By and  on January 20, 2009

MILAN — Giorgio Armani says finding a partner or investor isn’t a priority right now — but don’t rule out a sleek, Armani-designed computer in the future.

Amid a subdued Milan Men’s Fashion Week overshadowed by economic jitters, the Italian design giant said he’s alert yet serene in the face of the downturn as he gears up to show his signature collection today, open his Fifth Avenue megastore next month and possibly expand further into hi-tech products.

“I have lived through many different economic climates — boom years as well as lean ones,” Armani told WWD in an exclusive interview. “What I have learned is that the economy, like fashion, works in cycles, and so this downturn will end at some point. People need to remember that.”

That said, he didn’t mince words about the immediate outlook: “It will be a difficult 2009. The stores are empty. Yesterday afternoon, the Emporio Armani [boutique] was full of people because it was Saturday, which is a special day. But we have to think about regular days, Wednesday, Thursday.”

Dressed in a snug navy T-shirt and seated behind an expansive gray desk at his headquarters here, Armani warned about two perils the industry faces: The temptation to keep feeding stores items that sold well in the past, a recipe for boredom, or to err on the side of extravagant design and risk alienating the consumer.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Armani mused on the future of men’s wear, the benefits of being independent and what he predicts will be a fallout of brands calling themselves “luxury.”

WWD: Designer and contemporary men’s wear has been performing well in recent years. How do you account for that?
Giorgio Armani: Thanks largely to the media, men have become more interested in fashion over the past few years, and more comfortable with the idea of shopping for it, letting go of the shopping stereotype that belonged to women until now.

WWD: Do you enjoy shopping yourself?
G.A.: No. I hate to go shopping, I’m not capable of shopping. That said, I do sometimes shop when I travel, and that’s emotional purchasing. Recently, I bought a white leather bag from Yohji Yamamoto.

WWD: Do you think men will ever catch up to women in terms of their interest and dedication to fashion? Or is that something you wouldn’t wish for?
G.A.: Men have certainly started to shop for their wardrobes more and more like women do — instead of changing entire outfits, they understand the value of alternating accessories to refresh looks. This may not constitute dedication, but it shows a degree of interest and engagement that is new. So men are certainly catching up. Whether they will ever actually equal the interest women have in fashion is probably unlikely.

WWD: On the eve of your men’s shows, do you feel as much pressure of expectation as with women’s wear? Or is the industry still more relaxed?
G.A.: The industry is more relaxed because for most brands women’s wear is a much bigger percentage of their business than men’s wear. At Armani, however, our business is effectively 50/50 between the genders, and so I feel every bit as much pressure at my men’s show as at my women’s. Also, I began in men’s wear and the public does not forget this.

WWD: In recent seasons, you’ve pushed the envelope in women’s wear with more experimental skirt and pant silhouettes. Do you have the impulse to do the same with men’s wear?
G.A.: Men’s wear comes with many more conventions than women’s wear, so pushing the envelope results in more subtle developments. Consider the fact that, before my experiments with deconstruction in the Eighties, men’s tailoring had been made in pretty much the same way since our grandfathers’ generation. Still, I do my best to innovate in a way that is masculine and wearable — usually through variations in cut and fabric, rather than anything more ostentatious. Then there are moments during the runway show where one can push the limits a bit. I know how to change men’s fashion without shocking….I always think first of the final client, who comes into the boutique to shop. Provocation makes people say, ‘Oh, but who’s going to wear that?’ and it’s game over.

WWD: Do sober times call for sober men’s wear, escapist men’s wear — or something else?
G.A.: My design aesthetic has always been based around the idea of elegance and sophistication, regardless of the economy or any other cultural or historical events. For me, design is about timeless style and eternal values rather than transient trends. Today calls for elegance and comfort in dress –– just as yesterday did and tomorrow will. That is the Armani way.

WWD: How would you describe your big men’s wear fashion statement this Milan season in terms of silhouette, mood, etc.?
G.A.: The removal of obvious or simple references and, instead, a sophisticated search for a new elegance. Designers often do retro, dressing like the Thirties or the Fifties, but that doesn’t necessarily correspond to the way of life today. Designers cater too much to the press and not the customer. We have to distinguish between what is an exercise in creativity, of making photographs to grab attention in the pages of a magazine, and what we can wear in real life.

WWD: In recent years, designers such as Hedi Slimane and Thom Browne have pushed men’s wear forward with extreme silhouettes and ideas that have proved influential. What do you think of their approaches?
G.A.: Every designer of note has a personal approach, and I respect any designer who sticks to that approach with conviction, passion and clarity of vision. Personally I believe that great men’s wear will present the wearer in the best possible light, without overshadowing his character. Ultimately it is there to enhance the character of the wearer, and not to disguise or eclipse it. That is why I shy away from clothes that take center stage, and prefer a quieter, more subtle approach. You have to be very careful when defining the word influential and on who this is influential to. Men don’t want to be a hanger for designer brands, in the way that women want to be able to say, “I wear Armani, I wear Gucci, I wear Yves Saint Laurent.” No, men are much less interested in that.

WWD: Any idea what the next big idea or trend in men’s wear might be, and where it could come from?
G.A.: I believe that men will want to invest in their clothes, and so will be looking for pieces that have genuine quality and timeless style. There has already been a swing back to more formal clothing, and I think this will continue, but the garments will be interpreted using modern fabrics and manufacturing techniques, and so will be a hybrid between traditional and contemporary.

WWD: What feeds you and drives you in terms of men’s wear inspiration?
G.A.: I am inspired by all manner of things — art, books, people I meet, travel, and especially film, which has been a passion of mine since I was a boy. I am open to the world around me, and that is what inspires me.

WWD: What is your take on Barack Obama?
G.A.: From what I have seen, I think he is energetic and dynamic and a good thing for the United States and for the world in general at the moment. We need energy and vision in politics.

WWD: You’ve long been a fashion reference for the corporate world. But now that Wall Street has imploded, will your fashion focus change? Who is your customer now?
G.A.: Armani has many facets, from formal clothing at Giorgio Armani to jeans and T-shirts at Armani Jeans, so I do not feel I appeal particularly to a corporate customer. Instead, I aim to dress any man who shares my preference for elegance and style over transient fashion trends, and this could be a professional, or a teenager at college.
Also today, women who buy expensive things also wish to buy inexpensive things, and this is the same for men. They mix different levels of product. The new store in New York will have this mélange, of Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani. Certainly men will go to designers for a well-cut jacket, for pants that fall just right, but for a black T-shirt, it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money.

WWD: You remain extremely active on multiple business fronts: expanding your brand universe, fortifying the company. What drives you to remain so active?
G.A.: I have always been driven by a desire to create. I love to challenge myself. And for some time now I have been aware that the Armani aesthetic can be interpreted in many different ways across many different product categories. It is genuinely a universe of design. I find this a very exciting proposition.

WWD: Your investment in A|X was certainly a vote of confidence for that market. Can you elaborate on your rationale for that?
G.A.: I believe that the Armani look should be available to different people at different price-points. What defines Armani is not price, but attitude.

WWD: You’ve now put your name on almost everything, including the kitchen sink. Is there anything else you would like to design — or a category of product you would never touch?
G.A.: I am only limited by my imagination, and as I have a powerful imagination I am sure I will continue to find new areas of product I can develop. At present I am particularly occupied by my hotels and resorts project — the first Armani hotel will open this year in Dubai, and this will be followed next year by the opening of my hotel in Milan. Many of my recent new products have been in the area of technology — mobile phones and televisions — and this is a field I am particularly interested in. It might be fun to imagine an Armani computer, for example. As for a product category I would not touch — I never rule out any possibilities.

WWD: You’ve lived through economic downturns before. In broad terms, what’s your strategy for coping with them, and what lessons have you learned from the past you might apply today?
G.A.: From a business perspective I have always taken a long-term view — true luxury goods brands do not aim to operate in the short term, but instead are concerned with establishing lasting values. I believe that those who work hard and deliver what they promise to their customers, and bear their customers in mind, will survive the current economic climate. I always put my customer first. I have never believed in design for design’s sake.

WWD: What are the advantages of being an independently owned company in an environment like this? And any disadvantages?
G.A.: The principal advantage of being independent at a time like this is that you can make your own decisions and can implement them effectively without the slow bureaucratic process that often exists in big corporate groups. What is important at the moment is that Armani remains true to its brand identity — that I am free to pursue my personal vision of design, and to innovate as I see fit. So for example, my new store in New York on Fifth Avenue is pioneering the concept of bringing together my different collections under one roof. It is a bold move, and one that an independently owned company can make quite simply.

WWD: You said in a recent interview you had explored a merger with Hermès. Is finding a partner or investor a priority right now? Why or why not?
G.A.: That was in the past. Finding a partner is not a priority. I have been approached many times over the years by other companies with a desire to buy into Armani, and I have never pursued the offers because I have always felt that I need to be free to keep Armani true to my vision. I will happily talk to anyone with ideas about how we might work together, but I would only be interested in such a move if it was guaranteed not to impact negatively on the spirit of the brand.

WWD: During the last few boom years, we saw extremes in luxury and also of discounting. How do you think it will all shake out?
G.A.: I think that we are going through a period of readjustment. The past few years have seen a number of extremes in the fashion market, and it is probably a good thing that these will now be moderated. In particular, the recent notion that anything expensive can qualify as a luxury offer needs to be readdressed. True luxury is about quality and beautiful design, and I would argue, a degree of function — a luxury product must work, whether it is a chair to sit on, or a dress that must fit the wearer and make her feel comfortable as well as look great. I believe that many of the firms that were claiming luxury status were not delivering a luxury experience or product, and these will now be revealed to have been wanting. If we are lucky, when the dust settles we will be left with good brands at every level of the market.

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