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giorgio armani defines the aesthetic of success

Regrets? He has a few. For the last four decades Giorgio Armani has seduced the stars with his clean and serene designs. But as this exclusive interview from The Hotel Issue in 2000 reveals, it will take more than an unassailable reputation, an elite clientele and an annual turnover of half a billions pounds to make him truly happy, even if it is his 80th birthday!

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A cartoon in the latest issue of satirical magazine Private Eye sums it up perfectly. If only I’d had it with me during the interview. In the cartoon, Snipcock and Tweed, a pair of shirtless book publishers, are ridiculing the proof copy of former BBC supremo John Birt’s memories. “I expect it’ll have an Armani jacket,” sneers one of them, as his colleague dumps the text in the bin

Cut to a few days earlier. Giorgio Armani is sitting on a stool in the inner sanctum of his Milanese HQ, a galleried office lined with blonde wood, the walls stacked floor ceiling with expensive art books. There are two glass desks, two beige leather Bauhaus armchairs, and a Le Corbusier chair against one wall. Armani sits in front of the fireplace, over which hangs his portrait in oils – white-haired, smiling broadly, chest bulging with pride, wearing a black T-shirt and matching jeans. In the flesh, he’s slightly smaller than the painting suggests, but fit-looking and tanned, his pale blue-grey eyes peering out from wire frame spectacles (Armani, of course). He wears a grey sweater, a pair of khaki chinos, tan suede loafers. His only jewellery is a discreet gold with a black leather strap. No rings, no neck chain, no identity bracelet. In other words, he is effortlessly chic in a way most 65-years old men can only dream of being.

“I’ve put in 25 years of hard work, the most important years of a man’s life. It’s passed by so quickly… I wish I had risked more. I know I could have had a totally different kind of life and I don’t dare think about it.”

 

Nonetheless, I am trying, as politely as possible, to explain why – rightly or wrongly – a considerable swathe of British youth regard his label as a very epitome of a dull, middle-aged accountant’s idea of cool. The trouble is, his brand has become associated with the wrong people. “The classic example,” I tell him, “is John Birt, the former BBC director general, who is noted for wearing Armani but has a reputation as a dull, number-crunching, soulless suit.” “Yes, I’ve heard about him,” shrugs the designer, before adding with his mischievous chuckle, “He also wears Yamamoto, doesn’t he?” Thinking there may be some misunderstanding – neither of us is speaking our native tongue – I reiterate the point. If a glorified accountant believes that Armani suits are the height of fashion, then by definition… “Well, it’s true that we’ve been lucky enough to create empire,” he interrupts, a little wearily, “so our name is well known, and if people want to buy and wear our clothes, then…”

“Of course, we don’t do things as extravagantly as people do in England, yet we still try to do things a little differently. But what people love and expect from Armani is simply the spirit of Armani.”

The point being, of course, that Mr Armani (as everyone here calls him) doesn’t actually have to concern himself with this kind of criticism. After all, he is the founder of a fashion empire that spans the globe, with 129 Emporio Armani boutiques. His product lines run from high-end suits and separates, through jeans and casualwear, children’s clothes, underwear, swimwear, skiwear, spectacles, ties, shoes, accessories, watches and fragrances. Last year the Armani conglomerate made a profit of just over £83 million on a turnover of £521.6 million. By comparison, Britain’s best-selling designer Paul Smith, has a turnover of £170 million. 

Armani’s international success is based on a clearly identified high-status product range, appropriate branding and skilful marketing strategy that has convinced Hollywood’s A-list to endorse his clothing for free. The first fashion designer to understand and fully exploit the potential of movie star endorsement, his long-standing relationship with Hollywood began in 1981 with American Gigolo, which saw his suits co-starring with Richard Gere in the title role. By 1982 he was so hot in LA that Time magazine put him on the cover, and the Tinsletown connection was reinforced when he worked as costume designer for ‘87s The Untouchables. This year he will design the costumes for John Singleton’s remake of blaxploitation classic Shaft, starring Samuel L Jackson. The choice of Armani designs for this film might be considered a little ironic: after all, he rose to prominence as the man whose loose, flowing, deconstructed jackets effectively killed off the archetypal snake-hipped, flared-hipsters and wide-shouldered ‘70s silhouette.

"If I made things that could be worn together with the extreme designs of a young British street designer, for example, people would say ‘Hey, we don’t come to Armani to buy that kind of stuff.’ Therefore Armani has this bourgeois image.”

 

Since the mid ‘80s, Armani’s three-line whip of a marketing team has worked the studio tirelessly to ensure that Michelle Pfieffer, Jodie Foster, Winona Ryder, Annette Bening, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Mira Sorvino have all been photographed while conspicuously sporting his outfits, usually at major awards ceremonies that are screened coast-to-coast. And then there is the designer’s long-standing association with rock legend Eric Clapton, and more recently the smart move that has ensured Ricky Martin is only ever photographed in Armani. When it comes to seducing the stars, Armani is a past master.

So there’s no reason why he should care what British youth think of him. Except, of course, that this damp, eccentric little island, where people drive on the wrong side of the road and aren’t allowed to drink after 11pm, is the World Bank of Cool, the place where the credits and debits are counted up. And if you’re involved in fashion, sooner or later you must settle your account. Especially if your customer base is ageing rapidly, and you need to start replacing it at the younger end of the market. Which of course, is why we’re here in the first place

Rumour has it that Armani’s two nieces, Roberta Moratti and Silvana Armani, are the prime movers behind the company’s attempt to revamp and rejuvenate its image, are the prime movers behind the company’s attempt to revamp and rejuvenate its image. Roberta is certainly deeply involved in the design side, strolling down the catwalk at the end of the last menswear show to rapturous applause. Still, the designer protests that his work is not as out-of-touch as some might believe, though he agrees it sells to an older, more affluent clientele simply because they can trust his label to place them firmly in fashion’s mainstream – neither too far forward, or too far behind. “Of course, we don’t do things as extravagantly as people do in England – this is not Westwood, after all – yet we still try to do things a little differently, we still experiment. But in fact, what people love and expect from Armani or its diffusion lines is, simply, the spirit of Armani. If I made things that could be worn together with the extreme designs of a young British street designer, for example, people would say ‘Hey, we don’t come to Armani to buy that kind of stuff.’ Therefore Armani has this bourgeois image.”

Anyway, rather than be acknowledged as the hippest designer, his objective, he says, has always been to emulate his fashion idols, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. “They modernised fashion so that it suited the way people wanted to live, they allowed people to live differently through the way they dressed. They didn’t make clothes, they made society.” And how would he say he compared? “I’ve tried to find a new modernity, to find a new elegance. It’s not easy, because sometimes things move so quickly that nobody knows really what’s happening, and on top of that people seem to want to be shocked. They want explosive fashions, things that startle them. I try to avoid that, because explosions don’t last, they disappear immediately, and leave nothing but ashes.” But aren’t explosions sometimes necessary, to clear the ground for something new. “Yes, perhaps once in a while it’s necessary to make things understandable, to move things along, to surprise people, when you need an evolution. But immediately afterwards you have to reduce everything, pull it back in, to make things acceptable again. I’ve always tried to avoid making a noise just for the sake of it.”

Certainly, America seems ready to put Giorgio Armani on the podium alongside the greats of 20th Century fashion: this October, New York’s Guggenheim museum will exhibit a major retrospective, celebrating the 25th anniversary of his label. Compiling material for the show, he says, has caused him to take stock of his life and work and consider what he might do when he eventually retires. Doubtless this soul-searching is the trigger for the series of astonishingly intimate confessions he will deliver during the course of our interview. And though he may be thinking about retirement, will that day ever arrive? It’s a well-known fact that he is a virtual workaholic – he still puts in an 11 hour day – and is notoriously fastidious about all aspects of business, in particular the artefacts that bear his name. While his staff clearly have a great affection for him, his company is run as a benevolent dictatorship. Asked what he considers his greatest strength, for example, he replies without hesitation: “To believe in my own ideas. If I ever go against my own gut reaction, it’s a safe bet I’ll make a bad decision. It always happens. I know when I’m right, that’s my greatest strength.”

Such self-assurance, which perhaps understandably has been mistaken for arrogance, doesn’t suggest he might easily let go of the reins. So, is there anything that might make him surrender his power? He considers the question carefully, before delivering an answer that is both unexpected and disturbing. “I’m frightened because even if I still wanted to continue to walk out onto the catwalk at the end of the show, at a certain age… the idea of becoming ridiculous, of appearing grotesque… at a certain age you simply cannot continue to walk down the catwalk. You can’t stand there in front of those beautiful young people, when you’ve got snow white hair, lines all over your face, looking even older than last year… there would be something ridiculous and grotesque about that. So I know that I will be able to walk away, before that day arrives.” Hmm. But he doesn’t feel, presumably, that he has reached that point yet? “No, not yet. One day. I think I’ve still got at least five years left,” he smiles. “Let’s hope.” 

That question of his willingness to step out of the limelight is more than idle speculation. In these times of massive mergers between huge fashion companies – the Gucci Group’s purchase of Sanofi Beauté, the parent company of Yves Saint Laurent, for £613 million last November is the most recent example – the extremely profitable and internationally recognised Armani label has attracted the attention of many financiers and luxury goods magnates, including Bernard Arnault, director of French luxury goods group Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, which already owns Givenchy and Dior. Arnault has made no secret of his wish to add Armani to his list of elite brands, even taking a front row seat at recent shows to eye the goods.

Armani, who can boast that he has never owed the bank a cent, owns his company completely. Even so, the economic muscle of fashion’s new mega-corporations means life can be very difficult for independent rivals, in terms of retailing space, advertising rates, production schedules, factory waiting times and, increasingly, cross-media promotions. While Armani has no financial need to join another company, in strategic terms it makes sense to join an institution whose financial clout could enable his brand to compete on this new global level. And now in the autumn of his life, the founder would also like to ensure the continuity of his name, to leave something for posterity, as it were.

“That’s why right now, I’m looking around and considering offers, wondering if Giorgio Armani should become part of a much bigger organisation, with more financial power. Because the thing is, as long as I’m here, running Armani, it will work. However, as soon as I’m gone… who knows what’s going to happen? So, first of all, I have to assure everybody – and myself – that the maison Armani will continue. Whether that will be the result of floating the company on the stock market, or whether we’ll merge with another fashion company, or whether I’ll simply engage a financial team to drive the business side and remain independent, I’m not sure. All this is not going to happen tomorrow, but perhaps in the near future.” 

Giorgio Armani was born in 1934 in Piacenza, an industrial town south of Milan. At 18 he left home to do his military service, ended up as a paramedic, and left the army to study medicine at Milan University. After a couple of years he got bored and dropped out to become a window dresser at La Rinascente, a large Milanese department store. Eventually he was promoted to buyer, a job that constitutes his entire training in fashion. “It was a good education, because I learned about both the industry, and what the public wanted.” However, even as a small child he had a strong, sometimes overbearing aesthetic sense. “My mother would lay the table and I would tell her, ‘Oh mama, you can’t use that tablecloth, it’s not pretty, here use this one.’ I think it must have been difficult to put with me as a son. I always had an opinion on my family’s clothes, how things should look. And I’m still like that.”

After working for almost ten years at Nino Cerutti, where he learned how to design menswear, he set up an independent consultancy with his business partner and love, Sergio Galeotti. In 1975, they launched the Armani label, just as English and French designers were starting to use the Italian manufacturing industry for improved quality of finishing…

“I’ve tried to find a new modernity, a new elegance. It’s not easy because people seem to want to be shocked. They want explosive fashion. I try to avoid that because explosions don’t last, they disappear immediately and leave nothing but ashes.”

 

“I knew I would have to do something different to make my mark on the industry and so I decided to go against the grain.” At the time, fashion was still in thrall to the tight-fitting silhouette and flashy fabrics of the post-hippy and glitter era. Armani, who had worked exclusively on menswear up until then, decided to create a new, looser, unstructured line for women. He stripped out the padding in women’s jackets, loosened the body-sculpting darts, and used the worsteds and tweeds more usually associated with menswear. Then he added loose-cut pants to team with it. The result was immediate worldwide attention. Almost as clever was the way he and Galeotti quickly built a series of diffusion labels around the main brand, which allowed less affluent consumers to feel part of the new Armani buzz without breaking the bank. 

From then on, he worked furiously to build a provincial Italian company into a global fashion empire. Too hard, he now says. He was so driven, so obsessed with making his name, that he rarely took time to talk to people outside of work. The tragic death of his partner in 1985, he says, was a turning point. Lifting his chin in an attempt to conceal the tears welling up in his eyes, he says, “Having become a world-famous designer, I realised that life could end so suddenly. It was a shock, realising a young man, 40 years old, could die like that.” Since then he has looked at life a little differently, spent more time living rather than just working. Even so, he could have spent more time just enjoying himself. Can this be true? Is this really Giorgio Armani, multi-millionaire, owner of homes in Paris, Milan, New York and LA, and the most successful Italian designer ever, telling me that at the age of 65, he wishes he had spent less time in the office? 

“Yes. Completely. I realised then that I should have looked at life differently. Up to there, my life was about building the company, building the name, growing, climbing. I was anxious to achieve a certain level with the company; I was concerned with my image on the cover of Time magazine, which was such a shock that I wanted to prove that I deserved that accolade. It was madness, a race, a mad dash for glory. And after the death of Galeotti, I said to myself, ‘From now on I’m going to focus on each day as it comes, enjoy it while it lasts, instead of dashing headlong into the future.’ You have to think about what’s happening now, not what might happen in ten years. You have to be able to leave tomorrow until it comes. So that woke me up a bit. And from then on, I’ve tried to be a bit more available, less aloof.”

Another way of saying, perhaps, that he ought to have spent more time with Galeotti, rather than working so hard? “Yes, that also. I must say that I have certain regrets about that. Because at the time I had to work very hard. And sometimes he would say to me, ‘Giorgio, I don’t want to be some very ambitious type who lives only for his work, who has nothing but money in his life.’ He was frightened of that. But I was obliged to play many roles in this young company. I had to be the creative director, the designer, the businessman, the socialite, the employer and so on, so I had lots to do. And he did everything else. But he would have quit the business quite soon anyway, that much is sure. He would say to me, ‘You love your work, you can’t get enough of it. But I don’t love work.’ He forced himself to work.” Though Armani still loves his work, the pace must be gruelling at his age. “In this job, it’s not possible to slow down. Either you work at the same rhythm all the time, or you start to delegate. But that’s very difficult, psychologically, very very difficult.” 

"Can you believe that I don’t really know the world? All I know is the places where I’ve worked – Paris, New York, LA, Tokyo and Italy – and then it’s always the chicest restaurants, the most luxurious hotel... I’m sick of all that."

 

What about the stories that despite his fabulous wealth he still haggles over the price of secondhand furniture in Paris flea markets? True? “Well, of course,” he laughs. “Yes certainly. Right down to the last cent. I never had money when I was young and the money I have now I’ve earned through hard work. It’s not for throwing around. I count every penny. If I’d been born into a rich family, perhaps things would be different, but even though I’m rich now I’m still very careful with my money. I have big houses, sure, I don’t penalise myself, but at the same time… You know, I realise that I’m going to die without having really enjoyed my money. Really. I don’t have the time to really enjoy it…”

That’s a rather sad reflection, isn’t it? “Yes, it’s quite sad. But true. It doesn’t matter how much money you have; at 70 years of age there are certainly things you can’t do anymore. No point in buying yourself a big house on the Cote D’Azure because nobody will come and visit you there when you’re 70 years old. And it’s not going to be easy to entertain many visitors either, at that age. So it’s difficult, isn’t it? Life can be quite ugly in that respect,” he continues. “You work like a lunatic to make some money and, when you finally have some money, you find yourself surrounded by people you’ve got to be careful of. And for me, because I have a very simple, direct, clean mentality, I’m always frightened of finding myself, at some point in the future, an old rich man surrounded by people who are only there because I’m rich. Not there for me, but my money. I’m frightened of that. Of course,” he smiles, “we’re all learning lessons all the time. But for me I’d need another life to enjoy the money I’ve made. I’ve put in 25 years of hard work, the most important years of a man’s life. And while I’m happy with what I’ve done and achieved, nonetheless sometimes I feel it’s all passed so quickly, perhaps too quickly…”

Finally, I ask, what would he say was his greatest weakness? Again, his answer is so honest, so poignant and humbling, that I realise that the interview has strayed far from its original parameters, and I suddenly wish I had never tried to explain just why Armani isn’t quite as cool as he might be. “I’m afraid to explore other ways of living, other lifestyles other than my own. Because I know I could have had a totally different kind of life from the one I lead, and I don’t dare think about it. I hide from the idea; I hide behind my work in order to avoid meeting people who might remind me that I’m not entirely content with my life. I’m afraid of that. You know, some people work so hard, but at the same time they enjoy themselves. I don’t have the courage to do that. For example, sometimes people come to my place, and they bring someone with them, and suddenly I notice two or three people who I don’t know. And I think, ‘Ah! Who’s this?’ I’m afraid of meetings people. I’m not very open. Because my life is so organised, so programmed, that these chance encounters, these random events, can destabilise me very easily. Spontaneity is not my forte. I wish I had been been much more open, easy-going, and that I’d ricked more in my life, maybe instead of working so hard. I would like to travel more, met more people, to have seen the world. Can you believe that I don’t really know the world? All I know is the places where I’ve worked – Paris, New York, LA, Tokyo and Italy – and then it’s always the chicest restaurants, the most luxurious hotel, and so on. Actually, I’m sick of all that. I’d like to stay in a little backstreet hotel in SoHo from time to time in order to live a bit, you know? I’ve never really done that. Perhaps because of my character, which is not exactly easy-going. Maybe it’s just my age.”

He pauses for a second, as if thinking back to another time, a time before people worked for the sake of working, a time before fame took on global dimension, before people could own shops all over the world, a time when life was lived at a more leisurely pace, when money was something decent people never discussed in public and the world was still underpinned by certainties: family honour, duty, patriotism. He smiles at me, and gets up off his stool. The interview is over. “You weren’t allowed to do that as a young bourgeois when I was growing up,” he smiles, as if talking to himself. “Ah well, c’est la vie.”