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A Man’s World

By ripping apart the jacket, Giorgio Armani built not only a new suit, but also the foundation for his current empire.

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On a recent episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Oprah was chatting with guest Meryl Streep about the stresses and expectations in selecting the perfect red-carpet gown. Actor Jim Carrey was also sharing the couch, but remained out of the girly discussion until Oprah turned to him and implied that it wasn’t the same for men. “But one Armani suit looks like the next, though, doesn’t it?” Oprah asked. Carrey slyly turned to the camera and said, “I wouldn’t say that to Armani.”

Indeed. Giorgio Armani’s Oscar-night gowns might garner more attention and more edit pages than his sublime black tuxes, but the designer’s men’s wear has been the unwavering foundation of the Armani empire for three decades.

A beaded Armani gown takes hours to stitch and immediately conveys the depth and range of the designer. Yet an Armani suit, while seemingly simple, is equally representative of his eye for detail and of his methodical study of human form. Armani pains over every centimeter, studies the height of the button stance and deliberates over the width of the shoulder, all in his continuing quest to create modern, sophisticated, yet unbelievably easy clothes for men.

He’s been that way since he left his design job at Nino Cerruti in 1970 and launched his eponymous label 30 years ago. The center of the Armani design philosophy was and continues to be the jacket, in all its deconstructed glory.

Like a great explorer, Armani dove into men’s dressing and discovered a new reality. He ripped out the canvas and in doing so made the suit sexy, comfortable, inexplicably weightless — and an instant must-have for every power broker since Ronald Reagan first introduced trickle-down economics.

It’s almost difficult to remember just how much Armani changed the way men dressed and even more so how he altered men’s attitudes toward dressing. Before Fred Pressman brought Armani to Barneys New York in the late Seventies, men were boxed in standard suits and most likely saw dressing as a chore rather than a choice. Armani toppled the sitting fashion regime and the perceptions that went with it by introducing the original power suit in cool, slate tones and lightweight wool gabardines and crepes.

“Mr. Armani broke out of the pack of guys that was making body coverage,” says Ron Frasch, vice chairman and chief merchant at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Unlike so many designers who have taken either a great Italian heritage and tried to build a jacket from that, or a great British heritage and tried to go from there, Mr. Armani built his own. He took the suit to a level of design and made it a fashion statement.”

Maybe no other moment epitomized that early Armani fashion statement than the 1980 film “American Gigolo.” By now, the image of Richard Gere’s character, Julian Kaye, coolly laying out his Armani shirts and suits on the bed has become an overused reference and almost a caricature of itself.

Yet it was a seminal moment, not only for Armani, but also for Italian fashion.

“Mr. Armani is the man that has been part of, if not the creator of, a revolution in men’s wear,” said Gildo Zegna, co-chief executive of Ermenegildo Zegna, which has a joint venture with Armani to produce and distribute the Armani Collezioni Uomo line. “I credit the deconstructed look and the luxury sportswear sector to him. He gave men the courage to wear things more at ease.”

At ease is exactly how Armani seemed backstage at his most recent Giorgio Armani men’s show this month in Milan. After holding court with the Italian press following the first runway show, Armani quickly returned backstage to inspect the fall 2005 collection one more time before sending out his slim suits and surrealist-inspired print velvet jackets .

“Thirty years ago, it was really difficult to convince a professional to wear something different. The deconstructed jacket was a big change. A jacket that fell like a cardigan was considered too feminine,” Armani said backstage. “After 30 years, clearly, something has been done.”

Yet Armani doesn’t like to live in the past. At 70 years old, he’s more concerned about what he will be doing in the next 30 days than what he’s done in the past three decades. It’s not that he doesn’t recognize or appreciate the illustrious period behind him, but Armani always has been focused on the next collection, the next new thing.

Armani has even surprised a few up-and-coming designers by attending their shows, such as he did a few seasons ago when he sat front row at a DSquared show.

“He’s an iconic fashion designer that has gotten stronger over the decades,” said Dan Caten, half of the design duo behind DSquared. “I think he is intelligent to keep up with what’s going on and I thought it was just very cool that he came to see our show. I give him a big 10 points for coolness.”

Given the fact that Armani sells 250,000 suits a year and that men’s wear generates 52 percent of total wholesale clothing revenue, or about $550 million, it would be safe to say many other men also think Armani is cool. And that includes Hollywood darlings such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx, as well as star performers such as the Black Eyed Peas and Usher.

After 30 years, Armani is still one of the most, if not the most, important resources at U.S. retail. With three Giorgio Armani and 120 Armani Collezioni Uomo in-store shops throughout the U.S., Armani’s men’s wear mantra of “evolution, not revolution” continues to resonate with buyers.

“The collection is the perfect blend of fashion and wearability,” said Bob Mitchell, co-president of Mitchells and Richards in Connecticut. “Armani can still be interpreted by the Wall Street guy, but also by his son in a much more fashionable way. The collection is clearly moving forward in a more modern direction, and that bodes very well for the line.”

Armani is intent on maintaining his contemporary currency. “I’ve done much more than ‘American Gigolo,’” Armani  laughed. “The research I’ve done is much more sophisticated than what one usually expects in a men’s collection. I want to be continually recognized as a great researcher of men’s wear.”

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