TOKYO — Luxury brands may be anxious over the health of the Japanese market, but Giorgio Armani has just placed a big bet on its continued growth.
The designer is here this week to open his latest megastore — a 65,000-square-foot, 12-story building that cost $20 million and is the tallest in Ginza. Cate Blanchett will be the guest of honor at today's unveiling, while a concert and fashion show, "One Night Only at Budokan," will take place at the famed stadium Wednesday, with Fergie performing.
And in the ever-escalating world of Tokyo flagships, Armani's is no exception to the rule that bigger hopefully will be better. In addition to carrying the Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani clothing and accessories collections for women and men, the building lodges the first Armani Casa store in Tokyo, the world's first Armani Spa, an Italian restaurant and a Privé bar.
Designed by Armani and architects Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas, a bamboo motif runs across the facades of the first three floors of the building's gilt metal frame and is the main motif throughout the store, whether in a gold metal mesh shaping the seats in the restaurant or in the gilt metal and transparent Plexiglas display units on the walls, finished with frosted glass.
Even before the official events, Armani's arrival was generating buzz. Word Armani-San was posing in front of his new Ginza store on Monday spread quickly on the pavement, and a number of curious onlookers shed their usual reserve and uberpoliteness to edge their way into the crowd and get a glimpse of the designer.
In an exclusive interview while he was doing a model fitting on a fake runway installed in the offices above the store, an upbeat and relaxed Armani, who only arrived Sunday, discussed the Japanese market, the evolution of fashion and why investment funds waste their time knocking at his door.
WWD: Given the less than stellar economy in Japan, why did you think this was a good moment to invest in such a location in this country?Giorgio Armani: I had sort of neglected Japan because it was not giving me any trouble. That, however, is exactly when we need to take action, because markets change quickly, competition sneaks in and we must be prepared to fight it with new and different means. There is much more emphasis today on the space and the decor and more frequent deliveries.
WWD: How do you view this opening?
G.A.: This is an homage to Japan and Ginza, a reference point that will have a trickle-down effect on other brands and stores. Everything here is big and important, the dimensions, the banners, the modernity, and everything is very sophisticated. There are a lot of gold details in the store. Gold means top luxury, but on a meche metal, it's not Baroque or heavy, and it's blended with platinum for a more refined and delicate effect.
WWD: Your company celebrates its 20th anniversary in Japan this year. How has this market changed?
G.A.: The world has changed so much and young people today are always looking for an emotional purchase at accessible prices. We used to cherish what we bought and keep a skirt or a jacket season after season. In Tokyo, people are still very sensitive to fashion and free from any conditioning. In their young age, Japanese women are daring, but when they mature, they abandon any craziness because that does not reflect their status. As for Ginza, it was much less developed and there were not that many designer brands [20 years ago]. Today, it's not dissimilar from New York's Fifth Avenue, with mixed and diversified retailers and consumers. And Tokyo, as well, reflects the new average customer who has no money issues, but also shops at lower-priced stores and mixes high-end designer clothes with fast-fashion pieces.
WWD: Does this mean your customer is no longer looking for the total Armani look?
G.A.: Not really, I find my customers are still quite loyal and dependent on my suggestions. And, though loyal, they still want novelty within my design style.WWD: Do you think there is too much vulgarity around and that women lack style today?
G.A.: Bad taste bothers me, but it isn't necessarily the shopper's fault. She might not have enough critical sense, and may be easily convinced by the latest designer brand hailed by the press. I believe my clothes respect women and that my aesthetic sense has set an example: Women should not be used by designers who indulge in intricate mental work-outs in order to be considered the best. I don't think that it is professional and it disturbs me. Design can be intellectual, but it must help enhance a woman, who must be made prettier.
WWD: Do you care about the reviews?
G.A.: The press is never happy. If I had not sometimes taken some chances, the press would have accused me of being too steady. I am interested in what the press says, but contest it if I think it's wrong and accept it without any pleasure if it's correct. In any case, I have seen some of my ideas, which the press disliked, copied much later. It's gratifying for me to change and update and I will not give that up.
WWD: You are known for being detail-oriented, hands-on and cautious in your decisions. Did you ever make a mistake and what did you learn from it?
G.A.: I made the mistake of making a Japanese collection inspired by the samurai [in the mid-Eighties]. It was heavily corseted and not really wearable at the time. The press raved about it, but it didn't sell well. I learned that I'd rather sell a collection than have the press talk about it.
WWD: You have often shown Oriental elements in your collections. Do you have time to really visit Asia on your trips?
G.A.: What better inspiration than to dream of a country that you don't know? Reality can be disappointing. I'd rather nurture an idea, a romantic image that I have kept in me with all my strength.WWD: How do you feel about Tokyo, then?
G.A.: Everything is so modern and the space is so limited, but absolutely forward-oriented. Tokyo is really the modern, "Blade Runner" city, which other cities can only copy and follow.
WWD: At a time when many designers retire, sell their company to big conglomerates or simply fade away, how do you explain your longevity?
G.A.: (joking) My luck is that I have always had 85 eyes, 45 ears and well-tuned antennae, and that I have dedicated my time and energies to so many different fashion genres and collections, from Giorgio Armani to A|X Jeans, and each is just as important as the other. I'm willing to face different problems with the same spirit.
WWD: Accessories are also strategically positioned on the ground floor of the Ginza store. Is this because the Japanese market is accessories-driven?
G.A.: Yes, but I also want to show that accessories are no longer just an appendix, but a complete and diversified collection.
WWD: What are some of the most pressing plans for the future?
G.A.: Apart from the expansion in new emerging countries such as China, where we plan to open 55 stores in the next six years, and India, I want to fine-tune the organization behind the company. I offer too many choices, and variations of the same outfit. I must focus and edit, offering narrower guidelines. Also, I want to work on a different timing of deliveries, increasingly more frequent, with new products in the stores in 20 days.
WWD: What do you think of the new talents out there? Is there any young designer that catches your attention, or that you would see as your protégé?
G.A.: There is nobody that is inventing anything new, or provoking, the way the Japanese designers did. It's all déjà vu. And there is too much desire to shock and surprise. On the weekend, when I go and check out the windows of my competitors, I listen to people on the street wondering aloud: "But who is going to wear these clothes?" In eveningwear, however, there are some new interesting designers. Elie Saab, for example.WWD: You incarnate both the designer and the chief executive officer. Who calls the shots more often?
G.A.: It's double duty. I am the creative, but a judge of the creative mind at the service of the public, because there must always be a reality check.
WWD: Financiers are increasingly part of the fashion industry, taking stakes in designer brands. How do you feel about this? Would you consider such a partnership?
G.A.: Investment funds are a big bluff, they ask banks for money, then they bring the company public to get their money back and take advantage of an important name. It's all a game. A public listing is a way to have cash liquidity, but we don't need that. The only investor that would make sense to me is one who loves fashion and for his own gratification wants to participate in the history of a glorious brand.
WWD: Your plans, then, are to stay put?
G.A.: I would rather say that I'm staying on, but not staying still.