Power And Legacy: Alexander Fury Speaks To Giorgio Armani
A week before his 83rd birthday, Giorgio Armani is in Paris, in a hôtel particulier on the Avenue d’Iéna, completing fittings for his Armani Privé haute couture show. Two weeks prior, he had staged his Emporio Armani and Giorgio Armani menswear shows in Milan. He is the only designer in the world to showcase two menswear lines in the same fashion week, let alone simultaneously work on an haute couture collection.
That couture is normally fine-tuned in Armani’s offices in Paris for four or five days prior to its presentation, but this time the offices were occupied with sales for the Emporio Armani collection. So Armani rented the kind of 19th-century Parisian mansion that used to house haute couture clients, and which is now habitually used to stage haute couture shows (Raf Simons made his Dior debut here five years ago), as his fitting-room-cum-atelier-away- from-atelier, staffed with about 80 people transplanted from Milan for the occasion. It’s a sign of his power.
Power is what Armani is all about. It’s how he first forged his name and reputation in the 1970s, creating clothes for men and women that oozed confidence and sophistication. Armani invented a new method of tailoring, and in its relaxation, a new way of dressing, a fact that is often forgotten. From the 1980s onwards, through until today, a Giorgio Armani suit is a potent symbol of wealth and success – power dressing. That term was specifically coined to describe what Armani did to the female wardrobe, cutting a shoulder to square up against men in the office, easing the fit and softening the tailoring on menswear to subtly blur the lines between the sexes. While the rest of the 1980s exploded with colour, decoration and frivolity, Armani reshaped its silhouette. It’s a powerful legacy.
Armani is still powerful today. He isn’t reshaping the silhouette in the same manner – because you only see that in fashion once a lifetime, if you’re lucky, and because Armani’s work is still influencing the silhouette, cut and proportion of clothing today, 42 years after he founded his company. The power of Armani today comes from the might of the company, a company with a turnover in excess of £2.35 billion in 2015, the last available figure. It also comes from the power of Armani himself, the sole owner, who oversees every aspect of the empire, including exactly when, and if, to release those figures.
Armani has no shareholders to please, except himself. One of my favourite aspects of Armani is Armani/Fiori, the florist in the Via Manzoni Armani megastore that takes up a whole block of prime Milanese real estate. The bouquets created are typically Armani: stark, Japanese-influenced, minimal in the extreme, often abstract. It’s not just multiple lines of clothing, accessories and homewares – even nature bends to Armani’s aesthetic specifications. That’s powerful.
It wasn’t always this way. I mean, Armani was always powerful, but it wasn’t always so singular. The Giorgio Armani label was established in 1975, after Armani had spent a period working at La Rinascente department store in Milan and nine years designing menswear under Nino Cerruti. As Armani tells the story, during his interview, Cerruti tossed a selection of samples across a desk at the young designer and asked him to pick his favourites. “Luckily, I chose what he liked,” Armani recalls. But Armani, then 41, established his label alongside a partner, Sergio Galeotti – his partner in business and life. They sold their Volkswagen Beetle to finance Armani’s label. When Galeotti died in 1985, many speculated that Armani would be unable to continue both designing and shouldering financial responsibilities. But he restructured his company – much like the court of the Roi Soleil, it’s structured around him as star, creative centre and ultimate decision-maker – navigating Galeotti’s passing and lifting the company to further success.
When I ask Armani what he thinks his greatest contribution to fashion has been, he says: “To change it.” Then, he qualifies. “I hope that I changed fashion in the same way that the great legends of the past, Chanel and Saint Laurent, did. But also what was different, I think, in this case, is making it into an industry. At the time, Chanel and Saint Laurent were quite small. To be able to make that into a business, to create a model… that’s something I think I helped change.”
Armani, of course, doesn’t change everything himself. But he does have a tight-knit group of collaborators who understand how he likes things done. These include Tadao Ando, the architect who built the Armani/Teatro, the vast auditorium, a soaring ode to the unexpected decorative properties of concrete, where Armani presents his Milanese collections. And the chef Nobu Matsuhisa, whose stark, minimalist Japanese-fusion cuisine looks an awful lot like the culinary version of Armani clothes. It also slightly resembles the aforementioned Armani/Fiori. Armani isn’t an architect, neither is he a chef. But he relies on these individuals to create a vision under his banner, to create things how he would like them to be.
Privé is another mark of Armani’s power, an haute couture line established in 2004, when traditional and long-standing maisons were either closing or downsizing (many of Armani’s earliest staff, for instance, came from Versace’s couture operation). “Being a businessman and owning this, it makes me obviously have a different eye to other designers. Because I have to think, afterwards, that people will actually buy this,” says Armani of his couture operation. Privé is resolutely real: no crinolines, no corsets. Armani even offers daywear, which numerous couture houses eschew altogether. His couture operation, based in the Palazzo Orsini in Milan, is one of the few that turns a profit, creating made-to-measure outfits for a discerning worldwide clientele. “This is the advantage I’ve had,” continues Armani. “Also of being able to see and observe women, and giving them these choices. How to dress, how to put things together.”
In the Avenue d’Iéna mansion, Armani is dressed in a navy-blue sweater and wide navy blue trousers as he finalises his latest choices, the looks for his AW17 haute couture collection. They will eventually number 62, but many are added in these final days as looks evolve from those originally planned. Armani himself masterminds the outfits, predominantly black, spotted with pastel shades of powdery blue and pistachio, with shots of shocking pink, sometimes all mixed together. As we watch, he builds Look 50, a feathered top in that near-fluorescent fuchsia with that squared Armani shoulder, atop a sheer organza skirt. The skirt is swapped for a sinuous black sequin column. “Molto bello,” murmurs Armani. “Bellissimo,” adds his niece Silvana, the head of women’s ready- to-wear, who is crouched alongside Leo Dell’Orco, the menswear creative director. Shoes are changed and changed again. There are stacks, but the chosen style is a low-heeled satin boot.
Another outfit emerges, but this time Armani is not so pleased. Rapid-fire Italian – he understands English, but speaks little. He is handed a bolt of organza flecked with tinsel, which he unfurls and wraps around the model’s waist. His hands are light, easily manipulating the fabric. He instructs his team to remove the other layers and replace them with this organza – “for the light”. He then tugs at the beaded velvet of a loose sweater. “Troppo grande,” he murmurs, tugging at the sleeve. “This looks like a truck driver.” The sleeves needed to be made narrower. They were duly taken away but, three days later, the look had been cut.
Armani not only oversees the design of every look, but styles his shows himself, with no outside interference. It’s often criticised, but his singularity of vision is unparalleled. He is happy, he says, to surrender his work to other people’s hands after the show – but there, it is still about Armani’s point of view. He holds the power. “For me, it’s very difficult to imagine somebody else making that decision for me, even in ready-to- wear,” Armani tells me later. “My job. It’s not only creating but it’s styling. It’s how things are put together, which is important, it’s essential.” Then he pauses, and smiles. “And I’m a good stylist.”
Armani always operates in this way. I’ve seen him backstage before a ready- to-wear show, where he slowly paces down the line-up of models while a retinue of helpers darts backwards and forwards, handing him accessories or, more often, removing from his hands the items he has stripped off the models and piling them onto tables. None of them touches the models unless specifically instructed to. That is Armani’s domain. Linda Cantello, the make-up artist who collaborates with him on his range of cosmetics and creates make-up looks for his shows, recalls that Armani himself always touches the make-up on each model, as if making his mark or taking ownership. As the show begins, he stands by the exit to the stage – literally, in the wings. He is the last person to see every model before they step onto the catwalk. They are dressed exactly as he wishes them to be.
The building at 51 Avenue d’Iéna is grand, in a blowsy, belle époque kind of way that seems anathema to Armani, even when creating Privé, his most precious and exclusive line. A few years ago, Armani staged an exhibition called Eccentrico, devoted to the most atypical of Armani designs – ones smothered in sequins, in unusual colours and fabrics and furs. A large proportion were Privé looks. Yet the chichi interiors of this 19th- century mansion seem too extreme, even for Armani in haute couture mode. In a cassata-coloured salon on the ground floor – oddly enough, behind a door marked with the word Privé, although in French that simply means private – Armani’s team had installed a black leather sofa and two chairs, sleek and modern and minimal against the grandeur. At right angles to Armani sat Paul Lucchesi, his personal assistant; then Claudio Calò, the brand’s global communications director; then Anoushka Borghesi, global head of media and PR, the translator for the interview. Then me.
Armani has sometimes been painted as reticent to speak, his answers as pared- back and minimal as his clothing. I’d argue he’s precise rather than concise. Our time with him is precisely allowed to 30 minutes, and there’s an underlying current of tension. Armani is, of course, eager to return upstairs to his atelier workers and the clustered models, to continue to work rather than talk about it. He speaks in Italian, in a slow measured tone, in response to questions submitted in advance. Ahead of the interview, written responses – talking points – came through. Each question had been precisely answered.
Although the spirit was the same, the flesh Armani varied somewhat from the paper Armani. The paper Armani said he was happiest in his work, “when I succeed in turning an idea into something real and tangible, whether a dress or a design object”. The real Armani expanded. “I’m happy especially on certain mornings, before fitting for shows, when I find myself with the people around me that work with me. And I have to have convictions, strong convictions. To be able to make sure that the decision that is taken, not just that I stand by it, but also that everybody agrees with me. That makes me the happiest, when I can lead the team.” There’s something more forceful about that. Armani is happiest when he is leading – not just when he is creating, but when he is convincing others of the validity of his creations, convincing them that his way is the right way.
The Armani look is most often described as timeless. Which is true. There is an eternal quality to an Armani jacket that transcends the decades in a way that, say, a Lacroix pouf cannot. That will forever be mired in 1987, whereas an Armani jacket could be ’87, or ’97, or 2017. It’s another demonstration of Armani’s power. Nevertheless, Armani is conscious of the need to evolve – despite the belief he’s locked in an ivory (or greige) tower. “Obviously I have a duty to look at what’s happening around me. I haven’t locked myself in and just thought about my own aesthetics. So I have looked – with the risk of sometimes being told, you know, this is not Armani. And it hurts me a lot to hear this.”
Armani pauses and smiles a little. “Because it’s easy to do ‘Armani’.” He obviously doesn’t mean easy for him – rather, easy to copy, easy to rip off those softly tailored jackets in sandstone tones of grey, beige and the greige in between. Some do it well, some poorly. “But everywhere there are copies of Armani. From the 1980s to now,” he continues. Armani doesn’t seem perturbed or irate. His face is stoic, he is stating fact. “Lots of people have been copying. But I still think I have something to say. I don’t want to just to say that.” He gestures a little, possibly pointing to the three other people in the room, all wearing subtly, lightly deconstructed Armani tailoring. “And I hope people will be able to understand those variations that are still an Armani style. I am still looking for the new and changing and adapting to today and trying to do new things. It’s obvious that there are new designers, and thank God there are. I mean, I’m 83. It can’t just always be me doing everything.”
But the thing is, at Armani, it is Mr Armani doing everything. That’s the power of the whole thing, the focus, the precision. One man, one vision. After 30 minutes, Armani exited the Privé salon and ascended a grand marble staircase to finish work on the Privé collection I was fortunate enough to be privy to. And at the end of the show three days later, it’s only him taking the bow.
Text Alexander Fury
Photograph Maria Ziegelböck
Taken from the latest issue of 10 Magazine, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…