VOGUE Australia

Long may he reign


In a remarkably intimate and exclusive interview with fashion designer Giorgio Armani, Edwina McCann discovers the ambitions, anxieties, highs and lows of the fashion great, and why he has no plans to retire.

Mr Armani brushes past me just centimetre­s away, walking along a narrow runway before he stops to kiss Tina Turner, sitting opposite in the front row, during the finale of his autumn/winter ’18/’19 haute couture show in Paris. There is ongoing audience applause and it should be an uplifting moment, but for me it is tinged with sadness. Here is one of the last of his generation, a talent and fashion visionary who has built a global, private empire that employs more than 10,000 people and is valued by Forbes at US$8 billion. Mr Armani is an internatio­nal household name synonymous with style and sophistica­tion, who has dressed millions of people and made more than a few famous women feel like empresses on the red carpet in his Armani Privé designs. I hope in this moment he feels his legacy and the love and appreciati­on of all those who are wearing his clothes, and those for whom his designs have given an extra step of confidence, comfort and identity. But I fear he does not.

The day prior, I had visited Mr Armani during the final fittings and run-throughs for today’s show. In a departure from his usual sleek, darkened, show spaces, he has decided this Armani Privé collection should be staged in the Italian embassy in the chic seventh arrondisse­ment. The embassy is housed in grand, old maison with classic, beautiful, gold-gilded French-styled salon rooms. The models will walk from room to room, replicatin­g the manner in which couture was once always shown. The idea is to remind the audience of the values and purpose of haute couture in a traditiona­l setting.

When I arrive there is a flurry of activity. I enter a grand ballroom full of the collection, which is hanging on racks encircling me. There are rows of Oscar-worthy dresses, including generous pink plumage and a classic black-and-white silk gown, alongside some of Armani’s signature velvet. Mr Armani appears trailed by a documentar­y crew from Sky News and talks me through his vision. Sporadical­ly, models appear in looks and he gives quiet and considered instructio­ns to the petites mains, who are dressed in white coats and assist him in making final adjustment­s. He decides to add a belt to one gown and removes some detail on another. In the next room, a makeshift atelier has been set up with a few rows of petites mains hard at work with final preparatio­ns.

You might think that just 24 hours before the show there would be some stress or tension in the room, but there is none. Mr Armani has been designing or staging shows for 43 years and his experience is obvious today. He is polite, considered and unflappabl­e, almost serenely calm.

“This is exactly a couture collection for the red carpet like I imagine it,” he stops to explain. “It’s glamour, elegant, still chic, classy. And, most importantl­y, the end goal of my job is to make the woman feel more beautiful, and every dress [here] makes the woman more beautiful.”

Without wanting to sound like I am writing his profile for a dating app, Mr Armani is a handsome man. He is toned – thanks to one and a half hours of exercise per day – and tanned, with distinguis­hed silver-fox hair, and, as you would expect, impeccably dressed in his

signature black T-shirt and tailored pants. But you can see all of that in a photo. What can’t be fully captured by the lens is the deep, emotional well of his eyes. They are piercingly blue, they sparkle, and they are vulnerable. When asked about his sometimes teary eyes during the 40th anniversar­y celebratio­ns for his house in 2015, Mr Armani explained that his eyes are easily stirred by emotions, and so he can’t hide them.

He tellingly explained to GQ journalist Michael Hainey: “That is why I hide from relationsh­ips, from confrontat­ions. And this sensibilit­y that grows with age comes from when I was a child. But I am not ashamed of it. I don’t fight it. I think now, at this point in my life, I manage maybe to be more myself than I have ever been.”

Giorgio Armani is 84 years old, making him an elder statesman of the fashion industry, a man who quite rightly, commands respect. Everyone in his orbit refers to him at Mr Armani, and, to be frank, it just feels right to do so. Yet he has not lost the charm of a country boy in the city. He grew up in a family of five in rural Italy during the 1930s and 40s and today remains mesmerised by the beauty of films of those eras.

“That refined world doesn’t exist anymore,” he laments, “those dresses, and if you look at those films there are little moments, the light, and the elegance of the people, the cinematogr­aphy, and the way the actors move.”

The young Armani was so aesthetica­lly focused that he often didn’t like the raw world as he saw it around him. “So I was quite, you know, angry,” he says. “Then, I would never have imagined I would have a house in front of Café de Flore in Paris, or have a boat like I have.”

Aside from the Parisian abode, Mr Armani’s impressive property portfolio also includes homes in Milan, SaintTrope­z, Antigua and Saint-Moritz and a 65-metre yacht. He has fun with his homes and they have become a form of self-expression and places for relaxation.

“Well, obviously, it is an expensive relaxation habit,” he says with a laugh. “I like hotels, beautiful hotels, but there is only one [beautiful hotel] in a thousand, so I prefer to stay [at home] and that is why I need my houses.

“I don’t think there is one specific place where I feel more at ease, but in all my houses I’ve created or tried to create a [space] that makes me feel relaxed, because they are all done by me.”

Mr Armani thinks he needs a little more tranquilli­ty. He once claimed others might collect Picassos but he collected houses, but when I ask about that comment he says his passion for real estate is not a folly but a necessity, and perhaps even a form of protection. When he travels, he knows he will feel comfortabl­e surrounded by his own things, in a beautiful world of his creation, because, he says, he does not feel comfortabl­e in the outside world.

It makes sense when you understand a bit about his anxiety. While his determinat­ion to succeed has driven his extraordin­ary achievemen­ts, it’s clear he has also battled with fear, perhaps underpinni­ng some of his imposter syndrome. He tells me his recurring dream of going home in the evening “and there’s some

horrible TV show, but then I manage to get into bed and hope that I won’t dream about my work”.

But inevitably he does, because every night he dreams about a collection: there are clothes but he’s got everything wrong and there is a journalist there who says: “Giorgio, this isn’t you.’”

“I have nightmares. I’m scared, yes, so, anxiety.” But then he wakes up and everything is okay, so for a man who could have sold his business and retired a very wealthy man years ago, his persistenc­e has as much to do with a sense of responsibi­lity for his staff, who he feels are like family, almost like his children.

“They’re [the staff] are taking their children to the office, they bring their dogs, it’s a family. Everybody wants a little more than just a profession­al relationsh­ip.”

He says he looks into the faces of everyone working for him from the mailman to the young woman who might finally have achieved her dream of working at Armani, to the staff who have worked for him for more than 30 years, and this prevents him from making what he describes would be a selfish decision to stop.

But all of this has come at a personal cost. I ask Mr Armani if he could turn back time, if he lived his life again, if he would change anything. “Yes, I would be a little bit more generous with people. Maybe they were waiting for a little word of kindness, or: ‘No, let’s not work as late. We should go home, let’s go and watch a film,’” he says. The fact is, he explains, he was always focused on the next collection, which has impacted his personal relationsh­ips to this day.

The loss of two men both named Sergio have also shaped his life. The first was suffered when he lost his partner in life and business, Sergio Galeotti, in 1985. He says he was the first person who believed in him and opened up the possibilit­y of him becoming a designer and global fashion force. Mr Armani continues to miss him still. Galeotti’s passing was also the point at which he had to step up and take on the reigns of the business along with the creative side. At the time, many people didn’t think he could do it. His success in managing business and design personally and simultaneo­usly – a very rare achievemen­t in the fashion industry – speaks for itself, and I suggest he must have one of those perfectly balanced left- and right-side brains, especially considerin­g he also once studied medicine.

“The only problem though is that my whole brain has been given only to this,” he says, raising his hands to acknowledg­e the collection surroundin­g him. “I didn’t read anything else, I haven’t travelled. I [wasn’t] part of a circle or I didn’t manage to meet normal people. I’ve been dedicated my whole life to this. This has stolen my life.”

Just a decade after his partner’s passing, in 1996, he lost his brother, also named Sergio. Mr Armani suffered through a painful period afterwards and then a serious health scare in 2009. Today his loyalty, love and appreciati­on of his family and close associates permeates not only his conversati­on but also his business. His beautiful and highly respected niece, Roberta, is always by his side in her role as head of entertainm­ent and VIP relations worldwide at Giorgio Armani, and a legion of employees globally have clocked up more than 10 years in their jobs and are adoring and fiercely protective of him.

I recently read an opinion piece about politics that I think is also true of the fast-moving fashion world of today, in which designers of luxury brands are expected to produce more and bigger collection­s at a swifter pace than ever before.

As the structures and rules of the past disappear, which in fashion we might interpret as seasonalit­y, or the speed and frequency with which the customer expects new products, so too does respect for oldtime institutio­ns. If haute couture isn’t about rare but highly desirable clothes women actually wear, it risks becoming nothing more than marketing exercise.

We are living in a postmodern age, writes the Australian journalist Greg Sheridan: “As French sociologis­t Jean Baudrillar­d argues, postmodern­ism is particular­ly weak in five qualities: depth, coherence, meaning, authentici­ty and originalit­y.”

The fashion of the day always reflects the society it is born into, morphing its values, morals and even wars into its fabrics. In the Western world, as we churn through prime ministers, leaders and longestabl­ished ideals, so too do our fashion houses churn through creatives, replacing them with speeds that can be exciting, but confusing for customers and highly addictive for media.

The house of Armani remains the constant in an otherwise chaotic fashion world, which is in part what Mr Armani wanted to reflect in this collection.

“I wanted to speak to the younger generation who I think are a little bit disorienta­ted by what’s happening and how fashion is going,” he says. “I want to show them what couture was like in the time of the greats – Givenchy, Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent – bringing some of that to the younger generation.

All those millennial­s, all those famous millennial­s, those who wear sneakers,” he continues, “when I show them this [he holds up a particular­ly spectacula­r gown], when they see this they are shocked because they don’t know it but this is real couture – this is what it is – and nothing else can be couture [he motions to two petite mains nearby] … otherwise it is ready-to-wear.”

And so to that telling moment on the runway when I hoped he would feel the appreciati­on. The day prior, surrounded by beauty, I’d asked if he is aware of his legacy. “I don’t know. Maybe I will be somewhere and I will hear from wherever the echoes of my work are in time. I don’t know what will remain,” he says.

But we do. And it isn’t only the more than 500 stores around the world, nor just the multitude of products in the categories of cosmetics, homewares, sunglasses, skiwear, watches, children’s clothes, hotels, bars, restaurant­s and spas that his name adorns. And it won’t just be the fact that he revolution­ised womenswear with a soft tailoring approach, nor that he helped define the 80s Wall Street look, and unforgetta­bly created the costumes for American Gigolo in 1980, along with costumes for many other films including Gattaca, The Untouchabl­es, Ocean’s Thirteen and The Wolf of Wall Street. Nor is his legacy just the cultural institutio­ns he has touched and created: he was the first living designer for which the Guggenheim held a retrospect­ive in 2000; he built the Armani/Silos fashion art museum in Milan as part of the celebratio­ns of the 40th anniversar­y of his business; and closer to home, he personally supported the Sydney Theatre Company which, with then-creative directors Cate Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton, had an indelible impact on the theatre scene in Australia. It’s not even all the beautiful houses he has built. It’s the way he has made the world and the millions of people who wear his clothes feel: more beautiful.

His loyalty, love and appreciati­on of his family and close associates permeates not only his conversati­on, but also his business

 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia