BEVERLY HILLS — “I know I won’t be here forever,” a reflective Giorgio Armani said on the eve of his star-saturated gala induction into the new Rodeo Drive Walk of Style. “But I don’t imagine one person in charge. I imagine a very good team. I have a good management structure in place now of people who are working closely with me.”
Without naming names, Armani finally responded to the speculation over the future of his $2 billion global empire, which he, at a highly active and young-looking 69, admittedly micromanages, directing everything from communications to the design of his ready-to-wear, accessories, beauty and home collections to the nuts and bolts of a business he continues to own lock, stock and barrel.
Retirement is not in his vocabulary. And he applied his energized leadership throughout his five-day visit here this week, charging through the induction ceremony on Tuesday, as well as the after bash late that night, even as many of his famously famous friends had long gone to bed.
Armani, in fact, appears less concerned with his successors than the industrywide challenges that lie ahead. With his ready-to-wear and Armani Casa collections operating as expected, he’s focusing on further strengthening his accessories and beauty businesses. Although he stressed that both are doing well, it’s a matter of forces that can be controlled — brand recognition for both categories — and uncontrolled, such as the international economy and politics.
This week’s induction ceremonies, including Monday afternoon’s unveiling of the sidewalk plaque, introduced the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style. The Rodeo Drive Committee and the city of Beverly Hills created the tribute to honor designers and style legends for their contributions in the ever-merging worlds of fashion and entertainment. Artist Robert Graham, on hand at the event with wife Anjelica Huston, created the plaque and maquette, which legendary retailer Fred Hayman, who brought the designer and many others to the street, called “our Oscar of fashion.”
“Tonight is a coming together of two men who I love,” Huston said as the evening got under way. “Two extreme, powerful talents. He’s one of those people who I am grateful to have had in my life for a long, long time — even before I met Robert.”
The Armani-clad A-list of the designer’s fans was, indeed, worthy of an Academy Awards night: Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer with husband David E. Kelly, Sophia Loren, Diane Keaton, Steve Martin, Calista Flockhart and Harrison Ford, Debra Messing and Mira Sorvino. And that was just a fraction of the front row. And why not? As Hayman noted, “Armani was the first to make fashion matter in Hollywood.”
Armani took pride in his achievements during a pause Monday morning in his whirlwind visit. “My fashion marked a break of how Hollywood dressed before,” he said, sitting in the VIP fitting salon, one of many white-lacquered rooms above the Rodeo Drive Giorgio Armani flagship. “So, instead of having something abstract at these events, with people just talking about me, my clothes, I wanted them to see the whole effect of what I do. I needed to put on a show.”
And put on a show he and a legion of celebrity friends, city leaders and in-house staff did, from the parade of 78 models in the current fall-winter collection to the Outkast-deejayed after bash that tested the curfew limits of the host city. Since last Saturday night, a two-block section of Rodeo Drive had been closed to traffic as the towering venue was erected (ironically, a full block away from Armani’s flagship, leaving its front doors accessible to the many chauffeur-driven SUVs dropping off VIPs for fittings).
For the king of red-carpet style, the arrivals carpet was strikingly different: black. So, too, were the expansive walls, the railings, the stadium seating and the shiny runway. “It’s fantastic to see something so fabulously chic in L.A. because we usually ruin it by going over the top in excess,” said Monet Mazur as she gracefully nudged for personal space in the throng of attendees flooding the event. “Look at all this. Mr. Armani is such a rock star.”
Equally stopping everyone in their tracks, however, was Sophia Loren. When she first appeared on the wall-sized screen displaying the arrivals scene outside, even the biggest of stars stopped chatting and air-kissing to look up. Once inside, the grande dame of cinema, wrapped in yards of black tulle and stringy leather, a gown custom made by Armani, had a similar effect on whomever was within reach.
Jewel went into a quiet frenzy. “Is Sophia here? Is she behind me?” she quietly squealed as she slowly turned around.
“My friend is being honored and so I came to Los Angeles for him,” Loren said cheerfully, there with her son, Eduardo Ponti. “He deserves everything. He’s really genius. And besides this, he’s a wonderful friend. He has a heart like this,” she declared, clutching what appeared to be an imaginary beach ball.
Diane Keaton and Steve Martin snuck backstage to watch the black-carpet action on a monitor. “It’s fun looking at what everyone is wearing,” enthused Keaton.
As Armani, dressed in his uniform of fitted T-shirt and linen trousers, this time in steel gray, worked the arrivals line, he could no doubt relish not only seeing nearly every attendee in clothes that were his, but appreciate the absence of one recent red-carpet staple.
“Vintage. It’s too much. So much fashion in the last years has been done in terms of looking at the past, reworking it,” Armani said.
It’s a surprising statement for a designer who has said his muses include the screen goddesses of cinema’s golden era, or for a wardrobe contributor who has added to such Twenties-era masterpieces as “The Untouchables.” Armani even conceded to tweaking one of his Eighties dresses into a more Thirties look for the upcoming Cole Porter biopic, “De-Lovely,” starring Ashley Judd and Kevin Kline. But he could never be accused of being retro.
“People have become disoriented,” the designer continued. “Do I wear something from now? Or am I more current by wearing vintage? They don’t have confidence in what suits them. And clothes created by a famous brand do not always look good on them. I think there are people who don’t want to be victims of fashion.”
Armani as sartorial salvation was a theme offered again and again by red-carpet regulars on hand at Tuesday night’s event — Samuel L. Jackson, Dylan and Shiva Rose McDermott, Sarah Wynter, Mya and Thora Birch, who was among those who scored the personal treatment on her party look. “Oh my god, it was so stressful,” she recalled of her fitting with Armani on Sunday. “There are so many translators around so it becomes like a head-bobbing thing. You just nod yes.”
The testimonials didn’t even require a podium and microphone: “When in doubt, wear Armani,” Marley Shelton shrugged.
“Armani makes me feel like this incredibly chic woman-man. I love the feminine and masculine,” said Debi Mazar, in a white beaded tank and men’s trousers. And like many of the starlets who first heard the name, thanks to “American Gigolo,” Michelle Rodriguez believes “Armani represents a certain level of growth and maturity.”
Michelle Pfeiffer credited him with instilling a “sense of fashion” in her life. “I just rely on him always and he never lets me down. He’s always contemporary and modern and he’s never going to be trendy. It’s like you really can’t make a mistake with him.”
Yet it was Jodie Foster who offered her longtime collaborator praise as an icon: “Being dressed by Armani is like being directed by Visconti or painted by Picasso.”
One superstar after another gushed about their hero before and after the runway show. Messing read love letters from Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. Harrison Ford dryly informed the crowd, “If there’s reincarnation, I want to come back as Armani: cuter, sexier, richer.”
Yet it was Steve Martin’s solution to bad dress days — and world peace — that elicited roaring approval and cries that he run for the next governor of California. After all, isn’t everyone else? “If Mr. Armani could dress everyone on Earth, there would be no wars — but events,” Martin proclaimed.
A montage rolled onscreen of snapshots of the designer with his best-known pals and footage from the more than 130 international films his clothes have appeared in. And at times, with Roberta Armani leaning into her uncle as she whispered translated accolades into his ear, the Cool One appeared visibly moved.
“This night has been so beautiful,” he quietly said later under the din of bumping beats that Outkast and model-turned-DJ Sky Nellor were delivering from an elevated, glowing orange turntable station at the other side of the party space. There, elated and sweltering revelers such as Paris Hilton, Casey Johnson, St. John’s Kelly Gray and several of Armani’s team were getting their groove on.
But no one was reveling in the scene more than the designer himself. He happily received the marauding guests, some wielding tiny digital cameras to snap their moment with him.
Armani’s final thought on the shindig? “Los Angeles is such a large city, but with the rhythm of a small town.”