By  on January 31, 2005

Since 1957, when Giorgio Armani dropped out of university and started dressing windows at La Rinascente department store, the designer has had close ties to the world of retail and, more specifically, his customers. That’s how he’s managed to grow a couple of Milan shops into a 310-store empire stretching from Boston to Beijing.

“When I was 30 years old and working at La Rinascente, I can remember thinking I’d like to have a store like this someday,” Armani said in 2000 as he unveiled his first sprawling megastore on Milan’s Via Manzoni, a nearly $73 million investment. “I want there to be a sense of discovery and surprise every 15 meters throughout the store,” he said.

Armani commercial and market director John Hooks, who has been with  the house for five years, said the company’s early foray into retail proved to be a shrewd move. Armani and his partner, the late Sergio Galeotti, founded the design house in 1975, licensing production and selling apparel to wholesale clients. In the early Eighties, the pair opened their first freestanding stores — an Emporio Armani and a Giorgio Armani boutique — both in Milan.

“We started as a fashion house — but as the business spread out, [Armani] became involved first in retail before manufacturing. I think [that] was stimulating for Armani and it was also a commercial opportunity,” Hooks said.

Whether he’s expanding his product range or amplifying his retail concepts, Armani has made it possible to sleep in his sheets, sit on his chairs, buy his flower arrangements, leaf through his favorite art books and even eat his chocolates.

“If you think of a woman in an Armani suit in her house, why should she be sitting on a chair that has nothing to do with her spirit?” the designer said in 1992, planting the seeds of Armani Casa.

In fact, Armani has long strived to make his name affiliated with more than clothes. He’s transformed stores into hangouts, adding cafes and eateries.

In 1989, he opened an Emporio Armani Express restaurant in London. For his first freestanding Armani Jeans store, which opened in Rome in 1997, he stocked an in-shop bookstore with titles on fashion, art, film and design, enticing shoppers to linger. The Milan megastore on Via Manzoni is home to no less than a cafe, a Nobu restaurant and a club. A hotel on the top floor is also being considered.

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