The Godfather Of Smart-Casual
As his brand launches on MR PORTER, we pay tribute to Mr Giorgio Armani in his 41st year in the business
Mr Giorgio Armani in Rome, 1980s. Photograph by Camera Press
Milan 2016: he could be just another well-dressed, well-tanned Milanese man. Leaving his yellow stucco home on Via Borgonuovo, he dodges the scooters and strolls into the café on the corner of Via Manzoni. In his trademark blue stretch-cotton T-shirt, blue trousers and sneakers, he blends in with the chic crowd heading out for a bowl of burrata. But there is something different about this man.
Perhaps it’s the way the waiters stiffen as his pale blue-grey eyes scan the room. Perhaps it’s the way diners studiously pretend not to notice him when he walks in. This man is the boss, the reason everyone is there. It’s his name above the door, his products in the shopping bags, his food on the plates. He’s the only person in the place who is “wearing himself”.
At 82, Mr Giorgio Armani has earned the respect he gets pretty much wherever he goes. While most of his competitors have sold out to the two French fashion and luxury goods conglomerates, LVMH and Kering, he remains the founder, chief executive, designer and sole shareholder of a brand that analysts say is worth $7bn and employs 7,000 people. His firm’s 2,500 shops and other points of sale in 60 countries generate sales of more than €2bn a year. He is today’s answer to Mr Yves Saint Laurent or Ms Coco Chanel, names and eponymous labels that have lived on well after their founder’s death.
How did he do it? Rather like Mr Jony Ive, Apple’s chief designer, Mr Armani’s achievement is to take the fear out of a product that can seem intimidating to many consumers. In the 1970s, he became the first designer to rip the stuffing out of tailoring by introducing looser-fitting but still flattering jackets and trousers. He makes elegant, slouchy trousers, cardigan jackets and T-shirts in safe colours, usually navy, grey, sand and taupe. This laid-back elegance has set the tone for fashion for the past 20 years and has been reflected in the introduction of new business dress codes, such as “dress-down” and “smart-casual”.
Perhaps most important of all, it made men comfortable with the idea of buying and wearing fashion for the first time. And not just Messrs David Beckham or Samuel L Jackson. Even lawyers wear Armani with pride. “I am most proud of the deconstruction of design,” Mr Armani told me in a recent interview for The Sunday Times to mark his 40th anniversary in the industry. It’s no exaggeration to say that until he arrived, most men thought cashmere mix was a bar snack.
The SS88 (centre) and AW89 (left, right) Armani shows, Milan. Photographs courtesy of Armani
But Mr Armani has changed more than the shape of clothing. He has changed the shape of the fashion business. He was the first designer to split his brand into almost a dozen diffusion labels, from the affordable A/X Armani Exchange and the cheap(ish) AJ Armani Jeans, through Emporio Armani and Collezioni, up to the wildly expensive Black Label. Giorgio Armani and haute womenswear line Privé exhibit every year at the Paris couture shows.
He also pioneered fashion’s move into areas that were, at the time, considered too common to be chic. Without Armani, there would have been far fewer designer fragrances, designer sunglasses, branded spectacles and designer watches – and the England football team would still be wearing beige Mr Glenn Hoddle-inspired suits.
After 40 years of growth, Giorgio Armani is now more than a label: it is a complete lifestyle brand. Today, consumers can – if they really want to – “live” Giorgio Armani 24 hours a day. They can wake up in Armani sheets, go to the gym in Armani EA7 sportswear, have breakfast in an Armani café, sipping cappuccino out of an Armani cup. They can go to work in an Armani suit, wearing an Armani watch. When the day is over they can drink an Armani martini. Over dinner in his branded Nobu restaurant – a joint venture with the Japanese superchef Mr Nobu Matsuhisa – they can plan their next holiday in an Armani hotel before returning home to a square of Armani chocolate and their Armani bed from the appropriately named Armani/Casa.
To market all his wares, Mr Armani invented red-carpet dressing as we know it today. In the early 1980s, he became the first designer to decamp to Los Angeles for Oscars week to dress the likes of Mr Robert De Niro and Ms Michelle Pfeiffer. Soon, almost every celebrity wanted to wear Armani. He went on to use his Hollywood connections to get into the movies himself, creating celebrated wardrobes for stylised films such as American Gigolo, The Untouchables, Goodfellas, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and The Wolf Of Wall Street.
Mr Robert De Niro in The Untouchables, 1987. Photograph by Collection Christophel/Photoshot
Mr Armani’s decision to focus on classical, practical style, rather than aping the latest trends like his rivals, makes him that rarest of creatures in the fashion jungle – the anti-designer designer. He is the man who stays the same while others zig and zag. “I try to be coherent, consistent and as democratic as I can,” he told me recently as we sat by the fire in his Milan home. This attitude infuriates fashion purists because it threatens to undermine what they consider fashion should be – artistic rather than commercial, ever-changing, hard to pin down or explain, elitist and exclusive. They dismiss his style as so formulaic, repetitive and dull that he is, as The New Yorker puts it, “more Volkswagen than Mercedes-Benz”.
Mr Armani counters that his clients want the classical Giorgio Armani – and that’s just fine by him. “I design for the public, not the fashion industry. In clothing, my designs are intended to be elegant and simple. My aim is never to dominate the character of the wearer. Look at the red carpet at the Oscars and you will see many designers have resorted to producing headline-grabbing, over-the-top costumes for effect. The stars in Armani look themselves. I do not hold with the idea that a designer chops and changes to follow whatever trend is current. I avoid explosive fashion because explosions don’t last. They disappear immediately and leave nothing but ashes. Instead, I believe that you should be true to your own vision and hope that a constituency out there shares your taste.”
Mr Richard Gere in American Gigolo, 1980. Photograph by Paramount Pictures/courtesy of Neal Peters Collection
Mr Armani, who was born in Piacenza, just outside Milan, began his fashion career as a window dresser and later a menswear buyer in La Rinascente, Milan’s leading department store, before leaving to found his company with his then partner in life as well as business, Mr Sergio Galeotti. I once asked him if back then he ever imagined he would end up where he is now. “No, of course not,” he laughed. “My ambitions were limited to making a success of clothing and even then I imagined working on a fairly small scale – selling to Italy and a few select retailers abroad. The way the Armani label has grown over the past 30 years is still amazing, even to me.”
That’s not just because competition is fierce, it’s because designing so many collections a year in an ever-more fast-paced industry is tough. “Every year is constant trial and error. You never really know if it is going to be successful. You have to pit yourself against it and just keep going,” he grimaces. It sounds exhausting, especially for a man who, in his seventies, contracted a rare liver condition that has taken years to recover from and has left him unable to eat meat or fish or enjoy a cheeky glass of barolo. Yet, it is his life – and he loves it. “My life is really linked to my work. My friends are linked to my work. I don’t have much of a life outside my work.”
Working– keeping busy – helps him to stay fresh. So, instead of slowing down and enjoying some kind of retirement, he is throwing himself back into the nine-to-five, or the seven-to-nine in his case. He’ll be back on the catwalk in Milan this week with his SS17 womenswear – coinciding with his menswear collection appearing on MR PORTER for the first time.
Senior buyer Mr Sam Kershaw guides me through the offering: “It’s a selection of relaxed and loose shapes, the kind that helped him make his name, executed in luxury fabrics. The sharp blazers are slightly shorter for autumn, the idea being to have something fitted on top, but styled with something more relaxed, such as cashmere trousers. Some garments have retro sporty details, such as the double-faced cashmere long coat with knitted collar and shearling bomber jacket. The palette is muted, focusing on blues, greys and biscuits. Velvet – a staple Giorgio Armani material – is of course also present.”
The man may be into his eighties, but the Giorgio Armani show goes on. Capito?