MILAN — Giorgio Armani walks into the fitting room at his headquarters on Via Borgonuovo here and everyone jumps to attention, proving the “maestro” is back in full force. His team of assistants, stylists and hair and makeup people pause to await their instructions.
“Everybody out,” Armani orders and, wasting no time, he steps over to examine a model wearing one of his spring looks — a silk slit skirt over a striped sequined minidress in royal blue, pearl gray and bottle green.
The 75-year-old designer is visibly healthier than the frail figure he cut in June, when he presented his spring 2010 men’s collection, a month after revealing he’d been diagnosed with hepatitis. In fact, he appears reenergized and back to his in-control self. In an exclusive interview with WWD, Armani is relaxed and at ease, his mood ranging from joking to philosophical about his life and business.
“During my illness, I realized how much I need creative outlets,” he said, wearing a black jacket, shirt and pants and white sneakers.
Yet he admitted to reshuffling his agenda to take better care of himself and added there will be some “change from a managerial perspective — moves and promotions — that will be announced shortly.” Armani declined to go into detail, however.
“The illness made me understand that you can’t joke with your life,” the designer continued. “For years, I ignored myself completely until I received this blow, which happened for a reason. I realized I had to be more careful. All the stress and mental and physical possibilities take their toll.”
He also realized he should better appreciate all that he has.
“During my illness, I spent more time in my homes, in Broni, and discovered the pleasure of being with my cats, dogs and staff,” said Armani. “Before, I always felt like a guest in my homes, even if it’s tragic to enjoy the things you built thanks to an illness.”
Later, sitting behind his desk in his office, from where he commands his $2.38 billion empire, he talked of being overwhelmed by the kindness of well-wishers — some friends, some strangers — who have bid him a speedy recovery over recent months.
“It was incredible,” Armani said, citing a recent holiday on his yacht, when, on a rare trip to the beach, he was welcomed by locals.
But Armani is still Armani — he himself even joked about some of his more difficult character traits — and, despite ongoing speculation over the future of his company, he said he has no plans to ease up, even as he slows his schedule.
“I work shorter hours,” he said, taking a sip of a bright green water and mint drink. “I take a break between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and try to leave at 6 p.m.”
Here, in his first interview since the spring, Armani discusses his health, his upcoming collection, his business and the future of the industry.
WWD: As a self-confessed workaholic, was it difficult to step back and let go when the illness struck?
Giorgio Armani: Yes, even more so than the illness in itself because I’m so involved in every aspect of the company.
If possible, I don’t delegate, or I delegate but I control. Delegation does not mean, “Do it and goodbye.” That doesn’t exist for me because I see it in the choice of a lamp, in the preparation of a collection, in the selection of a location, in the rapport in the office, in so many things. I like very much to deal with everything across the board. Therefore, delegation goes so far as, “What would you have chosen as a solution to the problem, A or B?” If the choice of A seems good to me, fine. If not, it becomes B, or even Z.
But, I discovered that sentimental values should be cherished and well-handled. It’s important to not go back to being aggressive and nasty once the illness is gone. I will try not to.
WWD: Did your health setback prompt any reflection on the issues of management and design succession that all large companies face?
G.A.: Certainly it was an occasion to think about [the future], but you will understand that in that situation, my priority was to get better. So I tried to avoid inflicting negative thoughts upon myself, like compiling a will. Obviously I did one long ago, and maybe it was time to revise it, but I didn’t because my days were centered on taking medicine, resting, being nursed or waiting for my sister to come by with a pudding. You become a bit childish, an aspect that contrasts heavily with my attitude, which is always a bit dictatorial.
WWD: What should we expect to see on your runway today?
G.A.: The collection was inspired by Body Art as body language and infused with an eccentric purity that comes from Bauhaus. All the pieces have bold cuts and constructions, at times delineated by chiffon covered ribs. It’s all very essential and rigorous but a play in contrasts makes the collection sumptuous and exuberant.
There was a lot of research in shapes that change, such as leotards that resemble wraparound dresses, cropped pants shirred to look like skirts and layered, one-shoulder blouses with checkered prints. Lengths are short and worn with flats. Jackets are linear with contrast stitching in soft shades such as earth tones, gray, blue, green and a new dull red and iris purple.
WWD: Have you changed your design approach at all, given the economy and changing consumer mood?
G.A.: No, not at all. I’ve learned over the years that a designer who reacts to every fluctuation in cultural and fashion trends can easily come off the rails. The fulcrum of Armani has always been the pursuit of a coherent and rigorous aesthetic. The constants are quality, elegance, stylistic excellence and innovation.
During my 30 years in fashion, I explored many different roads, from minimalism to ethnic, but most of the time, people expect the same style from me and don’t understand change. That’s my challenge.
WWD: Are you in the mood for experimentation or classicism?
G.A.: Both. My style is to respect the past but projecting myself into the future.
WWD: In terms of fashion, what kinds of styles will be the most desirable in the post-recession period? Do you expect any major change?
G.A.: I think there will certainly be a wave of simple, minimalist and timeless models. Then, as always happens in fashion, the pendulum will probably swing in the other direction so that when the economy starts to pick up, we will see a return to glamour.
WWD: Are there any particular men or women, famous or not, whom you find particularly inspiring and why?
G.A.: I’m a fan of cinema for which reason I always remain in awe when I work with actors and actresses that seem to me to have that magic star quality of the Hollywood golden age, people like George Clooney, Cate Blanchett or Isabelle Huppert, whom I dressed this year at Cannes for her role as president of the jury for the [film] festival.
WWD: Once the dust settles from the recession, do you think it will be back to business as usual or has the industry been changed indelibly?
G.A.: I think people have undergone a cultural change. The recession is making everyone more careful when choosing how to spend their money. Nevertheless, I believe that people are fundamentally moved by aspirations and so will always desire beautiful well-made things and be receptive to them.
WWD: The crisis has been tough on many Italian companies. Do you worry for the future of Italy’s fashion industry? Why or why not?
G.A.: I believe the recession has led us all to focus on what there is to improve in what we do and in the way in which we do it. Anyhow, I believe that there is an Italian aesthetic, which is original and appealing, and an undoubted quality and credibility associated with the idea of Made in Italy. In the last year, these characteristics have moved to the fore and they will work in our favor when the economy bounces back.
WWD: In your estimation, how has the Armani Group weathered the tough economy, and what strategies held you in good stead?
G.A.: I think we’ve handled it well, better than many others, predominantly because my aesthetic is aimed at a timeless elegance and sophistication and not influenced by ephemeral trends. For this reason, my clothing has always been considered something that does not go out of fashion quickly, in other words [it’s] a good investment.
WWD: Are there any aspects of the business that proved more vulnerable, and may take more time to recover?
G.A.: It’s no surprise that the areas that have helped us better withstand the downturn are those that are less costly, such as fragrances, jeans, beauty products, kid’s clothes, Armani Exchange. Meanwhile, the areas that have been more greatly affected by the seriousness of the recession are the articles that involve very high prices. But it’s not that simple. Armani Privé, my high-fashion collection, still has many fans and the tailoring segment has done well too. I think that when it comes to expensive items, perhaps people are looking for individuality and character more than ever.
WWD: Did you change your pricing policy in any way?
G.A.: One of our strengths lies in the fact that we have at our disposal a portfolio of lines and products that addresses a wide range of consumers. More than reducing prices, I’d say we’re more attentive. For example, if I’m putting together a new lineup of Emporio Armani accessories and come across a $700 one, I say it’s too expensive. Even though I’m told it’ll sell, I take it out because it makes us more credible.
In regards to the signature line, if there’s an outfit that is hard to copy or to reproduce, then it should cost more, but a black T-shirt shouldn’t cost that much more just because it says Armani.
WWD: What is your business outlook for the balance of this year and next year?
G.A.: As always, I want to dedicate myself to new ideas and new stylistic areas. I like to push myself and my team to the limit. Our objective will be to exit the crisis even stronger and to build our brand in new areas and markets. I can’t wait to open the hotel-residence in Dubai. It will be the climax of many years of hard work.
WWD: In your view, which developments will shape the industry the most in coming years: China and other emerging markets? The Internet and social networking revolution? The fast-fashion juggernaut?
G.A.: All these aspects will have repercussions but the only thing of which we can be certain is that they will not influence the sector in the way we imagine now. Let’s not forget, television did not kill cinema, nor did it put an end to radio. And staying closer to home, the mass exodus that was predicted a few years ago when it was supposed that everything in the world would be made in China hasn’t materialized in such a clear way, black or white. The fact remains that China and the Chinese represent a fabulous and fascinating market that is giving us and will continue to give us a lot of satisfaction. The industry will adapt and evolve as it has always done. Now we are able to understand that e-commerce is a real force in fashion. But whether social networking will help sell clothes is another matter.
As much as the rhythm of fashion continues to accelerate, there will always be a consumer who wants authenticity and a product made to last. The cheap handbag of the week has a certain appeal. A Hermès Kelly [bag] is another thing altogether.
WWD: Has your resolve to remain an independent company changed in any way? Have there been any recent discussions?
G.A.: No, not at all. I continue to love my work and, for the time being, I want to continue to enjoy myself and follow my creative impulse.
WWD: Andrea Camerana, your nephew, has been touted as a possible future candidate to lead the company. Is there any truth to the rumor?
G.A.: Andrea is a delightful person. For the moment, he serves me as someone with a calmer view of problems. He is not as involved as I am, up to my neck from morning until night, for which reason he is able to see things and suggest solutions that are less drastic. I am a bit impulsive in my way of going about things, neither having time for myself nor others. I keep Andrea by my side because he is my nephew and I love him, and who knows, one day he could have a big opportunity in the company. However, for the moment, I prefer to keep him where he is, without giving him responsibilities that are too official. His official role is as my nephew, which is more than enough for many.