‘Ev­ery­one says, “You’re so hand­some,” and I’ve be­gun to be­lieve it’

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CONTENTS - 51-52 New Bond Street, Lon­don W1; ar­mani.com

At 83, Gior­gio Ar­mani is still go­ing strong. Lisa Arm­strong meets the straight-talk­ing fashion gi­ant

Don’t get Gior­gio Ar­mani started on his mis­takes. ‘When ’80s Un­garo got into my head [that wasn’t great]. When I over­did it with the Chanel style. When I got car­ried away by moder­nity. When I cre­ated some haute couture at the limit of ridicu­lous­ness…’

I hadn’t an­tic­i­pated such a frank re­sponse from Ar­mani, whose self-be­lief and mon­u­men­tal suc­cess con­tinue to taunt some of his crit­ics. This is a de­signer who re­fuses to take the pro­fes­sional fashion com­men­ta­tors’ crit­i­cism on board – and con­tin­ues to out­sell just about ev­ery­one else. The Ar­mani group’s rev­enue, in 2015, was £1.85 bil­lion, up 4.5 per cent on the pre­vi­ous year.

Things have been a bit tougher lately. But al­most all his peers are suf­fer­ing too. The ex­tra­or­di­nary thing is that he is still the sole owner of a com­pany val­ued at about $3 bil­lion, give or take the odd mil­lion. You can see why he makes a point of telling me that ‘ex­cit­ing and won­der­ful’ as he still finds fashion, ‘it has to have an ul­ti­mate pur- pose, and that’s to turn a profit and see men and women wear­ing your clothes. Press isn’t the only thing that needs to be con­sid­ered.’

Oops. The press. At best, Gior­gio Ar­mani’s re­la­tion­ship with the me­dia is, shall we say, zesty. Feuds? He’s had a few. He prefers not to hang out with jour­nal­ists too much these days, al­though oc­ca­sion­ally he will swoop down from Mount Ar­mani to send a hand­writ­ten note thank­ing a reporter for a re­view – or ad­mon­ish­ing them.

At a push he will do in­ter­views in French, or, more grudg­ingly, with an in­ter­preter – he is of that Ital­ian gen­er­a­tion that didn’t au­to­mat­i­cally learn English, and has stead­fastly re­sisted pick­ing it up. He talks the lan­guage of blunt­ness though, and in an in­dus­try where few speak their minds pub­licly any more, this can lead to some di­vert­ing con­tretemps. He once de­clared him­self in­dif­fer­ent to Anna Win­tour, while stand­ing next to her at a press con­fer­ence to pro­mote a gala they were jointly host­ing. Two years ago he re­called how Gianni Ver­sace once said to him, ‘I dress sluts. You dress church ladies.’ Ver­sace’s sis­ter, Donatella, was not amused, but it’s not im­pos­si­ble that Ar­mani was hav­ing a sly dig at him­self when he dusted off this nugget. Who’s to say church ladies are prefer­able to sluts when it comes to fashion?

The feud-ettes glide off Mr Ar­mani’s well­toned back. Or do they? ‘The press is pretty hard to please when it comes to me,’ he says, barely six min­utes into our in­ter­view. ‘As soon as I do some­thing dif­fer­ent, there’s im­me­di­ate crit­i­cism. They love me. But there’s al­ways the crit­i­cism. I don’t know… I de­cide that a hat is for the en­tire show’ – a ref­er­ence to his pen­chant for zoom­ing in on an ac­ces­sory each sea­son and styling it with every look – ‘and there’s some­one who says, “Well, you could have done with­out the hat.” While for oth­ers, putting a boat on your head is to­tally nor­mal be­cause it makes the cover [of a mag­a­zine]. Small hats [on the other hand] are anachro­nis­tic.’

Hav­ing been to Ar­mani events lib­er­ally gar­nished with women wear­ing his clothes, I un­der­stand his frus­tra­tion. De­signer par­ties are highly in­struc­tive: this is where gen­uine clients mix with mas­cots of the house. The lat­ter tend to be mod­els, ac­tresses and so­cialites, dressed by stylists, ad­vised by the de­signer, of­ten un­der some kind of con­tract. The clients pay for the clothes them­selves; they get to choose what they want to wear and how.

The re­sults aren’t al­ways what the de­signer orig­i­nally en­vi­sioned. It’s re­mark­able how of­ten clients, dressed head-to-toe in one la­bel, their faces and bod­ies fre­quently ‘worked’ to a generic, some­what vague global stan­dard of beauty, look over­done to the point of ridicu­lous­ness. But not Ar­mani’s. Whether 27 or 87, the Ar­mani woman, on the whole, looks el­e­gant, un­der­stated and, above all, com­fort­able. If he handed over the styling of his show to some­one less fix­ated on hats, for in­stance, per­haps his es­sen­tial moder­nity would be more ap­par­ent… But what am I say­ing? He is one of the most fa­mous de­sign­ers of our time.

Now 83, he’s as un­will­ing as ever to dis­cuss a suc­ces­sor. Ex­ter­nal fi­nan­cial voices find this dis­con­cert­ing, but Ar­mani ex­hibits lit­tle sign of slow­ing. Au con­traire. He ex­er­cises for 90 min­utes every morn­ing – ‘ Every morn­ing. Christ­mas, Easter, al­ways’ – and has mas­sages every two to three days. ‘I would say I’m work­ing more.’

He has quite a lot to do, hav­ing re­cently bought back the li­cence for Ar­mani Ex­change, re­turn­ing it to his di­rect man­age­ment. That’s an im­pres­sive dis­play of con­fi­dence in his own abil­ity to con­nect with Gen­er­a­tion Z. A / X is the youngest and most ca­sual man­i­fes­ta­tion of his brand.

Then there are the col­lec­tions for his main line; Ar­mani Privé, his couture line; and Em­po­rio Ar­mani, which this sea­son is show­ing at Lon­don Fashion Week, rather than Mi­lan’s own equiv­a­lent. A sprawl­ing net­work of bou­tiques keeps him busy too. Ar­mani sells in just shy of 3,000 shops, in­clud­ing depart­ment stores and a newly revamped one on Bond Street – the pre­text for the Lon­don show. There is Gior­gio Ar­mani Beauty, man­u­fac­tured by L’oréal and one of the best de­signer cos­metic brands on the mar­ket. ‘I have to keep L’oréal on their toes,’ he says crisply. He has strong views on make-up, does Ar­mani. Of course he does.

His restau­rants are an­other pas­sion, as is Gior­gio’s, the mem­bers-only club where he can some­times be spot­ted tap­ping his feet to live acts. There is a suc­cess­ful in­te­rior-de­sign stu­dio, a flower business and a lux­ury ho­tel in Mi­lan so minutely over­seen it even smells of Ar­mani – Privé Bois d’en­cens to be pre­cise. ‘Ho­tels to­day are the ne plus ul­tra of glam­our,’ he says. ‘Mine is just right. It has nice beds, it ’s iso­lated from noise, it has nice bath­rooms, per­fect linens. That’s a good ho­tel.’ Does he ever stay in it? ‘No, I have a beau­ti­ful home.’

Seven, ac­tu­ally.

Whether 27 or 87, the Ar­mani woman, on the whole, looks el­e­gant, un­der­stated and, above all, com­fort­able

It’s fun in­ter­view­ing Mr Ar­mani (his staff all call him ‘Mr’). You don’t get long – 25 min­utes in my case, back­stage be­fore his couture show in Paris. Ini­tially I re­quested 90 min­utes in one of his homes. Or at least in his of­fice. Some­where I could parse for char­ac­ter clues. I felt re­buffed. But his press team is in awe. ‘Wow, 25 min­utes is twice as long as his av­er­age,’ one of them tells me.

In its way, back­stage is telling. An hour be­fore lift-off, de­sign­ers tend to be antsy. There’s a lot go­ing on. Mod­els wan­der around look­ing ab­sent. Hair and make-up look fraz­zled. But Ar­mani, who cel­e­brated his 40th an­niver­sary in business two years ago, is a vet­eran of, at a rough cal­cu­la­tion, at least 160 shows. I catch him de­liv­er­ing a mini lec­ture to about 40 mod­els, seated around him like a par­tic­u­larly pul­chri­tudi­nous A-level class. I think he’s telling them how to walk the Ar­mani walk.

These shows hardly de­vi­ate from a for­mat per­fected years ago: the mod­els who trot down an un­der­lit cat­walk never reap­pear for a fi­nale. The lights dim briefly. When they fire up again, it is Ar­mani who emerges, spotlit in his navy chi­nos, with a white or navy shirt, but al­ways with that sil­ver-white hair and sparkling tan. The hum­ble ar­ti­san-cre­ator, alone.

To­day the ar­ti­san-cre­ator has added a navy knit­ted, de­con­structed woollen jacket to the mix. It’s at least 35 de­grees. Mirac­u­lously, he’s not even per­spir­ing, al­though at one point he asks for the air con­di­tion­ing to be turned up. Re­moval of the jacket would pre­sum­ably ruin his look, which is sim­ple but not nec­es­sar­ily ef­fort­less. There have been well-doc­u­mented sight­ings of a tan­ning bed in his Mi­lan home. A por­trait from 1982 shows a pre­co­cious sil­ver fox Ar­mani pos­ing with a cat whose fur tones im­pec­ca­bly with his hair.

Per­haps he’s a lit­tle vain? ‘Ab­so­lutely,’ he re­torts. ‘Ev­ery­one says, “You’re so hand­some,” and I’ve be­gun to be­lieve it.’

Since his rest­ing face is one of be­nign seren­ity, I can’t tell whether this is said for comedic ef­fect. Those who work for him at­test he has a wicked sense of hu­mour. They clearly re­spect him. But is there more to it? ‘Is it true that some peo­ple are afraid of you?’ I ask.

‘Ev­ery­one is afraid of me… I take ad­van­tage of it every once in a while.’

He is hand­some though. Even the bitchi­est web­sites agree on this point. Ar­mani in swim­ming trunks is a sum­mer favourite. Still Peter Pan-like, with a retroussé nose and strik­ing blue eyes, he was quite the mati­nee idol in his youth. His mother, Maria Rai­mondi, whose fa­cial fea­tures he shares, was a looker too. He’s paid trib­ute to her el­e­gant min­i­mal­ism in numer­ous in­ter­views over the years, but there’s less about his fa­ther, Ugo, an ac­coun­tant. ‘He was very el­e­gant,’ Ar­mani re­calls. ‘Very sim­ple, but neat. A clean-cut man who didn’t have much time be­cause he had to work. He had to sup­port three chil­dren. So he didn’t re­ally have the op­por­tu­nity to get out of his lim­ited world. I al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated that he made sure we never lacked any­thing.’ Then he asks some­thing rather sweet: can he give me a pic­ture of his fa­ther?

The Ar­ma­nis were ‘de­cently poor’, he says, by which I take it he means re­spectably. Af­ter 1945, Italy was in ru­ins. More­over, the young Gior­gio had his own per­sonal trauma to deal with. Aged 11, he lost his sight fol­low­ing an ex­plo­sion – tempo- rar­ily, but he didn’t know that at the time. They must have been the 20 long­est days of his life, but he doesn’t seem in­ter­ested in dis­cussing the psy­cho­log­i­cal af­ter­math. Not with a jour­nal­ist any­way. His re­tort is re­veal­ing none­the­less. ‘Did it in­flu­ence me? No. But it alerted me to life’s sur­prises and how strong I could be at 11 years old.’

In some ways Ar­mani’s en­tire tra­jec­tory has in­volve d te sting him­self to the max . He en­tered fashion late and had no ob­vi­ous con­nec­tions draw­ing him in. No aris­to­cratic back­ground like Givenchy. No wealthy par­ents like Karl Lager­feld.

In­stead he trained as a medic and served in the Ital­ian army be­fore be­com­ing a win­dow dresser at La Ri­nascente, Italy ’s smartest depart­ment store, in 1957. By the mid-1960s, he had pro­pelled him­self into a job with Nino Cer­ruti in Paris. The way he tells it, he was forced to en­ter fashion – typ­i­cally – by his an­i­mus for ev­ery­thing he saw go­ing on there. ‘The real push came from not find­ing some­thing that I liked. I de­tested fashion in the ’60s.’ (From some of the com­ments he’s made about his peers at var­i­ous times, one might in­fer he’s de­tested fashion in all decades.)

He launched his own la­bel in 1975. It was an in­stant suc­cess. He rev­o­lu­tionised men’s tai­lor­ing, in­tro­duc­ing the world to a soft, slouchy Ital­ian slick­ness. Then he did it all over again for women. ‘What I re­ally did,’ he re­flects, ‘was cre­ate a lot of in­ter­est in an au­di­ence that didn’t fol­low fashion but found in my of­fer­ings a modern way of dress­ing.’ That’s a rather work­man­like as­sess­ment. But true. And apart from that mon­u­men­tal vi­sion, he had in­her­ited his fa­ther’s ac­count­ing acu­men and his mother’s dress­mak­ing tal­ents. When his lover, business part­ner and great­est cheer­leader, Ser­gio

Aged 11, he lost his sight tem­po­rar­ily fol­low­ing an ex­plo­sion. ‘It alerted me to life’s sur­prises and how strong I could be’

Ga­le­otti, who trained as an ar­chi­tect and prob­a­bly in­spired Ar­mani’s own for­ays in this field, died in 1985, it was a dev­as­tat­ing per­sonal loss, but the com­pany con­tin­ued to soar.

Per­haps Ar­mani’s most last­ing im­pact is via his col­lab­o­ra­tions with cin­ema. At the Ar­mani mu­seum in Mi­lan, im­pres­sive as the phys­i­cal ex­hibits are, it’s the footage of all those lu­mi­nous Ar­mani-clad stars that mes­merises. From Paul Schrader’s iconic Amer­i­can Gigolo in 1980, the film that ar­guably sealed Ar­mani’s ca­reer, to The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, he re­mains Hol­ly­wood’s gold stan­dard for sta­tus dress­ing. Gigolo set the tem­plate for 1980s style, per­co­lat­ing down to a shiny new gen­er­a­tion of high-street chains, which be­gan dress­ing the masses as if they were all mas­ters of the uni­verse. It has ac­quired mythic di­men­sions, as Ar­mani no doubt re­alises. ‘The last time I tried to pull him [Ar­mani] into a film his rep­re­sen­ta­tive told me: “We don’t do films any more,”’ Schrader lamented to GQ in 2012. ‘“It’s too much work. We pre­fer to just do the red car­pet.” That’s where the money is.’

That may have been more of Mr Ar­mani’s mis­chief, since he tells me he has since col­lab­o­rated on a num­ber of Ital­ian films. But Schrader was right about Ar­mani’s hold over the red car­pet.

He is both a revered fashion name and above fashion. The ac­tresses who wear him – Sophia ‘The real push [to en­ter the in­dus­try] came from not find­ing some­thing that I liked. I de­tested fashion in the ’60s’ Loren, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Michelle Pfeif­fer, Naomi Watts – tend to have carved rep­u­ta­tions as pil­lars of time­less style, rather than be­ing the straw women chased by other de­sign­ers. His pulling power de­fies grav­ity.

Yet he’s never iden­ti­fied with a sin­gle muse the way Hu­bert de Givenchy did with Au­drey Hepburn, Oleg Cassini did with Jackie Kennedy or, to­day, Ni­co­las Gh­esquière does with Michelle Wil­liams. For one thing, he says, ‘If I had asked to dress Au­drey Hepburn, she would prob­a­bly have told me, “No thank you.” I didn’t have that power.’

He did, how­ever, have the fore­sight to see how po­tent a mar­ket­ing tool celebrity would be at a time when other de­sign­ers didn’t re­ally bother with Hol­ly­wood, and vice versa. He re­mains a totemic name among a newer gen­er­a­tion of celebri­ties, not just worn, but reg­u­larly cited in rap lyrics by Wiz Khal­ifa, Kanye West and TI.

As for those mis­takes he listed at the be­gin­ning – were they re­ally mis­takes, or healthy risk tak­ing? I sus­pect the lat­ter. And so, I think, does he. Dwelling on re­grets doesn’t seem to be an Ar­mani problem. Per­haps, though, he is wary of be­ing iso­lated. He trusts no one. At least not ini­tially. ‘Slowly, if they’re a good per­son, I change my idea. Am I happy? When I wake up in the morn­ing and a job I love is wait­ing for me, yes. If I don’t have that, I be­come sad. Work makes me feel alive.’

Gior­gio Ar­mani be­came a de­signer be­cause he ‘de­tested fashion’. Fortysome­thing years later, he’s a style pow­er­house who can’t – and won’t – slow down. Lisa Arm­strong has a rare au­di­ence with Italy’s fashion king

The Ar­mani walk

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