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When it comes to wardrobing Hollywood, the old adage might as well go “lights, camera, Armani.”
No fashion designer can claim greater dominance than Giorgio Armani. His costume credits are now past the 300 mark and counting, from suiting up a single character as he famously did in his first film 25 years ago, dressing Richard Gere in “American Gigolo,” to providing much of the wardrobe for last year’s Cole Porter biopic “De-Lovely,” or the eyewear for the Oscar-nominated “The Aviator.”
While Fred Hayman and other Beverly Hills retailers made sure through the late Sixties on that their star clientele had access to runway looks from Paris and New York, no reporter ever begged, “Who are you wearing?” until nearly two decades later, when Armani, having become the source for the power suit among agents and directors, caught on among their Oscar-bound clients such as Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer. “Armani has always understood Hollywood,” said Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein last week. “His clothes are the essence of elegance and sophistication.”
Since Armani’s decision in the mid-Eighties to dedicate resources — and in 1988, an office — to dressing Hollywood, the red carpet has become a spectator sport of global proportions. Celebrity has spawned new media and fashion diversions, and our collective obsession saved the Academy Awards show’s otherwise flagging TV ratings. Still, amid the hoopla of celebrity dressing, where even the nail polish maker demands more airplay than an actor’s last film, Armani’s clothes remain a sober constant, a supporting role to the leading woman or man in them.
No wonder then, when Hayman (founder of the other Giorgio on the block) and his tony retail neighbors decided to create an award honoring those who have fostered the fashion-Hollywood coupling, Armani was the first recipient of the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style maquette. And, no surprise, the 2003 event was a veritable glam slam of A-listers, from Sophia Loren and Diane Keaton to Jessica Simpson and Outkast, as well as Gere, Pfeiffer and Foster.
“His clothes make you feel classy, elegant, sexy and smarter for having chosen to wear them,” said Pfeiffer, who was 23 when “Scarface” came out and she got the call saying Giorgio Armani was interested in loaning her looks. Today, she readily admits she hadn’t heard of the already widely known designer. “I was totally clueless when it came to fashion, and have pretty much remained that way. But thanks to him, it has gone pretty much undetected all these years.”
Foster, who has also been a devoted Armani fan since then, agreed. “I think both Michelle [Pfeiffer] and I are people who never wanted or needed to stick out in a crowd. We’re people who are really interested in being elegant. My personality has always been really well suited to Armani.”
To be sure, there were fashion designers in Hollywood before him. Yet, while many designers cite cinema as inspiration and even motivation to their careers, Armani has satiated his obsession in an unparalleled way.
And he takes great pride in his efforts, which have only increased in recent years. “My fashion marked a break from how Hollywood dressed before,” he told WWD during his Walk of Style visit, his last to Los Angeles. The five-day stop was marked by a birthday party for Lisa Kudrow, another night with Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher at his restaurant Dolce, and yet another dinner the next evening with then-governor-hopeful Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver. “Mr. Armani is such a rock star,” swooned starlet Monet Mazur that week.
Make that movie star — in terms of costuming films. His label has probably appeared in more films than any character actor, and he’s contributed and collaborated on films by cinema’s most-respected directors — Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”), Brian de Palma (“The Untouchables”), Robert Altman (“Pret-a-Porter”), Pedro Almodovar (“High Heels”), Michael Mann (“Heat”), Bernardo Bertolucci (“Stealing Beauty”), John Singleton (“Shaft”) and Steven Spielberg (“Minority Report”), among many, many others.
His actor-turned-director pals have also called in Armani for a character or more, including Sean Penn, Billy Crystal, Warren Beatty and Rob Reiner.
Those films that are closest to his heart, he said, are the ones in which he was able to collaborate with the costume designer. “The Untouchables,” said Armani, “allowed the possibility to imagine that epoch, while adding personal touches in a complete way.” (The costume designer on the 1987 film was Marilyn Vance.) “But doing five decades, as we did for ‘De-Lovely,’ beginning with the Forties, gives me even more satisfaction.”
For his partner in the film, costume designer Janty Yates, satisfaction came in working so closely with Armani, along with the access to his archives, warehouses and shops, she said. “We worked at the most delicious decades of costume history and Armani excels at a period look, especially cutting silks at a bias and the sharp suits. I was knocked out watching Mr. Armani draw for six hours all over Kevin [Kline]. It was very intensive stuff, a very rewarding experience all around.”
Of course, it was dressing a single character that ushered Armani into the cultural consciousness and started the revolution. The 1980 Paul Schrader-directed “American Gigolo” also propelled the career of Gere, whom Armani has since wardrobed in a handful of other films including 1995’s “Primal Fear” and 2003’s “Shall We Dance.”
It was five years after showing his first collection that Armani met Schrader on a steamy July day in Milan. “Paul was actually with John Travolta, who was going to star in the film,” recalled the designer. “But a few weeks later, Richard Gere was cast. Thank God. Richard was elegant, and, with all due respect, John wasn’t. At the time, his image was Seventies and ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ Richard had the perfect face and the body for my clothes.”
To wit, Travolta finally got his screen time in Armani in the 2003 military drama “Basic.”
But one of Armani’s biggest thrills on screen was not a party dress or gangster suit he personally pinned and fitted, but seeing a Giorgio Armani boutique in “Double Jeopardy,” the 1999 film featuring Ashley Judd. It was recreated for the set, and, perhaps, the very fabrication of it made it all the more wonderful for the Hollywood fan in Armani.
Films were a source of escape and entertainment for a young Giorgio growing up in an industrial Italian town bombed during World War II. Today, his homes are appointed with monitors large enough to screen his favorite films, which he collects like any self-respecting film buff. But his devotion to the art of cinema goes beyond the clothes. He has sponsored several films documenting and celebrating Italian and American cinema and creative masters, as well as screenings and related events.
He produced the Martin Scorsese-directed “Il Mio Viaggio in Italia,” the 1999 documentary cataloging the history of Italian cinema from the late 1800s to 1966. A sequel, continuing the four decades since is currently under works. (The director produced his own documentary on the designer, “Made in Milan,” in 1990, and in 1987 directed a commercial for Emporio Armani.) It was with Scorsese that Armani walked down the Academy Awards red carpet his only time, when “Goodfellas” was nominated in 1991.
Ironically, the force who pioneered the idea of dressing up for the red carpet, even being the first to install an in-house office to handle Hollywood from his Beverly Hills flagship, is critical of “the emphasis on fashion at events. Sometimes the media pushes too much. We must look at ourselves in the mirror — to know how to wear important clothes,” he said during his 2003 visit to Los Angeles. “If an artist is not able to carry the clothes, she looks ridiculous. I know it is very dangerous to say something like this. I don’t want to be polemical.”
But it’s this kind of thoughtful reflection that has Hollywood’s A-listers such as Pfeiffer calling Armani her “soul mate,” and Anjelica Huston saying how “grateful she is to have had him in my life for a long, long time.” Their relationship dates back to the Seventies, when Huston walked his catwalk in New York and Milan. “His talent is undiminished. He’s more powerful than he ever was.”