Saturday 2nd January

| BY Hannah Marriott

A World Apart: Hannah Marriott Reflects on the Giorgio Armani Pre-Fall 2020 Show

It is almost midnight on November 14, 2019, in Milan, and the Armani/Privé nightclub is buzzing. The Italian singer Giorgia takes to the stage in a crystal-encrusted dress; sharp-suited Armani clients and employees storm the dancefloor. “She’s our Celine Dion,” says Anoushka Borghesi, Giorgio Armani’s right-hand woman, as she sweeps past me to join the throng.

Giorgia starts to sing, the audience claps, dances and caterwauls along; Roberta Armani, wearing a satin-lapelled tuxedo suit, gets on stage and hugs her. Suzy Menkes, just visible through the joyful tangle of limbs, is nodding along; she sits at a banquet table, an ice bucket full of vodka and champagne its centrepiece.

I must have been awake for 18 hours at this point. The exuberance, and the champagne are keeping me going. It began with a 5am door knock at home, a car to London City Airport and a 9am flight to Milan Linate, where the first thing I saw, upon disembarking the plane, was an airport hangar bearing the Armani logo.

The subliminal message, there, is that Giorgio Armani is kind of a big deal in Milan. So that’s where he chose to stage his first pre-fall show: deep within the bowels of his greige empire. On Via Borgonuovo, in the design district, even the pavements are posh, having been re-landscaped to better show off his gallery, offices, restaurants, shops, show space, hotel and personal apartment.

My first stop is the Armani Hotel. The lift doors shimmer open, greigely, and for the next day and a half I see very little that does not sit tastefully on the beige-grey spectrum. The carpets are sandstone; the walls are biscotti; putty-coloured armchairs fringe oyster-hued tables where white orchids are neatly arranged in black lacquered vases. It smells exquisite – a woody, incense-like scent. One of a trio of sharp-suited receptionists advises me that this is the Armani/Privé fragrance Bois d’Encens, inspired by the boss’s childhood memories of attending church with his grandmother.

She then shows me to my room, where a circular atrium leads to a space so meticulous that I am immediately compelled to hide my battered suitcase in a cupboard. In the dove grey marble bathroom I discover one of the most ergonomically pleasing things I have ever encountered: an exquisite, palm-sized soap the shape of a pebble.

Time for lunch. I meet Jane McFarland, fashion director of The Sunday Times, and Armani PR Mikey Evans at the bustling Emporio Armani cafe nearby. We share a plate of burrata with chicory and black truffle; I have a bowl of spaghetti al pomodoro del vulcano. The pair are decompressing after a rare and intensely speedy photoshoot with Mr Armani in his apartment. Jane tells me how amazed she is at the size of the maestro’s flatscreen television. She and I debate what to wear at the show that evening, knowing that Armani does not like anything that could be considered “trendy”. (In his regulation Armani suit, Mikey is exempt from this particular wardrobe dilemma).

The official itinerary begins with a preview of Giorgio Armani’s first high jewellery collection, in a high-ceilinged suite at the Armani Hotel, complete with internal spiral staircase. Buyers and TV journalists mill around, ooh-ing and ah-ing over pavé diamonds and semiprecious stones. Earrings and necklaces are fashioned from a new yellow- and rose-gold alloy, developed for the occasion.

I slink off to get changed in my hotel room and feel I am beginning to get used to this life, where everything is orderly and precise, when I step into the lift and realise I cannot get it to move, no matter how many times I press the light-up, touch-sensitive panels (clearly, protruding buttons would ruin the design purity). Luckily, in the Armani world, staff in sleek tailoring continually materialise to elegantly diffuse situations such as this, so I am soon on my way to my bedroom.

It is aperitivo hour. The full UK-press pre-fall crew congregates, for the first time, in the hotel reception. Jane has opted for a black trouser suit and a black and glitter handbag from Bienen Davis – we decide that Mr Armani would approve. I’m in a simple black dress and a checked blazer. Lexi Manatakis, Nowness’s social media editor, wears a very Neneh Cherry black bustier with layers of thick gold chains. Elle’s Sara McAlpine is all in black, too. “I’m feeling a bit Richard Gere-y in my room. And I’m enjoying the pebble soap – such a nice touch,” she says, which makes me feel a bit better about having popped mine into my suitcase.

We walk the short distance to Armani/Silos, the stark, 1950s, concrete, hangar-like exhibition space, where rows of unfeasibly handsome waiters proffer cocktails, champagne and trays of meticulously arranged Armani-branded chocolate cubes. As if jewellery and pre-fall were not enough, Armani is also opening an exhibition of more than 800 accessories today, titled Accents of Style, where brightly coloured, glitter- encrusted bags and shoes glisten like jewels against the grey walls. All are displayed without dates to remind visitors of the timeless nature of Mr Armani’s design ethos. I take it all in while sipping on my negroni.

We cross the road to the Armani/Teatro, where the pre-fall show will take place. Light bulbs pop as Eva Herzegovina arrives in a sharp-shouldered jacket covered in gunmetal bugle beads. The inner courtyard of the Tadao Ando-designed space is all concrete pillars and still pools of water. The show space inside is darkened, the catwalk lacquered black, lit by a large neon reproduction of Mr Armani’s signature. I am confident that I will have a great view: Ando has talked about Mr Armani checking the sightline from each of the 558 seats; he does not sound like a hands-off client.

Pre-fall is the most Armani-ish Giorgio Armani collection I’ve seen for a while. There are cream double-breasted jackets and smart oatmeal trouser suits. There are red satin skirts paired with neat black jackets. But for the most part the palette is petrol on water, shimmering and darkly glamorous. The louche mood is intensified by the occasional beefcake-y male model walking down the catwalk with one hand in his lounge suit pocket. Afterwards I couldn’t help thinking that my life would be vastly improved by a pair of perfectly cut midnight blue velvet cocktail trousers.

It is from this point onwards that the cult of Giorgio Armani, the man, becomes apparent as the designer takes his bow – pristinely dressed in a navy blue double-breasted suit with white trainers – and is politely and extensively mobbed by well-heeled well-wishers. The toast of Milanese society is here, including the mayor, Giuseppe Sala. There is a polished, elegant vibe – the Armani superfan look tends towards a palette much like Armani’s own: copper-toned skin against white hair, swathed in navy blue velvet or tailoring.

After half an hour of handshakes and air kisses we head to dinner in an adjacent room, where round tables are set with white tablecloths and draped with yet more white orchids. Necks crane to see who Mr Armani is sitting with and whether he is eating. For the record, despite rumours that he does not dine in public, I see him nibble on some crispbread. His table mates are his niece Silvana Armani, head of design for womenswear, and Pantaleo Dell’Orco, known as Leo, his right-hand man in menswear.

Our table gets distracted from Armani-watch by the same crispbreads, which Jane declares “the tastiest carbohydrate spread ever”. Then a four-course dinner is served: shrimp cocktail followed by pumpkin ravioli and seared croaker fish. Dessert is quite something – a semi-sphere of glossy chocolate with an Armani logo embedded in it. Sara takes a picture of it and sends it to her mother.

Mr Armani stands to leave but is besieged again, and ends up shaking everyone’s hand, slowly working his way around all of the tables while his security detail waits. When he shakes mine, it feels like a papal blessing. After he leaves we drink up and head to his nightclub. It’s there that things get pleasingly rowdy.

The next morning I eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant, its meticulous, Japanese-influenced design contrasting with the equally beautiful view of Milanese rooftops: the creamy stone buildings, higgledy-piggledy russet roof tiles, chimneys billowing smoke, washing lines and satellite dishes. It’s a messy, chaotic beautiful world out there, and a meticulous, calm and equally gorgeous world inside here, too, where, for a day and a half, I lived the Armani life, smelling what Armani wanted me to smell, sleeping under sheets whose thread count he has specified, eating dishes signed off by the man himself, reassured and protected by his taste and attention to detail.

And then, in February 2020, I was back in Milan for the womenswear shows, and everything changed. Giorgio Armani’s AW20 collection was shown to an empty room; 11 nearby towns were in lockdown as fears about coronavirus mounted. By March 10 the whole of Italy was under house arrest. Mr Armani, the king of Milan, has donated €2 million to the fight against the virus; by the end of March his factories were producing medical overalls. Those 28 hours spent gliding from chic restaurant to stylish hotel, hand-shaking, air-kissing, surrounded by happy people and beautiful things, felt like a dream, even at the time. But now that I see how precarious it was, it feels like even more of a fantasy.

Photography by Jermaine Francis. Taken from Issue 65 of 10 Magazine – FAMILY, FOREVER, LOVE – available to purchase here.