By and  on January 27, 2006

LONDON — Giorgio Armani is at work on an Emporio Armani capsule collection that he's hoping will marry commerce with compassion.

In September, the designer will present a collection of clothing, accessories, eyewear, watches, jewelry and fragrances in alliance with Product Red, a global business initiative aimed at channeling private-sector money into the fight against AIDS in Africa. The initiative was co-founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver two years ago as part of the Global Fund and includes American Express, Gap and Converse. The companies have all committed for a minimum of five years. The idea is to tap into big brands' marketing budgets, which are traditionally larger than their philanthropic ones.

"It's a project that's close to what I'm involved in, and what my business is about — commerce," said Armani in a telephone interview from Switzerland on Thursday.

"Commerce is often viewed as exploitation. Well, we're showing that it can be used to help people and to make their lives better," said the designer, who was at the Davos World Economic Forum earlier this week to help launch the project.

Although Armani, whose estimated net worth is $4.6 billion, was in Davos for a very specific reason, he did address the ongoing questions about the future of his company.

"Nothing has changed with regard to my plans," said the designer, who turns 72 in July. "There are a lot of managers out there who are 80 years old and still running companies!

"Why do I have to keep answering these questions of succession?" he continued. "It's a little too early to talk about it. I'm running this company in a lucid manner, and I'll continue to do so."

Armani's first Product Red product is a pair of metal wraparound sunglasses — the same model that his friend Bono wore on his Vertigo Tour last summer. It was while Bono was on that tour, and after performing at Milan's San Siro soccer stadium in July, that he pitched the idea to Armani over lunch at the designer's home. Armani quickly accepted, and came up with the capsule collection idea.

Armani said the new collection will likely feature a mix of already existing Emporio Armani products — such as the sunglasses — and ones tailor-made for the project. All of them will bear the red Product Red logo. Armani and the other companies whose products take on the Product Red mark will contribute a portion of profits from the sale of that product to the Global Fund to finance AIDS programs in Africa, with a focus on women and children.American Express has come up with a special Red credit card. The Red Amex card will read: "This card is designed to eliminate HIV in Africa." One percent of money spent on the card will go to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which supports nearly half a million people on AIDS treatment.

For Gap brand president Cynthia Harriss, signing on to the program was a no-brainer.

"Red is such an important and critical aspect of what we can do together to make an impact in the world," Harriss said by telephone Thursday morning from Gap headquarters in San Francisco. The company will roll out its part with T-shirts followed by a more capsule Red collection. "We have always been that company that seems to be culturally relevant — from our style to how we've run our business. It was just such a perfect fit."

The meeting in San Francisco between Bono and Shriver and Gap first took place last fall. "The great part is that Bono came to us," said Harriss. She added, laughing, that it was one of those days when the staff couldn't but "just happen to drop by her office" to catch a peek of the rock star.

Gap's initiative will launch in the U.K. in March, with limited distribution of a cap-sleeve, 100 percent African-made T-shirt priced at 14.50 pounds, or about $26.

By fall, the program — from product to an in-store presence — will roll out in North American Gap stores and, possibly, said Harriss, globally. There are about 3,000 Gap stores in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, France and Japan.

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