By and  on February 17, 2009

“Sophia Loren said grazie to America when she received the Oscar; this is my way of saying merci to the first market to open up to my world.”

So says Giorgio Armani, referring to his new Armani/5th Avenue megaflagship that opens today — an immense store he called “very New York,” based inside a glass structure on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street.

The store imports the drama of the city to its interior, which is marked by a striking, sculptural grand staircase. It also brings Italy’s fashion giant to a part of Manhattan that is home to significant stores by some of Armani’s countrymen, including Gucci, Prada, Versace, Fendi, Bottega Veneta and, a few blocks down, Diesel, which is also opening today.

The Armani store’s design capitalizes on the corner location, and the glass structure offers views up Fifth Avenue, to Henri Bendel across the street, to Bergdorf Goodman and to Central Park a few blocks up. The location resonates with Armani on an emotional level.

“It is a very important location, next door to Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel’s, which in the Seventies were my idols, so you can imagine how filled with emotion I am,” the designer said, sitting in a curved banquette in the store’s top floor restaurant on Monday. “At 75, I got to Fifth Avenue, across the street from those who were my idols in the Seventies.”

He recalled once having an area at Bergdorf’s “so small you could maybe only sell 10 dresses in there. And Bendel is the one store I looked at with so much attention because it was a small but very sophisticated store.”

Of course, much has changed since those days, and the designer’s 43,000-square-foot store is another symbol of the strength of his business. Although the global economy has nose-dived since the designer’s announcement to invest here a year ago, Armani has no regrets. That said, mirroring the gloomy times, he decided to nix a post-opening bash complete with a runway show and dinner, contributing the sum to a charity he plans to unveil at a press conference today. The press conference will be followed by a store opening party that is expected to attract Alicia Keys, Victoria Beckham, John Mayer, Josh Hartnett, Martin Scorcese and Emile Hirsch, among others.

“One must go on. [This store] is an act of courage and faith towards America, a country that has supported me from the very beginning,” he said. “I think an entrepreneur should demonstrate a certain degree of bravery, even in difficult times, and I certainly wasn’t going to change my plans.”

Armani declined to reveal how much the store cost, or first-year sales projections, but admitted, “It’ll take quite a few years to recuperate the costs. But I’m interested in making the store work.”

Armani knows well what the challenges are, describing fashion as “overly inflated and the expectations one has from it, excessive.”

“Every year, one feels the pressure of increasing sales by 20 percent but I’m not sure that’s right,” he said. “Maybe all one should do is find a stable positioning [in the market] and defend that position because otherwise you venture into a market that isn’t yours anymore. Everyone started doing everything lately and at the first signals of recession, the consumer says ‘Who needs another Armani bag?’”

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