BERLIN — First he took Manhattan, now he’s taking Berlin.

Giorgio Armani was in the German capital this week to keep an eye on the final installation and the opening festivities of the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition of his fashion at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie.

Berlin is the first stop in a five-city tour that will take the exhibit — originally presented at the Guggenheim Museums in New York in 2000 and Bilbao in 2001 — to London in October and then to Rome, Tokyo and Las Vegas. Organized by the Guggenheim, the tour is being sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, which also arranged and picked up the tab for the sparkling opening-night party at the new I.M. Pei building for the German Historical Museum.

The show in Berlin was also a cooperation between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Berlin Applied Arts Museum. While Berlin also boasts a Guggenheim Museum, it’s too small to house the 400 Armani garments from three decades on display. But the Neue Nationalgalerie was no compromise solution. Designed by Mies Van der Rohe, it continues the “great architect” feature of the New York (Frank Lloyd Wright) and Bilbao (Frank Gehry) Armani shows.

The floor-to-ceiling glass windows and open, abstract space of Van der Rohe’s museum building, however, required a considerably different installation approach. Visual artist and theater director Robert Wilson was once again in charge of the show’s design, which required blacking out the entire building.

“The problem here is that it’s all glass. You have guys with skateboards out in the back and while the views may be great, they’re distracting,” Wilson said. “Plus you can’t have a lot of light on the fabrics.”

Armani’s designs were set up on the show’s original mannequin forms in a long, continuous, serpentine line that gently guides the viewer through the comprehensive show.

“There are two kinds of lines in the world, straight or curved. [Van der Rohe] liked straight lines — this space is all verticals and horizontals — so I put in a curved line as a counterpart,” Wilson said.

As for the content, Armani added a few models from the most recent collections and pulled a few others.He was looking calm and relaxed in Berlin, a city where he has limited retail distribution but where he was instantly stopped for an autograph as he left the restaurant Bocca di Bacco after lunch on Wednesday. Armani has been frequently offered retail space in Berlin, but the city’s reputation for weak sales performance has so far kept him from taking the plunge.

“Berlin’s a city that merits fashion. It’s an important city,” he commented. “But Berlin doesn’t seem to have the sensibility. It’s a little bit like Washington, D.C.”

As for his business in the Armani stores in Hamburg and Düsseldorf, he said, “They’re performing, but it’s not huge turnover.”

Nevertheless, an Armani shop is slated to open in late July on Theatinerstrasse in Munich, similar to the Via Manzoni shop in Milan, the designer noted. It will carry Armani Emporio, Armani Jeans, Armani Fiori, Armani Casa, Armani Dolci, Armani Libri and an Armani Cafe.

Asked about Asia, he acknowledged that SARS is “a problem for the house,” adding that sales are weak in America, as well as Asia. “Before it was the war, now it’s SARS,” he remarked. He said he doesn’t expect any improvement before 2004.

“One has to wait for this difficult moment to pass. We have strong shoulders,” he stated, “but for retailers who’ve had two, three or four bad seasons or the industry, it can be critical.”

The next step, he said, is to reinforce the chain of Armani stores, make clearer distinctions between the different Armani lines and above all, “reassure the customers. It’s a moment of reflection.”

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