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