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Giorgio Armani’s New Formula

For his latest retail statement in the midst of couture week here, Giorgio Armani is taking high fashion's exclusive, personalized nature to heart.<BR><BR><BR>

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PARIS — For his latest retail statement in the midst of couture week here, Giorgio Armani is taking high fashion’s exclusive, personalized nature to heart.

As an antidote to glitzy, product-stuffed designer temples, his new Avenue Montaigne flagship opening here today showcases his clothes and accessories sparingly in striking onyx wardrobes, giving customers the chance to explore and discover.

“There is a bit of a boudoir spirit,” Armani said in an interview on the eve of his fifth Armani Privé couture show, which will be streamed live on the Internet at MSN.com and on Cingular telephones — billed as a world first. A star-studded gala dinner and the launch of prestige skin care collections for men and women will follow.

Brimming with confidence, the designer also disclosed that his couture collection, launched in 2005, was already “very close” to reaching breakeven — a goal that often takes brands decades to reach, or remains forever elusive.

Armani described the Avenue Montaigne unit as “an experimental boutique,” cognizant that designer customers have become more discriminating and are weary of seeing the same merchandising and decor schemes everywhere they travel.

Unusual features are backlit floors and walls in onyx sourced from the Iran-Iraq border; mannequins scattered throughout the store, some in lounging positions, and a striking lack of traditional window displays, adding to the store’s intimate, private ethos. “For me, what counts is the merchandising, the products,” the designer said. “[Customers] want to see different boutiques.”

He said the sparse merchandising scheme encourages discovery, and stands in contrast to many designer outposts with bulging racks of clothes and handbags. “That lacks the atmosphere of exclusivity,” he said.

The store’s decor oozes luxury, from display tables in gleaming black lacquer and vaguely Chinese lamps to the pleated rows of satin decorating the walls.

“It cost a lot of money,” Armani noted sheepishly. He designed the store in collaboration with his team of in-house architects and the Claudio Silvestrin studio.

He declined to comment on first-year sales projections; however, sources estimated the 4,300-square-foot unit would pull in revenues of 10 million euros, or $12.9 million at current exchange.

The designer’s signature men’s wear is showcased on the main floor, and an onyx staircase — or an all-glass elevator straight out of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” — takes shoppers up to a larger women’s wear floor, which boasts a glossy black ceiling that seems to disappear. There is a corner for footwear and a wall for eyewear, but handbags, jewelry and other accessories are sprinkled throughout the floor, which culminates in an intimate, darker suite for elaborate evening­wear.

The Avenue Montaigne flagship replaces Armani’s collection unit on the Place Vendôme, which was closed last September. The designer expressed some regret about leaving the historic and scenic square, but noted that “today, Paris has changed” and visitors are increasingly shunning aging palace hotels and seeking newer places with “more modern comforts.”

What’s more, Avenue Montaigne “has become again the reference point for luxury shoppers,” he said, expressing pride in the longevity of his brand, which arrives on the street some 32 years after he founded it. “We are there with all these new lines,” he boasted.

The designer’s retail network in France now includes two collection boutiques, three Emporio Armani stores (one with a cafe), one Armani Collezioni store and one Armani Casa outlet.

A new feature for Paris is Armani’s made-to-measure service for men, housed on the lower level, offering suits that start at 2,500 euros, or $3,242, in a choice of more than 150 fabrics. The service was launched last year and also offers men’s coats, jackets and shirts. It already boasts such clients as George Clooney, Clive Owen and Leonardo DiCaprio.

As an additional boost to his made-to-measure foray, Armani concluded his signature men’s show last week in Milan with a runway appearance by his latest celebrity fan: Cayetano Rivera Ordoñez, a Spanish matador with a legendary bullfighting pedigree and matinee-idol good looks.

The made-to-measure service is the companion to Armani’s Privé couture collection, which has quickly gained traction despite widespread prognostications that high fashion is due for imminent extinction.

Although Armani’s debut couture collection was skewed to the red carpet, he recently has expanded his offering of daywear and cited strong orders for pants, sweaters, shirts and jersey pieces. A company spokesman said the house sells upward of 180 Privé garments per season, plus about 50 specially made bags and shoes.

The designer credited his long experience in ready-to-wear for “bringing a modern touch” to couture, which is evident in strong demand for “pieces for day made with exceptional quality.”

Armani opened a permanent showroom for Privé in July at 2 Avenue Montaigne to receive his clients, which come largely from the U.S., Asia, France and Belgium. The designer noted he does not have many Italian clients, but that American women are buying high fashion from him in here and in New York.

As reported, a long list of celebrities and social figures — including Cate Blanchett, Tina Turner, Rachel McAdams and Katie Holmes — are expected to attend a slate of Armani events this week, starting with a cocktail party in the boutique tonight, followed by the skin care launch, couture show and gala dinner on Wednesday.

Armani said his skin care line would be characterized by “exceptional quality”; the mineral obsidian is one of the key active ingredients. Obsidian, a volcanic rock sourced on the Italian island of Pantelleria, where Armani has a holiday home, is said to contain elements that protect and regenerate the skin.

Recognizing that few designers venture into skin care, and that beauty brands have formidable technical expertise in the category, Armani said his first instruction to beauty partner L’Oréal was, “I don’t want to make any mistakes.”

The designer said the timing is right for the introduction, especially for a male audience. “Men are very interested in these products,” he said. “They need that.”

Armani’s trio of events, and a bigger-than-ever couture show for an audience of 600, come only four months after a mammoth televised event in London featuring Emporio Armani clothes and a slate of musical performances. Asked about the publicity impact of such events, the designer shot out his leg and said with a smile: “It gives us a big kick.”

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