By  on May 5, 2008

MILAN — Welcome to Giorgio a-go-go.

With an energy level that would exhaust even the fittest, the designer landed in New York Sunday for a 48-hour whirlwind visit that included checking in on the progress of his new flagship, attending the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute gala, making a personal appearance at Saks Fifth Avenue, being honored with the first Couture Council Award for Global Fashion Leadership and participating in a question-and-answer session with students at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

"It will be like being in apnea with a program that changes every five minutes," joked Armani during an interview in his Via Borgonuovo offices here before the trip.

Immediately after landing in Manhattan from Antigua, Armani stopped to check the progress of the flagship he's building on Fifth Avenue slated to open early next year. Seeing the gutted interior of the 47,000-square-foot unit for the first time, he said, "I was curious to see this store. New York needs glamour. It needs size. This store is an act of faith toward the Americans and Fifth Avenue shoppers because I still very much believe in this market in which I invested a lot," said Armani.

His next appointment of the day was a walk-through of the "Superheroes" exhibition, accompanied by Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour — with whom the designer had a much-talked-about dustup in Milan in February — and Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton of the Costume Institute.

Armani has contributed three looks to the exhibition — a specially made sculptured dress with exaggerated slopey shoulders that he described as a latter-day Barbarella, but was quick to point out doesn't pertain to his taste; a Giorgio Armani dress with a spiderweb-looking overlay from the spring 1990 collection, and an Emporio men's wear outfit from fall 2007.

At tonight's Met gala, Armani will be honorary chair, with co-chairs Wintour, George Clooney and Julia Roberts. The two actors plus Sarah Larson, Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, David and Victoria Beckham and Camilla Belle all will don Armani. In fact, Roberts was spotted having a fitting for her dress on Friday.Earlier this morning, the silver-haired designer was due to visit Saks, where all 31 windows are dressed to represent Armani's world. "We've always been very successful with department stores and particularly with Saks. This presentation demonstrates that they believed and continue to believe in my brand," the designer said.

The inspiration for the Saks windows is Armani's signature neon tubing, while the spring Privé collection will occupy the central windows. The remainder of the windows will preview Armani's fall men's and women's collections, alongside watches and sunglasses.

Armani also will fete the brand's remodeled beauty counter filled with the new Bronze Mania line. The designer was originally scheduled to inaugurate the counter on 9/11, but put off the event following the terrorist attacks.

Switching from commerce to education, the designer will share his thoughts Tuesday with 250 FIT students and later there will be an announcement of a new Armani Scholarship Endowment Program for the institute.

Last but not least, the designer will breeze in and out of the set of "Duplicity" for a quick hello with the film's stars, Roberts and Clive Owen.

Such a round-the-clock schedule is proof that, despite the feeble dollar, iffy retail climate and economic slowdown, Armani still has confidence in the U.S. market.

That said, the designer, clad in his staple navy blue T-shirt and slacks ensemble, didn't miss the opportunity to analyze the American business mentality. "There's a crisis in the U.S. in part because many Americans are too optimistic in their belief of their power and their mentality is sometimes too dependent on certain rules, whereas today you need a more elastic vision," he said.

To that end, Armani believes his new Fifth Avenue outpost, across from the Gucci store, displays retail vision because it houses everything Armani — including the signature line, Emporio Armani and Armani Jeans collections — under one roof, but is showcased with the same decor throughout. "It's a challenge because in other Armani stores, the decor differentiates the various lines," said Armani. "What sets them apart here is the taste and mood of the various lines."

The space also includes Armani Dolci and Armani Casa areas, plus a restaurant. "This is an experiment," he said. "Some people were a bit perplexed by this. Even some people who work with me. But I like making bets."The Manhattan store will be the designer's biggest after his units in Tokyo's Ginza district, which opened last year, and Milan. The store, designed by Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas, will differ from other existing formats, although details, including the financial investment, were unavailable.

Armani said he chose Fifth Avenue because he was attracted by the mix of luxury goods stores and more mainstream, commercial ones. "On Fifth Avenue you have older ladies who travel in limousines together with younger and trendier women that shop in similar places because diversification is a market need these days," claimed Armani.

He added that it reveals how his brand mirrors today's shopping habits. "Someone can buy a pair of Bermuda shorts at Abercrombie & Fitch, a piece of jewelry at Bergdorf Goodman and an Emporio Armani skirt. This is the way people shop," he said.

But when asked what advice he would give a student about to make his or her foray on the fashion scene, Armani hesitates. "I would be a bit embarrassed and confused," said the designer, who has built a $2 billion fashion empire. "There are valid commercial lines that the press ignores and we all know that young designers are stimulated by the press, while other brands, whose validity I doubt, make headlines."

He added that certain products are limited to a restricted clientele, and criticized designers who push difficult styles that target an elitist and artsy consumer. "It's a very particular moment for fashion," he said.

While still a workaholic, the 74-year-old Armani is gradually leaning more toward the all-work-and-no-play-makes-Jack-a-dull-boy adage and admits that he doesn't like to travel as much anymore, preferring the tranquility of his Milan headquarters and the comfort of his various homes. And he now has another toy — Main, his brand-new megayacht named after his mother's nickname. The boat was christened at the end of April in Viareggio, Italy.

Armani's eyes light up when he discusses the new 213-foot floating home for which he designed the hull and chose its color — a deep olive green. "Some people say it's very military looking because it's so streamlined and it's basically made of steel and glass, which is a modern and relaxing mix that allows you to see the sea from the various angles," he said.Main will set sail in early June when the designer plans a mini cruise around Sardinia. "With this kind of boat, I would be an idiot not to enjoy it," he said, chuckling.

PHOTO COURTESY OF:  Arena magazine

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