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Just Giorgio: One-on-one with Armani

He is fashion’s most commercially successful designer, his name is in the Interbrand charts alongside Coca-Cola and Microsoft as one of the world’s most recognizable brands, and as the sole owner of his almost $7 billion label, the only...

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He is fashion’s most commercially successful designer, his name is in the Interbrand charts alongside Coca-Cola and Microsoft as one of the world’s most recognizable brands, and as the sole owner of his almost $7 billion label, the only investor he has to answer to is himself.

But Giorgio Armani still refuses to believe he’s made it.

“Who is that guy over there?” he says, pointing to a framed oil painting of himself that’s propped on a mantelpiece in his sunny, ordered office on Via Borgnonuovo here. “Take it down. It belongs on the floor.”

For Armani, not much has changed since he opened his business in two small rooms on Corso Venezia 30 years ago with his best friend and business partner, the late Sergio Galeotti. “I always considered myself an employee — not a designer or a couturier,” says Armani, who often walks around his headquarters at the end of the day, shutting off the lights. “I like the idea of having built this beautiful empire, but I still like to think of myself as the stable boy.”

Long hours, a frugal mentality and a singular, stubborn vision stretching from how his clothes should look to how they should be manufactured, marketed and sold, have been Armani’s guiding forces over the past three decades.

Part of the famously tough and resourceful generation of Italians who grew up during World War II, Armani has rigidly stood by his philosophy of making sensible clothes that sell. On the design front, he’s offered everyone from office workers to Oscar-bound stars the opportunity to be elegant — and comfortable. On the business side, he created a structure that saw him take charge of every stage in the fashion process, from the sketching to the runway styling, the ad campaigns to the manufacturing.

“Only I know what I want. And my message has to be consistent from beginning to end,” says Armani, who has run his self-financed company with a tight fist for the last three decades.

Whether or not his style appeals, whether it has the power to set trends season after season, it has never failed to generate cash — or customer loyalty.

Indeed, of all his achievements in the past 30 years, the 70-year-old Armani says he’s most proud of the relationship he’s cultivated with his public.

“Everyone from boys to older women stop me in the street and want to talk. Saint Laurent had his admirers, but I doubt if kids ever stopped him like that,” says Armani, who has never shied from criticizing his fellow designers. “I make fashion for the public, I understand the needs of the final consumer. I am not on some pedestal preaching about what people should and shouldn’t wear. My relationship with my public is honest, sincere and direct.”

His latest project, a couture line, exhibits that philosophy since, in Armani’s view, it is all about power to the people — even the very rich. “I want women without perfect bodies to look at my couture and say, ‘Hey, I can wear that!’”

Despite his business empire and the instant recognition his name generates from São Paulo to Shanghai, the irony is that Armani was never one of those kids who dreamed about someday becoming a fashion designer or celebrity. Nor was he always a snazzy dresser.

“When I was young, I mostly wore hand-me-downs from my father and older brother. The look was generic and bland. The jackets were too big and very structured,” says Armani, who grew up during the war in Piacenza, a town about an hour south of Milan.

His father, Ugo, who died in the early Sixties, was a shipping manager, and the family of five — he grew up with elder brother Sergio and younger sister Rosanna — was far from well off. He remembers thinking of Milan, where he went to study medicine after doing his mandatory military service, as the big scary city. Little did he imagine that someday he’d own a substantial chunk of it — from a palazzo in Brera to the block-long Emporio Armani store on Via Manzoni, the restaurant Nobu to the former Nestle factory that houses his headquarters.

After dropping out of university, Armani joined the Italian department store Rinascente as a window dresser. One of his bosses eventually recommended him for a job at Nino Cerruti, where he would work from the early Sixties until the early Seventies as an in-house designer. During his years at Rinascente and Cerruti, he swapped his hand-me-downs and dull suits for some flashier clothes — and developed an attitude to match.

“I was so good-looking in those days — and I knew it,” says Armani, referring to his days at Cerruti, where he did everything from researching fabrics and trends to designing ties and jackets. “My eyes were really bright, bright blue, I drove an old Porsche, I had a dog — a boxer — and I was out and about all the time. I was a real grand viveur!

“I thought of myself as this sort of James Dean character,” says Armani, whose wardrobe was heavy on blue jeans, suede jackets and gabardine trousers. “I went around in a long, black monkey fur coat! You could wear anything in those days.”

Cerruti remembers things differently, though, a memory that hints at the focused, driven designer Armani would become. “He was a very, very hard worker, and absolutely committed,” Cerruti says in a telephone interview. “He was chained to the studio for hours on end, and he was prepared to sacrifice and persist. He was curious and open and had a passion for fabrics and their potential.”

So what took Armani, who was 40 by the time he opened his small office on Corso Venezia, so long to set up on his own? “It took me a long time to understand that I could actually turn my aesthetic, my beliefs about how to dress, into a business,” says Armani, tanned and rested after just returning from a Caribbean cruise. “My vision was clear: I believed in getting rid of the artifice of clothing, I believed in neutral colors. Don’t forget, these were the days when London was awash in fuchsia and when the Missonis came out with their stripes!

“I also wanted to make clothes that showed off the body — the curve of a muscle under the sleeve of a jacket. But my mentality had to evolve. And on top of that, I didn’t have a lot of money and I didn’t want to start racking up debts.”

The Seventies may have been a perilous decade in Italy with Red Brigade murders, bombings and kidnappings, the rise of the Communist party and swelling unemployment levels, but they also were fertile years for Milan and its design culture. Missoni, Krizia, Trussardi and Walter Albini were shaking up Italy’s clothing industry with their fashion, knitwear and luxury leather goods and the city was dotted with boutiques with names like Freak Out and Bang Bang.

“It was a magical moment,” says Armani.

His first collections in 1975 were men’s wear and they were filled with deconstructed jackets and they were an immediate hit with U.S. buyers. The women’s line followed a year later.

“We used to buy the collection from a hotel room in Milan — and Giorgio and Sergio would be discreetly peering around the corner to see what was going on,” says Dawn Mello, former fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman and now chief of the consulting firm Dawn Mello & Associates. “Women loved the clothes, and the collection took off almost immediately.

“The tailoring was extraordinary and there was amazing detail. Armani had worked in men’s wear, so he understood fit and comfort at a time when women were used to wearing uncomfortable jackets. At the time all the chic and fashionable women were wearing Saint Laurent — when Armani came along a lot of them switched,” says Mello, adding those early days in Milan were a lot of fun. “We used to go back to Giorgio’s apartment and lie on the floor and drink wine,” she says with a laugh. “It was a really wonderful family, and Sergio was a lot of fun. They were an ideal team.” 

Five years after showing his first collection, Armani dressed Richard Gere for his breakthrough role in “American Gigolo” — and the designer was on the way to becoming a household name. Armani quickly picked up on the many ways he could use Hollywood to promote his business, and it’s no accident that he was the first designer to set up an office in Los Angeles.

“He was the designer who first recognized the value of Hollywood,” says Madeline Leonard, head booker at Cloutier, a top L.A. stylists’ agency. “He had offices out here way back in the early Eighties. No one ever had any problem getting Armani clothes.”

Yet while his star was rising on this side of the Atlantic, he wasn’t always the golden boy in Milan. “For some people in this country, I’m still little Giorgio, the guy who worked at Rinascente,” says Armani, rolling his eyes.

Even the designer’s mother Maria, who died in 2001, always had a subdued reaction to his success, he adds. “She was never a particularly gushy or emotional person; she was quite reserved. She just said ‘bello’ when she saw the first collections.”

What Armani may have lacked in moral support, he made up for with laser-like focus and drive. The business gained momentum in the early Eighties thanks in large part to the lucrative licenses he signed with legendary Italian manufacturer Gruppo Finanziario Tessile. The first license was to launch and produce the Le Collezioni lines (now called Armani Collezioni), followed by Emporio. Armani, and fellow European designers including Valentino and Ungaro, all made mountains of cash from GFT’s cushy licensing deals, which included double-digit royalties — 10 to 15 percent for the top names — and golden parachute clauses drawn up to protect the designers from fluctuations in sales. By the end of the Eighties, GFT had become the largest designer label manufacturer in the world, and the big names couldn’t produce their sketches fast enough. They were years of calculated risks that paid big rewards.

“When we started the diffusion business, a lot of people said it would never work, that it was too similar to the main boutique label, which was already fairly well-known. We proved them wrong,” says Armani, whose relationship with GFT lasted until 2000.

Armani’s other key partnership forged in those years was with the Ongs of Singapore. They opened the first Armani boutique in Singapore in 1988, and now operate Armani and Emporio stores in London, Australia and the Far East. In the Nineties, the Ongs helped rescue Simint, Armani’s jeans and A|X manufacturer, from bankruptcy. Today, A|X’s U.S. business is owned by the Ongs, who pay royalties to Armani.

“I respect him hugely and have a great affection for him,” says Christina Ong in a rare interview with WWD. “He is a tough negotiator and somebody who never makes strategic decisions lightly.  He has an astonishing eye for detail as well as an intolerance of sloppy work. The longevity of his relationships both within the company and with his partners is a testimony to his unique commercial savvy.”

During that first flush of commercial success, Galeotti died of AIDS in 1985. From the outside, it looked as if the company had been robbed of its business brains. On the inside, though, it was a different story. “Sergio ran the business, but I was always there alongside him. I wasn’t living in this ivory tower of fashion,” says Armani. “We were constantly exchanging ideas. When Sergio died, I lost a supporter, a devil’s advocate — a member of my family. At that time, too, don’t forget, I had Gabriella Forte, I had Giuseppe Brusone. And I had faith in my own powers. I never, ever doubted that I could carry on. I wasn’t a little lost lamb.”

Says Cerruti: “At the time, I think, it came as a surprise to everyone that Giorgio was such a strong businessman in addition to being a talented designer.”

In those years, in addition to opening wholly owned stores, launching new lines including Emporio Armani and Armani Exchange, the designer grasped the importance of owning the factories that made his clothes. For him, it was about controlling every step of the production and distribution process — and plumping up margins. In 1989, Armani purchased Simint, which produces the Armani jeans lines, and Antinea, which makes the Emporio and Le Collezioni collections. In addition to owning his own factories, he took a stake in Luxottica, which produced his eyewear line for 14 years (last year, he gave Safilo the license for the Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani lines, although Armani still owns 5 percent of Luxottica).

“We started thinking like industrialists. Even then it was clear to us that what was really important was the quality of the product and how it was distributed to the stores. It was about controlling the industrial side of the business,” says Armani.

During the Nineties, his business boomed to sales of $1.34 billion by 1999, he amassed a cash pile of more than $335 million and his tax returns made headlines (for years he was Italy’s number one taxpayer). Yet Armani refused to be sucked into the acquisitions frenzy that gripped the industry at that time. At a time when it was sexy to buy fashion and luxury brands, and when groups like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci Group were feverishly building their portfolios, Armani watched the match from the sidelines.

“I had good instincts,” he says with a laugh. “The main reason I didn’t get involved in that was because I still had a lot to accomplish here: the accessories and home collections, the hotel business. At the time I was busy with making Giorgio Armani as solid, organized and consolidated as possible.”

Indeed, the Nineties were a decade of organic growth and increasing the value and profitability of the Armani brand. During the decade he expanded his real-estate empire to include a 130,000-square-foot headquarters in an old Nestle factory in Milan’s Navigli neighborhood and a $73 million megastore on Via Manzoni that sells Emporio Armani, the Armani Jeans and Armani Casa lines and also houses the ultrahot Nobu bar and restaurant.

As the decade drew to an end, he launched his home, cosmetics and accessories lines, and laid the groundwork for his hotel business. Under a partnership with the Dubai-based Emaar Properties formed last year, Armani will open a total of 14 properties in Europe and the Far East, beginning in 2007.

On the retail front, Armani has recently expanded into new markets, most notably Hong Kong and mainland China. Last year, he crowned his expansion into the world’s fastest-growing fashion market with the opening in April of Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani flagship boutiques in Shanghai.

He even went beyond fashion and hotels, in the late Nineties and early years of the current decade forming an alliance with Mercedes-Benz for sponsorship and marketing-related projects — the first Armani-styled Mercedes, an open-topped, two-door cabriolet will be delivered on April 1. The designer himself will get one, of course, while another will go to a private individual in Japan. He also has a sponsorship and co-marketing agreement with American Express.

“It’s a big job, and we do it all ourselves. And I don’t think anyone can say we’ve made any big mistakes over the years,” says Armani. (He does acknowledge one mistake, however — his fall 1982 collection,  which landed him on the cover of Time. “Nobody really understood that collection, and we never even showed it on the runway. I didn’t really like it, everything was oversized. Too bad that was the one in Time!”)

And if in recent years his collections haven’t garnered the praise from the fashion press that they used to — with some calling them dull or worse — Armani remains unfazed. He’s sticking to the same design philosophy he’s had for 30 years.

“Fashion does not need to be changed every six months. You can’t do that to your customer who has faith in your label. You can’t do that to your factories. In the end, you have to remain faithful to your clientele — and you have to sell on the shop floor.”

His business philosophy remains unchanged as well. “We sell everything from jeans to dresses worth thousands of dollars. That means the brand has to remain untarnished and credible at every level of the market.”

If Armani has any major regrets over the past 30 years they certainly don’t have to do with his business. They’re personal ones. “I never gave personal relationships enough space in my life. I didn’t enjoy people enough or go as deep as I would have liked. Lovers, friends, acquaintances, people who I maybe met only once but never saw again.”

Clearly, it’s business, as always, that keeps him getting out of bed in the morning. “I sleep like a baby, but I often wake up in a panic, thinking about all I have to do that day. But then the panic turns into pleasure and I think to myself how great the day’s challenges are going to be.”

Retirement is not in Armani’s vocabulary. “For me, it equals death — and I don’t want to die.”

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