Gior­gio Ar­mani

As Gior­gio Ar­mani pre­pares to show at Lon­don Fash­ion Week, Jus­tine Pi­cardie en­joys a rare au­di­ence with the mae­stro

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - News - Photographs by SERGE LEBLON Sit­tings edi­tor TILLY WHEAT­ING

Early in the morn­ing be­fore Gior­gio Ar­mani’s lat­est cou­ture show in Paris, the mae­stro is as calm as al­ways, at work with his team in an ate­lier lined with wardrobe rails of flow­ing black gowns that make up a sig­nif­i­cant part of the col­lec­tion. Every fea­ture is ex­quis­ite – in­tri­cate crys­tal bead­ing and em­broi­dery; clouds of dark feath­ers; fluid lay­ers of tulle and sin­u­ous vel­vet – while Mr Ar­mani, watch­ful and alert as an or­ches­tral con­duc­tor, makes his fi­nal ad­just­ments to cre­ate a grace­ful sym­phony that is the purest ex­pres­sion of his pre­vail­ing vi­sion of beauty.

At 83, he looks re­mark­ably healthy: tanned, trim and dressed in his sig­na­ture uni­form of a mid­night-blue T-shirt and navy trousers. His steady gaze no­tices ev­ery­thing: as soon as we have greeted one an­other, he has al­ready taken in the details of what I am wear­ing (flat bal­let pumps, a flo­ral chif­fon blouse and jeans). He refers to th­ese al­most im­me­di­ately, when I ask him about his de­ci­sion to stage his forth­com­ing Em­po­rio Ar­mani show dur­ing Lon­don Fash­ion Week (to mark the re­open­ing of his Bond Street store this au­tumn). ‘I’ve been away from Lon­don for quite some time,’ he says. ‘The city has changed, I’ve changed and fash­ion has changed. But what has stayed the same is my de­sire to ex­press my­self. Be­cause in this rapidly chang­ing world, you can be in­flu­enced, dragged in one di­rec­tion or an­other, and lose your own iden­tity. But I have eyes and ears; I look around and lis­ten, and I’ve no­ticed that you wear jeans in a beau­ti­ful way, which maybe 10 years ago you wouldn’t have done. So this is what it means, this is the Lon­don of 2017, 2018… And now I con­sider Lon­don to be more so­phis­ti­cated, per­haps, than be­fore.’

So­phis­ti­ca­tion is, of course, the essence of Ar­mani style, ever since he first launched his brand in 1975, with a sin­gu­lar­ity that has made him that rarest of con­tem­po­rary de­sign­ers: the president and owner of his own busi­ness – with a per­sonal for­tune of over $8 bil­lion – and a true in­de­pen­dent in an era of global con­glom­er­ates. And some­how, he has made this near-im­pos­si­ble feat seem easy, just as he makes his char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally un­der­stated tai­lor­ing look ef­fort­less. But it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing just how rad­i­cal this was at the be­gin­ning of his ca­reer, when he de­con­structed the rigid lines of tra­di­tional jack­ets, hon­ing a soft yet stream­lined ver­sion of an­drog­y­nous suit­ing that be­stowed a sup­ple grace upon those who chose to wear Ar­mani, whether at work or at play.

Like Coco Chanel – a cou­turière he ad­mires greatly, along with Yves Saint Lau­rent – Ar­mani has an ap­ti­tude for cre­at­ing sim­plic­ity that be­lies the com­plex­ity of his tal­ent, in­spi­ra­tion and am­bi­tion. And again like Chanel, the pol­ished sur­faces of his self-made em­pire may also con­ceal past strug­gles and hid­den depths. ‘I’m very tough on my­self – even more so than on those around me,’ he ob­served in a mem­oir pub­lished in 2015. And his life was chal­leng­ing from the start, for he was born dur­ing the De­pres­sion, in July 1934, and grew up un­der the shadow of Mus­solini’s Fas­cist dic­ta­tor­ship, in the north­ern Ital­ian city of Pi­a­cenza, which suf­fered in­ten­sive bomb­ing dur­ing World War II. In his mem­oir, Ar­mani re­called the ‘the fear of liv­ing in a bombed-out city, shel­ter­ing in cel­lars’, and in pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tions, he has told me about the pri­va­tions of the war and its af­ter­math, when ‘there was no money and noth­ing to eat’. The mid­dle child of three, he had an older brother (Ser­gio, now dead) and a younger sis­ter, Rosanna; his fa­ther was em­ployed by a trans­port com­pany, and then ar­rested and im­pris­oned for sev­eral months af­ter the war, on charges of hav­ing worked for the Fas­cist state. His mother, a house­wife who also or­gan­ised chil­dren’s sum­mer camps, was a beau­ti­ful, dig­ni­fied yet aus­tere pres­ence; a nat­u­rally el­e­gant woman, he says, but one to whom out­ward dis­plays of af­fec­tion did not come eas­ily.

Af­ter en­dur­ing a long spell in hospi­tal – the re­sult of a child­hood trauma dur­ing the war, when he was badly burned by an ex­plod­ing shell – Ar­mani nur­tured an early am­bi­tion to be a doc­tor. He spent three years study­ing medicine, fol­lowed by two years of com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice, but even­tu­ally de­cided that he needed to get a job, in or­der to help sup­port his fam­ily. He found work at a de­part­ment store in Mi­lan, La Ri­nascente, ini­tially as a win­dow-dresser, then as

a menswear buyer. ‘The first time I vis­ited Lon­don, I was still work­ing for La Ri­nascente,’ he re­calls, ‘and it was the provoca­tive Lon­don of Carn­aby Street. I didn’t speak English, and com­ing from the Ital­ian sub­urbs, I was a bit shocked. But I was very struck by it, in a good way.’

Ar­mani even­tu­ally moved into fash­ion de­sign, em­ployed by the Ital­ian tex­tile mag­nate Nino Cer­ruti; though it was not un­til he turned 40 that he felt able to con­tem­plate launch­ing his own brand. And even then, this only came about be­cause of the love and sup­port of his part­ner, Ser­gio Ga­le­otti, who en­cour­aged Ar­mani to take the risk of set­ting up in busi­ness. Suc­cess was swift, in part be­cause the sub­tle an­drog­yny of the Ar­mani look proved to be the ideal sar­to­rial choice for a new gen­er­a­tion of work­ing women, for whom fem­i­nism did not ex­clude fash­ion. But there was also some­thing else at play in the rise of Ar­mani – a sex­i­ness that tends to be for­got­ten by those who dub him ‘the King of Greige’. Con­sider the in­te­gral role played by Ar­mani tai­lor­ing in Amer­i­can Gigolo, where Richard Gere is even more se­duc­tive when filmed get­ting dressed in his softly fit­ted suits than he is naked. Here, then, are clothes as a sec­ond skin; and with a sim­i­lar in­ti­macy and ca­ress­ing touch.

I won­der, too, about how Ar­mani’s own (pos­si­bly in­de­fin­able) sex­ual iden­tity may have in­flu­enced his work, for he grew up in a pe­riod when Fas­cism sought to sup­press ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity (and even though such per­se­cu­tion is no longer sanc­tioned by the state in Italy, it is not yet a coun­try that has fully em­braced gay rights). Cer­tainly, there is noth­ing camp about Ar­mani style; hence, per­haps, the way his menswear has been used to great ef­fect by Hol­ly­wood film-mak­ers, to sug­gest the hy­per-mas­culin­ity of gang­ster roles in The Un­touch­ables and GoodFel­las; but as is also ap­par­ent in Amer­i­can Gigolo, this does not pre­clude a sub­ver­sive ho­mo­erotic un­der­cur­rent, what­ever the con­scious in­ten­tions of the direc­tor.

Trag­i­cally, Ar­mani’s rise to suc­cess was dark­ened by Ga­le­otti’s death of Aids in 1985. This ter­ri­ble loss might have seemed in­sur­mount­able, given that Ga­le­otti was Ar­mani’s busi­ness part­ner, as well as his life’s com­pan­ion and in­spi­ra­tion. But the de­signer’s in­ner strength – even a streak of stee­li­ness – man­i­fested it­self, with suf­fi­cient in­ten­sity to pro­pel the com­pany to even greater heights. ‘Chal­lenges: I love them more than any­thing else,’ he wrote in his mem­oir, though it is also clear that he grieved long and deeply. When I in­ter­viewed Mr Ar­mani two years ago, on the oc­ca­sion of the 40th an­niver­sary of his com­pany, he ob­served: ‘To be cre­ative, you need to be able to re­spond to pain. If ev­ery­thing goes well, you get bor­ing.’

All of which makes Ar­mani – the man, and his brands – more com­pli­cated than one might at first as­sume. Just look at the un­ex­pected dash of play­ful­ness that is ev­i­dent in his work; in this cou­ture col­lec­tion, for ex­am­ple, there are lit­tle knit­ted hats, oc­ca­sional splashes of vivid pink, and a print that sug­gests a bird in flight, its wings spread wide. ‘Nowa­days, ev­ery­thing blends to­gether,’ says Mr Ar­mani, ‘so with this col­lec­tion, I wanted to cre­ate a clear di­vide, and to reaf­firm the true codes of cou­ture, which are so­phis­ti­ca­tion, ec­cen­tric­ity and unique­ness.’

Ec­cen­tric­ity might seem an un­likely ele­ment in an aes­thetic famed for its re­fine­ment and re­straint – but it’s nev­er­the­less a key in­gre­di­ent of Ar­mani’s style. (Which might ex­plain the un­ex­pected pres­ence of a larger-than-life go­rilla in Mr Ar­mani’s liv­ing-room on the top floor of his palazzo in Mi­lan – a dis­carded model from Italy’s Cinecittà film stu­dio, to which the de­signer has given a home.) As Ar­mani him­self ob­serves, the clar­ity of his vis­ual ap­proach is leav­ened with ‘a touch of moder­nity and wit’. Added to th­ese are his imag­i­na­tion, and the power of dreams. ‘My fam­ily was a mod­est fam­ily with mod­est op­por­tu­ni­ties,’ he says, ‘so I ba­si­cally con­structed a world for my­self. And that’s why I love this job so much, be­cause it has al­lowed me to build a world to which I never be­longed – a world that I saw in films, and that I read about in books. I built my own way of be­ing…’

Per­haps sur­pris­ingly for some­one who claims not to speak English (al­though he ap­pears to un­der­stand ev­ery­thing I say dur­ing the course of our con­ver­sa­tion, even be­fore it is trans­lated), Mr Ar­mani is a great fan of Bri­tish pe­riod drama, in­clud­ing Down­ton Abbey, Vic­to­ria and The Crown. ‘There’s a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a world and a way of be­ing that I love very much,’ he says. ‘There’s one way of dress­ing for break­fast, an­other for din­ner, and clothes de­pend­ing on the var­i­ous cir­cum­stances that pre­sented them­selves through­out the day. But nowa­days, you put on some­thing in the morn­ing and you only take it off when you go to bed at night.’

He looks al­most wist­ful for a mo­ment, as if con­tem­plat­ing this ide­alised English past has less­ened his usual guard­ed­ness. And so I ask him: ‘What did you dream about last night?’

‘It was a hor­ri­ble dream,’ he says. ‘I was in New York with some uniden­ti­fi­able peo­ple, and at a cer­tain point, I turned around, and they weren’t there any more. I’m lost in New York, in a de­part­ment store that is clos­ing, it’s rain­ing out­side, and I’m feel­ing so dis­tressed, com­pletely aban­doned.

‘It’s a re­cur­ring dream – if I told a psy­cho­an­a­lyst about it, they’d say, “You’re scared that peo­ple are go­ing to aban­don you.”’ He smiles, and adds: ‘For­tu­nately, I woke up in my own beau­ti­ful bed­room.’

‘Have you ever had psy­cho­anal­y­sis?’ I ask. ‘I did it my­self!’ he replies. Then he says good­bye, with a gen­tle nod, and his eyes – sky­blue, yet grave – re­turn to the task ahead of him: to the rails of en­chant­ing cou­ture gowns, and a wak­ing dream of pure el­e­gance, wherein the con­tin­u­ing search for per­fec­tion of­fers the hope of over­com­ing each and every fear of loss…

Ar­mani is a great fan of Down­ton Abbey, Vic­to­ria and The Crown. ‘There’s a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a world that I love’

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