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WWD Collections issue 10/27/2008

“If you have any questions to my answers, I can clarify them for you,” says Giorgio Armani as he sits at his desk and flips open a book on design. On cue, his public relations rep hands over six crisp white pages filled with type.

This story first appeared in the October 27, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Meticulously well prepared, direct and very, very controlled—this is classic Armani. But where the brand ends and the man begins remains less clear in the course of a 30-minute interview in his office on Via Borgonuovo, even for him. “I often confuse my work with my life,” Armani admits, flanked by a portrait of himself, which hangs on the wall to his right.

Over the last four decades, the 74-year-old designer has dedicated himself to cultivating a multibillion-dollar empire, which stretches from Milan to Macau, and sells everything from pants to palazzos. This is the Armani lifestyle.

Satisfied? Surely. Finished? Not even close. And how did it all begin? Where it always did: with his mother.

“She taught me that if one wants to create beauty, it is necessary to limit oneself to what is necessary, without overdoing it. It is a lesson I have never forgotten,” Armani recalls.

For spring, he did just that with his Emporio Armani and Giorgio Armani women’s ready-to-wear collections, presenting wearable, elegant clothes, pared of gratuitous styling or runway theatrics. For many, it was a return to what he does best. But Armani characterizes it as a response to the “improbable” clothes that have been proposed to women in the last few years, and the “anything goes” attitude to runway of some of his peers, whom, he speculates, are driven by a desire to make a splash on the front pages of fashion magazines.

“I wanted to underline the concept that a designer’s duty is to create clothes that are absolutely acceptable, both in a shop and on someone’s back,” he says, adding that catwalks in general have become “excessive” of late.

“My clothes are never a disguise that hides the person wearing them,” he asserts, underlining that 90 percent of what he sends out on the catwalk goes into stores.

It was also a reminder, he says, that his signature lies in “reinterpreting tailoring for a modern era,” which this season meant marrying a lifelong attraction for sartorial looks with a growing interest in rendering women more beautiful.

While he dismisses any suggestion that the economy had a bearing on his designs for spring, Armani admits that his aversion from some of the more exaggerated elements of exotica, which have detracted from his clothes in recent collections, was in part influenced by calls from the press and clients for “what sells,” citing a willingness on their part to embrace “the Armani style.” But this isn’t pandering to the press, he adds. Au contraire.

“I have been a designer for a lot longer than many of them have been journalists,” Armani says, his piercing blue eyes looking up from the desk. “I find it strange to speak with a kid with an earring here and a piercing there who comes in front of me and judges me.”

Whatever his reservations, Armani’s pragmatic and almost utilitarian approach to runway struck a chord with buyers and critics during a subdued fashion week in Milan, where gratuitous excess was seemingly passé, given the current financial turmoil.

“The success of Armani has always been anchored by coherency…rather than chasing transitory trends,” explains Armani, whose holdings last year generated earnings of 289 million euros, or $396.1 million at average exchange, on revenues of 1.6 billion euros, or $2.19 billion.

“For this reason I’ve never lost my sense of direction as a designer, and I have been able to define the Armani style as something that the client can recognize and with which one can relate.”

While this has long left him open to criticism that he prioritizes commerciality over creativity, the designer says doing so misses the point of what he is all about.

Armani cites deconstructed, comfortable tailoring in the Eighties, which he pursued not because he thought it would sell well in the American and Japanese markets—which is indeed what happened—but rather because he was looking for a design solution to a problem of elegant clothes that were restrictive in terms of movement and downright uncomfortable.

“I wanted only to set myself a creative challenge,” Armani says. “My clients are looking for a timeless elegance. They want something that makes them feel confident and that permits their personality to shine.”

His approach also belies a democratic view of fashion and luxury in general, which is at odds with some of his peers.

“I have never considered luxury in terms of exclusivity, intended as something which bars access to certain people. I want to design for whoever desires to find elegance and refinement in their clothes,” Armani says, conceding that price is a barrier to some.

“Luxury is a question of quality of manufacture and design and passion,” he muses. “That type of ingredient which is immediately recognizable in a brand that has been created with coherence and continuity….I like to think that all Armani products are luxury, whatever the price, in that they are all made with care and passion.”

This passion also has led him to build a lifestyle empire beyond apparel.

“There is a genuine Armani lifestyle, which can be translated into many different sectors,” he says.

This year has seen a flurry of activities, from the latest cell phone in partnership with Samsung to 50 new store openings, including the first two units in India, and even chocolates, flowers, spas, bars and restaurants.

“The strange thing is that I have never thought about expansion really in terms of strategy,” he quips—this from a man, who, by his own admission, never does anything without a specific end in sight, not even a vacation. Instead, it is born out of a love of design and a desire to make things that are both beautiful and user-friendly, he says.

“Challenges provide incentives and they help you to not sit on your laurels, to be aware of what is going on around you. I love to design new products and experiment in new areas. In that sense, I am a pioneer.”

On the horizon next year is the first Armani hotel and residence in Burj Dubai in partnership with Emaar Properties, which evolved out of the $50 million Armani Casa furnishings arm.

“I wanted to see how this collection would sit in the living spaces that I had designed,” he says. “I was spurred on by the desire to give my clients a similar experience to the one they would have if they were guests at my home.”

But not even Armani, who also will fete a fifth concept flagship on Madison Avenue in the spring, can go on forever, right?

“No one wants to give up his or her life,” Armani agrees. But no, not even he, with a seemingly unfathomable reserve of energy, can maintain such a ferocious schedule. Indeed, he would like to calm down a little. “It doesn’t depend on your willingness, but on your wellbeing, on your body, on your reaction and recovery time,” he adds, which, for him, will mean shorter days and less traveling.

“When I work 12 hours a day, by the evening I am exhausted,” Armani says. “The
television is enough.”

Slowing the pace also will mean dedicating more time to his private life, switching off the cell phone and enjoying other pleasures, such as sailing his new 213-foot megayacht Main—named after his mother, Maria—or watching the sunset poolside at his luxury villa in Pantelleria, Sicily.

But he certainly has no plans of stopping entirely.

“My enthusiasm and passion for what I do is as intense today as it was when I began to work as an independent designer, around 30 years ago,” he says, defiantly.

Nor is he thinking about handing over the reins to anyone else, despite persistent rumors that he might have already done a deal with beauty and fragrance partner L’Oréal.

Armani adjusts his seating position before turning his head to meet the question. He has received “many proposals” without pursuing them, but one thing  is certain: He would never sell up to private equity investors, whose only interest would be “in taking the group public for financial gain.”

“I don’t see why at the end of my life I should let my blood boil because some [private equity] manager comes along and tells me I can’t do something,” Armani says. “Unimaginable. It would be a very nasty personal end.”

When the time does come, he says, he would prefer to choose a partner from the fashion world who has a rapport with creativity and, above all, a love for his product.

“I want to face the future of Giorgio Armani with the greatest serenity,” Armani says. “My personal future is already well organized.”

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