rosa spoke for the first time in her life, relating all that the Madonna had asked of her. ( Gianna remembers the story. 

There are, however, cherished remembrances here of her visits to this place where freshly fallen snow greets you in winter and the breeze of mountain air in summer refreshes you. 

“I love going back to Italy because my family is there”, Gianna says, “and I love to watch how the Italians put it all together. Their trade shows are inspiring and enlightening. The Italians are very advanced in their eye for colour and designs ... Italy is recognized for its beauty and sophistication for design and colour.”

In these words, we discern how fashion and family and Italy are all inextricably interwoven in Gianna’s mind and heart. Almost in the same breath, Gianna speaks of her family in Italy on the one hand, and the Italian sense of style and fashion, on the other. In one perspective, then, family and fashion are the two foundations of Gianna’s Italian identity. 

When Gianna’s father, Pasquale, left Campotosto’s mountains in 1952 at the age of 17 with his mother, Amabilia Zilli, the stage was set for Gianna to negotiate her Italian heritage from afar. Gianna’s father and grandmother arrived first at the Halifax harbour and then at Union Station in Toronto by rail with a couple of suitcases and a steamship trunk. Gianna was born subsequently in Toronto.  

Gianna recalls that when her father and grandmother first arrived in Canada, they were immediately taken back by what they considered to be a lack of grooming and fashion. The fashion sense that they brought from a small Italian village seemed decidedly at odds with what they found both at Halifax and Toronto. Gianna tells us that her father and grandmother thought Canadians “had no fashion sense whatsoever”. 

My Father and my Mother always dressed and looked like [a] million bucks... expensive shoes, shirts, suits...he only wanted the best and finest including his food and vacation choices. For both of my parents, image and a polished look was very important. You had to look good and be well groomed. My parents bought the best of everything because they could afford it.

It is perhaps in her exquisite sense of beauty, quality and fashion that Gianna comes closest to her Italian heritage. Her sense of fashion, texture, colours and materials demands that quality and taste remain privileged regardless of what else must be sacrificed. Perhaps it is in this meeting of cloth or leather and Gianna’s sense of style that we come closest to understanding what her Italian-Canadian fashion career and life means:

When I look at a textile, I instantly know what I would make from that fabric. I don’t think of a design first then think about the material, it’s the other way around. When I touch a piece of leather, velvet, silk, the fabric “speaks" to me. It tells me what it wants to become. 

There is a soulful craftsmanship evident here. The fabric’s “speaking” and Gianna’s “listening” both intimate of Gianna’s Italian heritage at work in her career as an Italian-Canadian fashion designer. Gianna as a designer, craftsperson and boot maker is a true daughter of the Abruzzo region:

Draping fabric on a mannequin which is called a "judi” in the fashion business, the design comes alive much faster because I’m not working with paper, I’m manipulating the fabric on a body in the design I want. I can adjust and change the fabric as I drape. 

It was her pressing desire to find quality and beauty in fashion clothing and accessories that drew Joanna to Ryerson University in Toronto, from where she graduated in 1978 from its Design Program. Here she journeyed to understand and master the essence of quality craftsmanship. But her journey to find and define quality and beauty also quickly and unequivocally drew her into the association of Italian dressmakers, couturiers and tailors, from whom she learned to recognize and practice Italian quality and craftsmanship. 

Joanna’s dedication to learning about quality and beauty soon found expression within her own entrepreneurship. She began a business, Ranucci Designs, therein creating her own label and taking great pleasure in designing her own line of women’s apparel in the Kingsway district of Toronto, a district itself known for an insistence on quality. Joanna’s first major foray into manufacturing came with her position as a manufacturing representative for Opera Belt Company, then located at 193 Spadina Avenue, in the heart of Toronto’s clothing manufacturing district. There she designed a belt from scratch and received an order for 3,000 of them. Joanna was “hands on with the production manager” to “ensure my orders were manufactured to the client’s branding specs and delivery dates were executed on time.” “The rest is history,” she muses, “I made sure the plant was full of work”. 

Joanna’s fascination in particular with women’s handbags began in 2008. When Joanna began horse-back riding, she was hard pressed to find the perfect boot bag for herself personally, she decided to design one: 

The signature piece is still and will always be the red cherry leather boot bag which is how [Red Scarf Equestrian] was started along with some frustration and passion. I could not find a boot bag of decent quality and a size to suit my height. I called upon one of my colleagues in the leather industry and after many prototypes the boot bag was created. I was spellbound by my excitement and love for design and textiles and after the boot bag was completed more bags were designed and manufactured. Passion can be a problem! 

And, as you might expect, Joanna’s fascination with the boot bag continues. Her boot bags have even made their way to the Cannes Film Festival where Canadian actors have toted them. Their lines are elegant, uncluttered and travel well. They, in the end, represent much of what Joanna has come to believe in: Quality, Beauty and Function.  

Beyond the pillars of fashion and family, Gianna’s sense of herself as an Italian, she would tell you, is embedded in the feeling that she gets when she is in the company of other Italians. She understands their language, understands their family customs and immensely enjoys Italian food. Gianna understands the unspoken do’s and don’ts. “This is important to know because breaking those rules would not be recommended”. She is sensitive to what Italians strive for, to what makes them happy. And what makes them happy Gianna finds, makes her happy too: honesty, integrity, hard work and taking care of your family are paramount. “I live with this Italian.... value system every day. It’s part of my DNA.” 

The village of Campotosto nestled in the Apennines offered Gianna a place from which to move forward as, perhaps, a distant daughter, yet a daughter all the same. It is an unspoken point of departure, an undergirding of her world view. In spite of the earthquakes which have shaken Campotosto and its region, what it means to be Italian remains firm for her. Gianna’s understanding of what it means to be Italian was not tied to the physical integrity of her ancestral home, however much it meant to her. The notion of being Italian transcends the ruins. Her notion of her own Italian identity is vested in the love of family, the love of hard work, the beauty of quality and fashion, the beauty of faith.

The losses present a challenge to her Italian spirit to rebuild when setbacks are suffered. They compel Gianna to be strong, just as her Grandmother did before.  Her Nonna, as the family matriarch, taught her to “be strong and have faith. How to forget about distractions and move forward. My Grandmother would show a fist to illustrate how strong I had to be!” 

Would you like to own a Boot Bag like Joanna's?