“It’s Armani, it’s not a dress. It’s a specific style, but it’s actually sort of timeless. I don’t know how he does that.”
So says Kristin Scott Thomas in the 2019 documentary “Armani Privé — A View Beyond,” a behind-the-scenes peek at Giorgio Armani’s couture show in Paris.
Scott Thomas is not alone in marveling at the designer’s enduring career, consistency of vision and global reach. At 85, spearheading a 2.1 billion euro empire that spans from fashion and beauty to retail and hospitality — a rare major and global independent fashion house — Giorgio Armani is the tireless mastermind behind every decision. To wit, in 2019, the designer added the title of general manager to his existing chairman and chief executive officer roles. Tenacious and razor-sharp, he has learned to be a capable businessman, especially after the 1985 death of his companion and business partner Sergio Galeotti, with whom he had founded the company a decade earlier.
In an interview with WWD, ahead of receiving the John B. Fairchild Honor, Armani candidly defines himself a “control freak.” To be sure, tales of his meticulous attention to detail abound. His blue eyes, which often twinkle with irony, can turn icy in a second if something is not to his liking — whether it’s the wrong lighting backstage or a hat that doesn’t sit right on a model. For sure, whatever the event, Armani is bound to be there early, checking that everything is shipshape, which makes it a dream for a reporter eager to carve out some alone time before the rush of visitors and well-wishers.
Although he mainly enjoys being surrounded by his family — including his sister Rosanna and his nieces Roberta and Silvana — a close-knit group of friends and longtime collaborators, Armani will take the time to pose for countless selfies and to speak to his customers, whether in his shops, which he regularly checks, or vacationing on his beloved Sicilian island of Pantelleria. Known to be frugal and understated, Armani has over the years indulged his passion for interiors with a number of houses in some of the best locations in the world, from Antigua to St. Moritz and St. Tropez.
Born in Piacenza on July 11, 1934, Armani began in the industry as an assistant buyer for Milan’s La Rinascente department store, where he started creating eye-catching store windows, and subsequently took on a design job working at Hitman with Nino Cerruti until 1970. He founded his namesake company in 1975 with Galeotti, championing a modern wardrobe based on uncontrived, practical, tasteful and casually luxurious designs that earned him a wide and loyal customer base, from the corporate world through to Hollywood A-listers and artists including Sophia Loren, Jodie Foster, Tina Turner, George Clooney, Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise and Glenn Close, to name a few. Dressing Richard Gere for the title role in “American Gigolo” helped put Armani on the international map and he went on to become one of the first go-to designers for stars on the red carpet.
Armani transformed the man’s suit by ripping the canvas out of the jacket and developing it into chic and feminine versions in fluid fabrics for the working woman. “We must always remember that the dress under the spotlight, worn by a fashionable model, ultimately must be transferable to the lady who comes into the store. Otherwise it means little,” Armani said in 2000.
He has stayed true to that mantra, and has repeatedly and self-assuredly chastised those designers who he believes turn fashion into a circus, also criticizing the press for dedicating too many pages to unwearable designs. “There was always that desire to shock by showing a bare behind — a cheap trick that will only make people speak badly about fashion. I’m sure it will make a lot of magazine covers, but where is the fashion in it?” he once asked.
While he has explored exotic patterns and rich embroideries and injected shots of strong hues such as orange and fuchsia into his collections, Armani is forever linked with one tonality: The word “greige” was devised to describe his color palette of muted shades of grays, taupes and beiges — although he admits he finds the term too constricting.
To wit, in 2012 the designer staged an exhibition, called “Eccentrico,” to show how whimsical his designs have been over the years. “I’m thinking of all the work behind these designs and how, at times, there’s been some inattention…how the work was not underscored,” said Armani then, during a walk-through of the looks — which included a silk taffeta jacket with embroidered pineapples inspired by a Gloria Vanderbilt dress from the spring 1989 collection or the famed getup designed for Lady Gaga in laminated metallic pieces stitched together, as well as accessories inspired by Surrealism and his passion for animals, from dragonflies to spiders and snakes that adorned broaches, necklaces and clasps.
“Only I know what I want and my message has to be consistent from beginning to end,” he told WWD in 2005.
At the same time, Armani lamented the fact that, when he periodically tried to stray from what was expected of him, showing bloomers or pouf silhouettes, for example, the designs would be met by critics’ lukewarm reaction — at best. “’It’s not Armani,’ they say. It’s difficult to convince these people that, even if it’s not Armani, it must be done,” he has said.
In 2015 Armani marked the 40th anniversary of his fashion house, but not one to rest on his laurels — as he himself puts it — he has been busy reorganizing the structure of his company over the past two years. After building a diversified portfolio of brands, in 2017 the designer unveiled a new strategy, revealing his decision to cease the Armani Collezioni and Armani Jeans brands and use only the Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani and A|X Armani Exchange monikers. The goal is to strengthen the individual brands and maximize their potential in an increasingly competitive and changing market.
Armani never leaves anything to chance and he knew the decision would take a toll on his fashion group’s bottom line. Revealing that profits and revenues were dented by the restructuring in 2018, he said his plan was to “resolutely” continue with his strategy, “confident in the strategic direction” and pointing to a positive first part of 2019 and a new phase of development in 2020. Last year the group reported net profits of 152 million euros, a 37.3 percent drop compared with the previous year, on the back of revenues that totaled 2.1 billion euros, down 9.8 percent but “in line with established budgets and consistent with the medium- to long-term strategy.”
The changes at the company did not dent Armani’s cash pile, though — far from it. At the end of 2018, the group’s net equity remained steady at 2.06 billion euros, while available net cash rose 30.5 percent to 1.31 billion euros, allowing Armani to increase investment in the group’s brands and, especially significant for the designer, to be absolutely autonomous and independent.
That has always been a key priority for Armani. In 2016, the designer revealed details about the future of his company, confirming he had established the long-rumored Fondazione Giorgio Armani, which, while aiming to fund social projects, also ensures that his fashion group will live on.
“I decided to create the Giorgio Armani Foundation in order to implement projects of public and social interest,” Armani said at the time. “The foundation will also safeguard the governance assets of the Armani Group and ensure that these assets are kept stable over time, in respect of and consistent with some principles that are particularly important to me and that have always inspired my activities as a designer and an entrepreneur. These founding principles are based upon: autonomy and independence, an ethical approach to management with integrity and honesty, attention to innovation and excellence, an absolute priority to the continuous development of the Armani brand sustained by appropriate investments, prudent and balanced financial management, limited recourse to debt and a careful approach to acquisitions.”
He has sought to maintain his independence over the years, especially since the year 2000 when rumors about a possible sale to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton or the-then Gucci Group and L’Oréal swirled around the house of Armani.
Last year, L’Oréal and the Armani group agreed to renew their beauty license until 2050. The French beauty giant has developed Armani’s fragrances, skin care and makeup since 1988 in close collaboration with the Italian designer. “These lines are showing [some] of the strongest growth in the beauty category, generating revenues of over 1 billion euros in 2017,” L’Oréal said at the time.
The Giorgio Armani Fragrances and Beauty business, which is part of L’Oréal’s Luxury division, has been on a steep growth trajectory for five years, capped in 2019 by a heightened focus on China. Cate Blanchett, a longtime fan and supporter of Armani — who in turn acted as patron and funder of the Sydney Theatre Co. when the Academy Award winner and her husband, Andrew Upton, were its co-artistic directors — has been fronting the Sì fragrance franchise’s communication. Blanchett was also appointed the first global beauty ambassador for Armani last year. The Acqua di Giò franchise continues to be one of Armani’s pillars and best-selling fragrances.
Armani has also been experimenting with his show format. To emphasize the new course of the Emporio Armani brand, first launched in 1981, in September last year the designer held for the first time a coed show at the Milan airport Linate’s Hangar, which has been featuring the Emporio Armani logo since 1996. Called Emporio Armani Boarding, the show was followed by a concert headlined by Robbie Williams. Aiming to inject a democratic spirit into the show, Armani opened the event to 2,300 people.
Last June, the designer changed the set-up and seating at the theater for the Emporio men’s show, with a special lighting structure installed above the runway; the show was closed by 20 Olympic athletes and nine Paralympians of the Italian team wearing the new EA7 Emporio Armani uniforms for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, with graphics paying homage to Japan. Previously, Armani has dressed the Italian athletes at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, and the Sochi 2014 and Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. Armani also owns the Olimpia Milano basketball team.
The designer staged a coed show for his signature brand in February at his Silos exhibition space and in June, for the first time in 18 years, he showed his namesake men’s collection for spring 2020 at his storied headquarters at 11 Via Borgonuovo. Armani unveiled the Silos in 2015 —walking tirelessly up and down the four levels of the 48,600-square-foot building — a restored granary of the Nestlé company that was built constructed in 1950. Naturally, he conceived and oversaw the renovation project himself.
In May, the designer took his pre-collection to Tokyo, with a show to coincide with the reopening of his Armani/Ginza Tower. Japan is a significant market for Armani, with some 90 points of sale across the country, including 34 in Tokyo alone. As his show venue, Armani chose an annex building of the Tokyo National Museum, Japan’s largest art museum.
The country and the brand share a love for certain aesthetic elements. Armani turned to Japanese architect Tadao Ando to design his Teatro show space in Milan, opened in 2001, and dedicated an exhibition to Ando’s career in April at his Silos space, kicking off Design Week. Armani and Ando share a passion for beauty and “the desire to continue to work until we are 100,” the latter said at the time.
Armani has channeled his passion for architecture in the development of the Casa line and his interior design projects, which include the opening of hotels in Dubai and in Milan. A pioneer in the arena of designer food and hospitality, he is reimagining his four-level, 16,000-square-foot flagship at 760 Madison Avenue in Manhattan as part of a larger residential project in a new 96,000-square-foot building composed of a three-story flagship (including a Casa space on the third floor) and 19 luxury residences. The building, with interiors also conceived by Armani, is scheduled to break ground in 2021 and is expected to be finished by 2023. In addition to his flagship, the project will include his Armani/Casa concept, all with a large experiential component. Armani has been working on hospitality projects since 2004, when the first partnership agreement for hotels and resorts was signed with the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which opened in 2010, followed by a hotel in Milan in 2011.
One of the most recognizable designers worldwide, who fronted a Time Magazine cover in 1982 — with a penchant for wearing an all-blue look — Armani has made Milan his home, a city he loves and that elected him special ambassador of the Expo in 2015.
“I like the idea of being remembered not only for my clothes, and I like to bring an element of luxury that adds prestige to the city,” said the designer upon the opening of his hotel in Milan, opposite the prestigious Via Montenapoleone shopping street, and near the La Scala theater. The hotel is located in the 1937 building that also houses Emporio Armani’s Via Manzoni megastore and Nobu, which the designer brought to the city.
Here, Armani — known throughout Italy as simply “The Maestro” — gives his side of the story that has led him to the John B. Fairchild Honor and his first official self-portrait, exclusively for WWD.
WWD: You must have heard it said many times that you’re a rare example of an entrepreneur designer. What do you think of this description? In what way have you succeeded in combining these two roles?
Giorgo Armani: It was destiny that gave me this role, which I later shaped and took on with practice and experience. The passing of Sergio Galeotti gave me no other choice and I had to decide whether to carry on in the business alone or not. Many people thought I would go under and fail. Yet I knew I had to get through those dark days. I owed it to Sergio, to myself and to those people who had helped us get to that stage. So I learned how to manage the business and I realized I had leadership as well as creative skills. I also found out that people can be very resilient if they focus their minds on a goal. This is a lesson I’ve never forgotten. Now I can’t see any gaps between the two figures — one complements the other.
WWD: The Armani world embraces so many areas. When was the first time you thought that your name could have become synonymous with a lifestyle? What pleases you most when you see what you’ve built with so much hard work?
G:A: I had the first inkling that style could become a lifestyle in the Eighties. At that time we designers had to come up with everything, from tiles to a plan to boost the economy. It remained at the embryo stage. It was when the business and markets expanded in the Nineties and 2000s that I realized that my vision of a timeless and understated elegance could be applied to various areas. I also became aware that the public had an extremely positive reaction to my work, possibly because the idea of making life simpler, yet at the same time more elegant is a positive message which resonates with many people. The fact that my work had such a strong and tangible impact on people’s daily lives is a major achievement and a great incentive to carry on.
WWD: How has the market reacted so far to your decision to focus on the Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani and A|X Armani Exchange lines? What are the first signals? Could you give us an update?
G.A.: Simplifying the portfolio and, as a result of this, also the message, was greeted very favorably by both the trade and end users. As we expected, there was an initial downturn, due above all to the assimilation of the diffusion lines. Nevertheless the policy adopted came from a careful analysis based on a medium- to long-term view, which underpins all our strategic decisions and we can already see the positive impact on our range and on our distribution. Already this year we have recorded a double-figure increase in sales in the stores we own which makes up for the rationalizing of distribution.
WWD: What are the cornerstones of your style by which you’d like to be recognized? What are you particularly proud of? Have you any regrets?
G.A.: I’ve no regrets, but I constantly question myself, otherwise I would remain idle. Resting on my laurels is not for me. The cornerstone of my style is an idea of simplicity with, dare I say it, a humanistic perspective since I focus on the person. The clothes or furniture I create are means of enriching people, not camouflaging or smothering them. I always keep to this principle. Underlying all this is a thorough scrutiny of people’s needs as well as a vision, which in the early days made me break the mold, revolutionizing the style of men’s and women’s clothing. That original spark that drove me to innovate has never gone out and behind all my collections there’s some amazing research work. I would like this to be recognized but realize that new ideas are only seen to be coming from and are associated with young designers, forgetting that those who’ve been on the scene longer also have something new to give.
WWD: Does it bother you when people talk about “greige?”
G.A.: Greige is a color filled with nuances and possibilities, an ageless and timeless color, a shade full of personality. which can be used for countless combinations and interpretations. I’ve perfected it throughout my career bearing in mind women of different ages and different complexions. I have to confess that I’m slightly irritated at being associated only with this color. I’ve explored very many shades in my collections, not just neutrals but also brighter colors such as red, orange, pink and chartreuse. We only have to think back to 2015 when I inaugurated my Armani/Silos and dedicated a whole floor to a range of palettes, precisely to showcase my creations in stronger colors.
WWD: For years you’ve worked with the world’s leading actors and it’s well-known that you’re a great cinema buff. What do you like in particular?
G.A.: I’ve always been fascinated by the reality effect in film. Everything is believable on the big screen, even the most fantastic and inventive stories. This is what makes it so involving and complete. From the first Hollywood films via the Italian neorealists up to my work on costumes for hundreds of films from the Eighties to today, I’ve been deeply fascinated by the film production process and the role of the director. I’m passionate about all genres although I do have a fondness for noir films. I like versatility in actors, the ability to interpret a role and also a costume, each time in a different way. Being many instead of just one; this is an essential skill for actors, and I find it fascinating.
WWD: Consistency is clearly very important for you. How do you manage to reconcile it with the demands of the fashion world?
G.A.: Over the years I’ve retained a taste for basic things and my aspiration to create real products, which meet clients’ needs has remained unchanged. At times, I get the feeling that there are preconceived ideas about my work, and this can be a drawback. Some people try to reduce my style to a single look and consider me just as the designer for women who wear serious suits in neutral and slightly dusty colors, possibly with flat shoes. I believe it’s important to remind people how varied my work is and how different my collections can be. Because besides the pragmatic Armani style there’s also another one linked to the imagination, which can be exotic, even eccentric. I believe I have invented a personal grammar of glamour, through deconstructing stereotypes and clichés, just as I did at the beginning, when I got rid of the old-fashioned stiff “uniform,” adapting a man’s jacket to a woman’s body and dissolving its pretension in a flowing and powerful line. Sometimes I like to take the liberty of contradicting myself, allowing myself to digress simply for the pleasure of doing so. Coherence is certainly one of my virtues — a personal and stylistic one — but it is not and must not mean lack of flexibility. I believe in my taste and I continue to develop it. This is the only way of remaining relevant in time. This is in any case a formula [that] works for me and which I would never want to impose on anyone. Some have built up a solid business on constant change; I believe each one has to seek out their own formula.
WWD: What are your personality traits that you’re most proud of? And what instead, if anything, you’d like to change?
G.A: I’m proud of sticking to my values and of being a control freak. This comes from being a perfectionist and having very strong work ethics. I’m also extremely judgmental, particularly with myself. This means I’m never satisfied, but it’s also stimulating and always brings me fresh energy.
I have to admit that at my age I’ve also learned to accept myself for what I am with great serenity, with my good and bad points.
WWD: What can you tell us about the remodeling of the Madison Avenue store? The Casa line has increasingly gained in importance. What is the most satisfying thing about this project? Where would you like to open the next hotel?
G.A.: The project for the new Madison Avenue store is an all-round statement of my style. It’s the perfect incarnation of my lifestyle in a city, which has represented important, even fundamental, moments in my success. The home decor line has become an important cornerstone of the Armani business, with a broad range which is popular with customers. An Armani Hotel in a big metropolis — like New York or London — could make sense to me. Although I’d like to open one also in my places, on Pantelleria possibly or at Saint Moritz or why not a resort in the South of France? But for the time being these are just daydreams.
WWD: You recently announced the Giorgio Armani fine jewelry project. What can you tell us about this line? And why did you decide to stage a show in Milan with the pre-collection on Nov. 14?
G.A.: Jewelry is a natural development on my love for decoration with a meaning that’s never an end in itself. I like precious but not frivolous things. What better than jewelry, made to last, to be handed down from one generation to the next? The decision to show the pre-collection came above all from a commercial need: this is a line with very good sales results and it’s important to give it the proper focus, presenting it to buyers and the press. After the success of the show in Tokyo I wanted to repeat the experience in my city, Milan, where I have a wonderful theater. I would also like to add that I’ve always been committed to supporting the Italian fashion system.
WWD: What can you tell us about the store that is to open on Via Sant’Andrea? When are you closing in Via Montenapoleone and why?
G.A.: I’m going back home. I’m leaving the Montenapoleone boutique because I prefer to return to the store I own at 9 Via Sant’Andrea. This is where I opened the first Giorgio Armani boutique, on one of the streets, which, then as now, is among the more discreet and sophisticated ones in Milan’s fashion district, the Quadrilatero. Then right at the turning into Via Montenapoleone there’s Armani/Manzoni 31 with the new Emporio Armani Caffè and Restaurant, Nobu and the Armani/Hotel.
WWD: For the first time, when presenting your new handbag, La Prima, you opened the doors to the space that houses your Foundation. When you announced your intention to set up the Foundation, you talked about projects of public and social interest. What can you tell us about the present or future projects of the Foundation?
G.A.: We’re still putting a great deal of effort into the program. The Foundation has the task of ensuring in time that the Group remains stable and coherent with the principles I consider most important and which have always inspired my work as designer and entrepreneur. In some respects it is more closely linked to the Armani spirit and ideas and not the products. There are definitely current and future projects related to sustainability, an issue that’s now prominent and indispensable and on which I’ve been focussed for some time already. The presentation of La Prima was a way of revealing its spaces, that are so dear to me, within the very interesting setting of Casa Crespi, a noble residence dating back to the 16th century.
WWD: Staying independent has always been a priority for you. Could you explain to us what has produced this very specific objective?
G.A.: Independence for me is paramount. It represents the freedom to follow my instincts and the possibility of immediately taking up major opportunities. It impacts the genuine nature of everything I do. I’m a control freak and I can’t imagine any other way of doing this job.
WWD: Have you ever been tempted? What could have made or could make you change your mind?
G.A.: I must confess that there has been some hesitation, which I’ve always faced with honesty, courage and determination. Nothing could make me change my mind. Only some event or occurrence linked to my nearest and dearest and my sense of responsibility toward all employees.
WWD: Clearly you don’t have much free time, but could give our readers a few small examples of how you keep fit, where you spend your time when not at work and what you like doing?
G.A.: I live a healthy life. I exercise, eat wholesome, light food and allow myself a dessert from time to time. I work hard, but also take holidays and stay close to people dear to me. It’s all very simple. Simplicity is one of the things most difficult to achieve, but also the most lasting.
WWD: How did you meet Mr. Fairchild, what relationship did you have with him, what did you think of him and how do you feel about receiving an award in his name?
G.A.: Mr. Fairchild was a man who instilled fear in people, notoriously grumpy yet very capable and passionate. But also with great human qualities. I remember when we first met in 1982, during a trip to Tokyo to receive a prize together with other designers who were my contemporaries, Karl Lagerfeld, Zandra Rhodes, Perry Ellis. I felt intimidated, in this far-off country where everything seemed alien to me, the language, culture, customs. It was John who, possibly sensing my embarrassment, taught me how to use chopsticks with great discretion and spontaneity. He was a leading light in the [fashion] system and I’ve always had great respect and admiration for him. Receiving this prize which bears his name is a great honor for me.
WWD: Why did you opt for a selfie instead of the classic posed portrait?
G.A.: Over the years I’ve been shot countless times by various photographers, yet I’ve never overcome my shyness in front of the camera, which I’ve remedied each time with a direct and determined expression, almost challenging. This time I wanted to try something different, more personal, without filters: me, with just myself.