ROME — Giorgio Armani has often been dubbed “King Giorgio,” but now that the Guggenheim retrospective celebrating his career has arrived at the ancient Roman Imperial Baths, the press here has taken to calling him “emperor.”
“I never expected as much,” joked the designer last week during a press conference to open the exhibit, which has traveled through New York; Bilbao, Spain; Berlin, and London since 2000.
“I’m only just now getting used to being called ‘king,’ but if someone wants to call me ‘emperor,’ that’s just fine by me,” laughed an upbeat and enthusiastic Armani, who once again dismissed rumors about wanting to retire or sell his company any time soon.
“At the end of every interview, I’m asked when I plan to retire — I’m telling you, it’s not much fun,” quipped Armani. “I think I have enough self-criticism to know when it’s time and I don’t want to overstretch my welcome, but I feel I still have plenty to say. I love this job, where you can never let go and where every collection must be good.”
Armani looked tan and fit after a brief holiday in the Maldives following his trip to China that included the opening of his Shanghai store and visits to his Hong Kong and Beijing boutiques.
As part of his plans, Armani said he would like to be more involved in art sponsorships and exhibitions and that he is mulling the idea of donating the clothes that are part of the Guggenheim retrospective to the city of Milan so that it could become a permanent exhibition.
“As I would need a large space, at least over 32,000 square feet, I’m thinking of three different areas in Milan: around my showroom and theater in via Bergognone; the area where the new La Scala theater is now located, and the nascent Citta’ della Moda [a new area destined for fashion shows, showrooms and exhibitions around Carla Sozzani’s Corso Como boutique].
“I’m also waiting for the mayor of Milan to make an offer,” he added, joking, “The clothes are beautiful, why throw them away?”
More seriously, Armani said his “desire is to show the work that is unknown to the majority of the public, usually filtered by the ads or for commercial reasons.”
The Roman venue of the Armani retrospective, the Baths of Diocletian, is the largest complex of thermal baths in the ancient Roman world. They were originally ordered by the emperor Diocletian and were completed at the beginning of the fourth century A.D. This is the first nonarcheological exhibition to be presented in the immense galleries of the baths, with their ancient stone vaults, temple pillars and antique busts and statues. A basilica designed by Michelangelo was erected in the 16th century within the perimeter of the baths.
“This is perhaps the highlight of this itinerant exhibition and the most spectacular moment,” said Germano Celant, senior curator of contemporary art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and co-curator of the retrospective.
As for any polemics that might arise from those who may question the validity of such an exhibition within such a location, Celant said that he’s always believed “that the language of fashion is strong in itself, it’s not artistic or architectonic, it has its history and its principal characters, and Armani is certainly one of them.”
Artist Robert Wilson, who created a site-specific installation, said it was “fitting to have the exhibition here. It’s the avant-garde discovering the past. I look at the statues and they are not far away from [Armani’s] clothes, the way they are draped, the way the statues are standing is similar to the mannequins,” he said.
As in the previous venues, the clothes are arranged thematically rather than chronologically. More than 500 garments are separated by theme: the noncolor group, with Armani’s staple beige and gray hues for daywear clothes; a group of colorful patterned clothes, with flowers and rich embroideries; the ethnic group, and the bejeweled eveningwear, to name some. In the celebrities’ room, dominated by huge photos of Hollywood stars wearing Armani and the actual clothes they donned in the photos, the designer added “a touch of Rome” with photos and clothes worn by the likes of Sophia Loren, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Valeria Golino and Roberto Benigni.
Armani said he willingly accepted the few limitations posed by the city’s Archeological Superintendence, which has often denied permission for fashion shows or exhibitions to preserve monuments and their image against commercial exploitation. “I was asked not to screen off the baths’ structure and architecture or cover the paths, but this was exactly what I wanted for my exhibition, too,” said Armani. “I was looking for balance and I wanted a gentle, discreet setting that would not be aggressive and hide the beauty of the location.”
The exhibition runs in Rome until Aug. 1, and is then slated to travel to Tokyo, probably at the recently inaugurated Mori Museum; Las Vegas or Los Angeles, and then on to Shanghai in the fall of 2005.