Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — In the midst of putting together the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibit of his career, an unprecedented event in this city, Giorgio Armani peered out from the top tier of its famous Frank Lloyd Wright spiraling rotunda, taking in the spectacle of about 100 members of the foreign press corps who were lined up and down the ramps beneath him Tuesday afternoon, photographing and filming the portions of the show that were ready to go.
The whiteness of the rotunda had been heightened by scrims created in collaboration with Robert Wilson, so that Armani, wearing his customary black T-shirt and pants, looked like the negative image of a full moon on a starless night. That seemed to be an appropriate metaphor, because it was clearly his light that was shining over this exhibit.
Since he arrived in New York on Friday, the designer has rearranged several pieces and restyled others. From the start, he has also been involved in the selection of the gowns, many of which came from Armani’s archives.
As the press corps waited for Armani to greet them, Harold Koda and Germano Celant, who are co-curating the exhibit, were left to field questions. Koda, who is taking over the curatorial role of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute from the late Richard Martin, said that while the final cuts belonged to the museum, it would have been irresponsible not to have consulted with Armani over the installation, considering he’s a living subject who could clarify the points of his design philosophy. “It’s interesting as a curator to have that discourse,” he said, noting that it was Armani’s handwritten notes, faxed back and forth from Milan with the word luce, referenced constantly, that inspired a gallery filled with seaglass and dazzling gowns that focuses on the theme of light and lightness within Armani’s oeuvre — “I never would have thought of that on my own,” Koda said.
The curators acknowledged that some controversy could come from an exhibit of fashion, opening today, which follows in the Guggenheim’s recent vein of developing exhibits over other aspects of design, such as “The Art of the Motorcycle” in 1998.
Armani has his supporters in the art world, however, and there are reasons why they believe his career is appropriate for such an extensive celebration, on the level of treatment the Guggenheim has awarded Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and Roy Lichtenstein over the years. Celebrating his 25th year in business, Armani is one of the most successful fashion companies in history, with a style that, as Koda said, has not only influenced the parochial world of fashion, but also the way that men and women dress on a global scale.
The Armani mystique — the androgeny of design, the ultra-subtle nuance of his “non-color” palette, the introduction of fluidity in men’s wear and authority in women’s wear, and the cinematography of his evening design — is fertile ground for curatorial discourse. And the Guggenheim seems inspired to bring fashion design in general to a higher level of discussion.
“For 20 years, contemporary art has been dealing with the body — in every way imaginable,” said Celant, who previously organized the show “Art/Fashion” at the Guggenheim SoHo. “There is a moment when the second skin has to come in, and the second skin is the dress.”
When Armani came down to enter the discussion, he clarified further, “The Guggenheim Museum is very open to showing new ideas in design, such as the motorcycle exhibit.
“Fashion is very much part of the world we live in,” Armani said. “What defines art to me is something that evokes emotion, and this museum is the environment that can show that fashion can also evoke emotion. This is what I think art is all about.”
It was perfectly natural, he said, to assist in the selection and placement of his designs for the exhibit.
“Obviously, you are talking about my perspective on fashion,” Armani said. “When you are talking about the creation of a certain fashion, it seemed obvious to me to show them how it was created and to help to show them how the philosophy can be portrayed.”
As he approached the completion of the exhibit this week, Armani’s focus remained centered around distilling an overview of his design philosophy, while correcting some misconceptions. Asked what he expected the average museum visitor to take away from the Armani experience, he replied, “Hopefully, they will walk away thinking, ‘Armani is not only about beige, but about lots of color and sexy, extravagant pieces, too.”‘
To reflect that desire, the exhibit is organized by theme, rather than chronological order. It opens with a gallery of black and white evening gowns done up with every imaginable variety of crystal, beading and feathery trim, in smoking jackets, ballgowns and tuxedo-inspired ensembles. As visitors ascend the rotunda, they are introduced to a spectrum of Armani influences, starting with “underwear as outerwear” looks, Thirties-inspired minimalist dresses, the Belle Epoque widow and a Chanel revival.
Each segment is also intended to convey a particular aspect of Armani’s skill, such as the creation of textiles that are integral to his designs. For instance, Koda singled out a blazer made of vertical rows of bugle beads, alternating the length of the beads from row to row so that, when they reflected light, would create the ultimate illusion of pinstriping. To make the daywear segment more interesting, Koda and Celant here introduced Armani’s nuance of non-color, “to show how gray and beige could have so much nuance,” Koda said. “It is more like Pointillism and Impressionism in the way he ends up with colors.”
The curators also pointed out that the installation as a whole serves to illustrate Armani’s career. Throughout the exhibit, Wilson covered the museum’s signature terrazzo floors with flat gray carpeting, which virtually eliminates the steady din of brittle, tinny steps of visitors entering the museum, softening the sound of the space as much as Armani softens design. That sound was replaced with a specially crafted orchestra of musical elements, each of which plays independently within the given ramps, but combine in the Guggenheim’s central core to form a complete work.
Wilson also covered the interior recesses of the rotunda with a white scrim, making a metaphor of “dressing the building,” Koda said, and also playing with the Armani elements of hard versus soft and tailoring versus dressmaking. It also serves to close off the interior spaces of the rotunda, allowing viewers to have a closer proximity to Armani’s designs, thus stressing the intimacy of his textiles, and again serving as a metaphor for the man, himself.
“He is the only designer of the 20th century who you can say his influence on men’s wear has been equal to his influence on women’s wear,” Koda said. “His influence has been global.”