Text by Kee | Photos courtesy of Giorgio Armani
Giorgio Armani on the runway during his earlier years

In a 1990 Martin Scorsese-directed documentary on Giorgio Armani, the Italian fashion designer showed glimpses that he is his own biggest critic when he dropped a profoundly rhetorical question: “Is this jacket or dress successful because it’s really good or because it has the Armani label?” The 86-year-old’s prolonged success – 45 years and counting – in just about everything he has blessed his name with is the result of never accepting second best.

The manner in which Giorgio Armani caresses fabric in his hands and feels its soul and depth with the tips of his fingers is akin to observing a master chef at work kneading dough or picking the best produce at the farmer’s market. There’s a genuine intensity in the build-up to creating his masterpiece as a shortlist of ideas appear to flow through his mind on how he could mould it to its bidding. Similarly when he is given a perversely stiff and structured jacket, he takes little time to see its faults and how to elevate its blueprint. With a pair of sharp scissors and the brute strength of his hands, he debones the jacket – removing the padding, interlining and the unnecessities – to create a deconstructed version that is soft, wears easy, and doesn’t wrinkle as much. This level of perfectionism still exists for Armani today, tirelessly running his own operations for the last 45 years. He didn’t invent the wheel per se but he knew how to season his creations and serve it in a big, memorable way. Just by tweaking the tailoring proportions of yesteryear and repositioning the buttons just to name a few of his deft touches, he was able to quickly establish his pillars in menswear and womenswear by 1975 and 1976. People understood the appeal immediately, even though he was probably the only one who knew the formula for the longest time: “I was the first to soften the image of men, and harden the image of women. I dressed men in women’s fabrics, and stole from men what women wanted and needed – the power suit.” The Armani name soon became a quality seal in the late ’70s for money men and women seeking a wardrobe that looked the part of someone with at least a seven-figure salary (or with the ambitions to attain one). But what the fashion set knew then, the rest of the word hadn’t caught on. Enter cinema, his so-called first love that would incidentally be the vehicle that first gave his clothes and brand the gloss and global recognition he strived for. In Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980), an escort-playing Richard Gere wore the hell out of his sexy Armani-made slouchy suits and belted coats which inadvertently elevated the designer to become the byword in upmarket menswear in the ’80s. Men started to man crush on Gere’s swagger and so did women who were recalibrating their standards to whether gents knew how to pull off an upturned collar with panache. Namedropping Armani even if it was the only fashion label you knew meant something. Armani knew he was doing it right because five figures in the bank soon turned into millions then billions – not at all a bad outcome for someone who used to dress windows for a department store. It takes great courage and foresight for the designer to continue outfitting Hollywood’s favourite on-screen characters, which is perhaps the only kind of fashion collaboration he needs in this lifetime. Over 200 films are currently part of his CV and one is just as memorable as the next, from Kevin Costner in The Untouchables to Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, just to name a few. And even though Armani mentions countless times about how he would have given filmmaking a shot if not for his commitment to fashion, his role in shaping Tinseltown hasn’t been a minor part either. Daydream of all your favourite red carpet moments and the designer has been credited as the one to have made an event out of it by popularising the sponsorship of glamourous gowns and sharp-looking tuxedos on celebs. He was arguably the first to acknowledge the equal opportunities of a red carpet and a runway, seeing A-listers walking on the former or accepting an award in his creations helped to cement his brand’s entry into pop culture consciousness. In turn, Hollywood and its films are Armani’s form of escapism and inspiration, his version of being in Disneyland to say the least. What he probably doesn’t realise – or maybe he does by now – is that big stars clamour for his affections too. Having a gown personally dreamt up by Armani is a badge of honour that celebs don’t take too lightly. It’s as good as saying that the film fan in Armani recognises your talent, beauty, and potential. So, what does the future hold for the man and the brand? As long as men and women aspire to live their best life – and Hollywood continues to churn out movies – you can count on this Italian to deliver another memorable moment when you least expect it.

Giorgio Armani in his office

MANIFESTO: Being actively involved in running your own label for 45 years is no mean feat. How do you explain your longevity and success? And what do you think are the fundamentals of running a successful fashion and lifestyle empire in 2020?

GIORGIO ARMANI: Commitment is one of the keys to success in any field. On top of hard work, I would also add consistency and great determination to make your vision concrete. The opportunity to work hard and enjoy the fruits of that labour is what I enjoy and what drives me to keep creating, keep innovating. What I have done over the years is bring to life my vision for a complete lifestyle, which has led me to design accessories, fragrances, hotels, cafés and restaurants, even flowers and chocolates! There are still many areas that could be fashioned by the Armani touch, so I will keep looking for new ways in which to express my aesthetic. The key to running this sort of operation, or “empire”, as you put it, is to instil in everyone you work with a sense of a common purpose. And to lead by example.

M: You single-handedly helped to define tailoring for men in an era in which the successful were trying to carve out an identity for themselves. Was it part of your plan all along to dress Wall Street or was it good timing?

GA: It was not intentional; the starting point was observing the world around me. I saw men wearing rigid jackets that concealed the body, imprisoning it in a certain sense. I was looking for the exact opposite: clothes that created ease of movement and comfort. That’s how I came to create the first unstructured jacket in the mid-’70s, ridding it of lining and padding. Bit by bit, I also changed the arrangement of the buttons and modified the proportions: a process that radically transformed this garment. Since then the jacket has become my trademark, and everything else seems to flow from this one piece that I keep revisiting and revising. The deconstruction of the jacket has relevance to your question, in that what I essentially did by modernising it and making it more comfortable was to create a garment that made the wearer feel more confident. That chimed with the boom on Wall Street at the time. Also, don’t forget that I applied the same philosophy and methodology to women’s tailoring, and am told that in doing so I gave professional women a look that was empowering.

M: Many still talk about the days of Richard Gere and American Gigolo which was some four decades ago. Do you consider that as your career turning point?

GA: American Gigolo marked the beginning of my relationship with the cinema. It was a style choice by the director, and those clothes, that way of dressing, became the film’s co-stars. I was enthusiastic about this collaboration – the first of many I have had with movies – but no one could have predicted that it would have been so successful. Of course it was also a crucial moment for me because it helped me to understand how closely fashion is related to a way of being and how much the cinema and the media in general influence the public’s perception. That experience also made me understand the strong impact that celebrities have on the people who identify with them and are influenced by them in their choice of clothing.

Richard Gere in American Gigolo

M: What many people don’t understand about your work is that it helped to solidify the idea of timelessness in fashion. You’re not someone who plays on hype to get a headline. But what do you consider as your most hyped design or collection in your legacy? Or how do you define hype in your universe?

GA: Hype is, as you say, not something that concerns me. I am always after something more solid, more substantial. In terms of aesthetics, I have always worked towards this ideal. If I have to name a design of mine that has been the subject of hype, I would say obviously it has to be the jacket, and I suppose that my work with this piece is the thing I am best known for. And it is, indeed, the thing I am proudest of. There are other pieces, of course, that have become strongly associated with Armani – the tuxedo, the trouser-suit, masculine trousers for women, little round optical spectacles or sunglasses, flat shoes, the trench coat. And the fabrics I choose to use have also become a sort of signature – velvet, wool, cashmere – and the colours too, like navy blue, greige and ecru. I am proud of having created something that is seen as an Armani style, for sure.

M: Do you dwell more to fashion’s past to romanticise your ideas for the next collection or does creating newness from a clean slate more important to you? Is achieving newness even possible today?

GA: My style was born in a rather natural manner, from my attention to the world surrounding me and probably from the ability to transform these stimuli into ways of dressing: an innate pragmatism, if you like, that is an integral part of my view of design and also the character that best defines Armani style. I think of myself as more of a progressive – a moderniser, if not actually a modernist. So I am always looking to create new things, to challenge myself and to move the conversation forward. However, I do this not in a self-conscious way that signals my work as NEW. Instead, I aim to present my vision of timeless elegance through pieces that are aesthetically ageing-proof. People should be able to invest in something that has value and lasts. The time of flashy status symbols that are completely generic is over.

Giorgio Armani was instrumental in evolving tailoring in womenswear

M: Where do you see the future of couture in this era? Can it evolve or should it evolve? And do you see couture buyers wanting it to evolve?

GA: Fashion today is subject to new rules, dictated mainly by the world of the Internet and social networks. In my opinion, today more than ever, haute couture has to maintain an aura of exclusivity, related to its intrinsic value. Couture has always catered for women who live special lives and need clothing suited to important events. While this type of lifestyle exists, couture will have a place.

M: Do you have a personal favourite red carpet design that has stuck in your memory? One that defines Armani at its peak.

GA: It’s hard to pick just one. I’m very close to all the iconic actresses I have dressed. I have fond memories of Jodie Foster. For her second Oscar, she wore a tuxedo of mine and she was considered one of the best-dressed at the ceremony. It was fun putting an actress in a traditionally male style at an event where women usually wear dramatic and often overblown evening gowns. Even today, after more than 30 years, I still have the pleasure of dressing her for many important occasions. Then, another red carpet at the Oscars that I remember well was that of 2004, when I dressed Julia Roberts. Julia is one of those people who simply exude star quality, like an old-school Hollywood leading lady of the golden era. So I thought, why not create a dress that evoked a sense of timeless style, an updated traditional approach if you like, and let Julia’s charisma – and that great smile – do all the talking? And finally, Cate Blanchett… Cate is one of today’s most talented actors, in both theatre and film. She also has an innate sense of style that makes her unique. That’s why it’s always an honour to dress her, because she is able to interpret my style in a natural and elegant way. One of the occasions on which I look back with great pleasure is the 2014 Academy Awards: Cate was not only marvellous in Armani on the red carpet, but with her acceptance speech she also proved the power and glory of one of the greatest actors in Hollywood today.

Giorgio Armani with Jodie Foster

M: Sustainability is very much part of the fashion conversation today. Your timeless aesthetics somewhat fits into this conversation and your clothing is what one can wear for the long haul. Can sustainability work seamlessly with running a fashion empire? Or is this a conversation that smaller labels romanticise as a gimmick?

GA: Sustainability is indeed the big issue of our times, and of the future too. We need to look at how we can improve sustainability in how we create and make products, how well we design those products to last (in terms of aesthetics as well as quality), how we run our offices, and how we construct and run our stores. The consumer, too, must start to consume more responsibly. Of course, this is about education. The consumer never demanded mass fashion being pumped out constantly. The manufacturers created that situation. So now we must start a process of re-education so that consumers understand that if we are to make things more responsibly, then they too need to consume in a more mindful way. They need to buy less and buy better, choosing to purchase things that are made in a way that minimises environmental impact. And then wear their purchases for longer. This has nothing to do with the size of a fashion business, and everything to do with the attitude and values behind it.

M: You have fashion houses like Louis Vuitton and Maison Margiela reworking old items into their new collections. Do you see this way of fashioning new from old the way forward for fashion in terms of lessening the environmental impact as well as to balance the company’s social responsibility model?

GA: The future always stems from the past. So, while periodically people imagine the fashion of the future as radically different to what it is now, time teaches us that what we wear will always be an evolution of what we have worn. You can see this clearly in my collections, and if you visit the Armani/Silos, my exhibition and educational space in Milan, and look at the display of my work through the ages, you will realise that I repeatedly revisit certain themes and ideas. Even if I am not literally reviving a design from the past – which I have been known to do, most recently my La Prima bag, for example – I am always building on it. If you literally use old items in a recycling way, then of course that is a good way to act sustainably. I have yet to actually rework old items, but I am pursuing initiatives where I use recycled and sustainable materials – witness my Emporio Armani R-EA collection, launched for fall-winter 2020-21, a selection of pieces crafted from recycled, regenerated or organic materials.

Emporio Armani's R-EA collection

M: There have been many kind words from A-listers highlighting your magical touch in fashion. What is one that you remember the most and by whom?

GA: Many people have said lovely things about my work, and while it seems immodest to repeat them, I can answer your question with a couple of examples. Cate Blanchett, who I admire enormously as an actor, did once say that what she likes is the fact that I keep challenging myself with invention, and she was kind enough to say that she found that inspiring as an artist. And my old friend Sam Jackson once explained that when he wears my clothes he feels like he has some sort of edge and that he believes he is the most eye-catching person in the room. I believe this is because of who he is, and not what he is wearing, but he is kind enough to claim it has something to do with his outfit, and I will graciously accept the compliment.

M: What is one advice you would give to anyone today looking to create a fashion empire like yours?

GA: My advice is that if you can, you should do something that brings you satisfaction, and that challenges you to develop and progress. I love my job and I am passionate about it, I find it a rewarding way to exercise my imagination and creativity. You can bring innovative thinking to bear on anything. So my advice is to get involved, be passionate about your work, and try to achieve great things. Whatever work it is that you do.


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