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Giorgio Armani, The Fashion Designer Who Designed A Business Empire

By Yifan Wang

The Armani empire was valued at US$3.1 billion as of print time, and the entire company is solely owned by the 84-year-old Giorgio Armani himself.
 
Qi Li
The Armani empire was valued at US$3.1 billion as of print time, and the entire company is solely owned by the 84-year-old Giorgio Armani himself.

Giorgio Armani maintains a curious air of mystery around him. At a time when most fashion designers bare their lives for all to see, Armani is a man from another era who has his boundaries clearly drawn out. He is distant. And deliberately aloof.

In February this year, the fashion press flocked to Milan for the presentation of his Emporio Armani Fall/ Winter 2018 collection. It was a bitterly cold winter’s day as rain poured down on the dull stone walls flanking Milan’s streets. Journalists gathered at the Armani/ Teatro, a standalone theatre space, located 30 minutes away from the fashion brand’s headquarters.

In true Armani fashion, the collection that paraded before the audience was one that rung true to the design vocabulary he’s renowned for — soft, rounded suiting jackets and trousers, draped fluid dresses, chequered woollen capes, angular velvet evening gowns, and a full pinstripe suit embellished with black and white diamantes for the corporate woman. Armani had to split his attendees into two separate showings to accommodate the massive guest list – the same way he had done for the previous day’s Giorgio Armani Fall/Winter 2018 runway show.

The building blocks of the Armani empire were laid 43 years ago when the Italian designer established his eponymous label — a move that deemed him one of contemporary 
Italian fashion’s trailblazers. Today, under
the Armani group stands Armani Privé 
(the haute couture arm), Giorgio Armani
 (the prêt-à-porter line), Emporio Armani
 (the younger and urbanised diffusion 
label) and A|X Armani Exchange (that appeals to the youthful mass-market).

The fashion business is merely a slice of Armani’s massive empire.

Located a two-minute stroll from the 
Armani headquarters is the Emporio 
Armani Caffè (currently closed for refurbishment) where the fashion set gathers. Similar Armani cafés and restaurants are also in cities like Dubai, Hong Kong, Munich, New York, Paris and Tokyo.

Restaurants aside, there’s Armani Casa, the interior design and furniture arm, which Armani describes as “a creative force which excites his artistic cells”. Then there’s makeup and skincare, fragrances, and even an artisan floristry business. A slew of Armani hotels and residences in Milan and Dubai also add to the extensive list of his forays.

Altogether the privately owned empire’s net equity hit 2.02 billion euros (approx. S$3.22b) last year — all of which is owned by one man, Armani.

Qi LiDressed in a taciturn black suit, Giorgio Armani pictured with models in a full-length heavy satin silk dress and a short, sequinned jumpsuit.
Dressed in a taciturn black suit, Giorgio Armani pictured with models in a full-length heavy satin silk dress and a short, sequinned jumpsuit.

To meet the genius behind the sprawling Armani network, I paid a visit to the house’s corporate office at Via Borgonuovo 11. When I arrived, I stepped through its doors, and waited for the designer’s appearance. With every minute that passed, I was meticulously updated of Armani’s whereabouts.

“The runway show has ended, and he is on the way to his apartment to prepare. He will be back in five minutes,” his staff tells me.

In anticipation of his arrival, the company’s management team entered the premises one by one. They had rushed here from the show venue, and looked visibly exhausted, all in a bid to arrive before the designer himself.

Without any prior heads up, a composed, silver-haired Armani walks down the long corridor. It was exactly like how I had imagined it to play out: him in the middle, flanked by an entourage. You could sense tension in the air — not out of fear, but reverence for the man.

At one point preceding the interview, I caught glimpses of Armani at work as he uttered “no” resolutely as his team briefed him about the concept for the afternoon’s photo shoot. Following a rapid-fire conversation in Italian with his assistants, he turned around to give the photographer his nod of approval. And then, it was time to begin this interview.
 It’s widely known within the industry that Armani rarely speaks in English, and instead prefers to converse in Italian through his trusted aides and translators.

“Throughout my career, there may have been numerous memorable moments, but this cover will always stay fresh in my mind,” says Armani of his 5 April 1982 Time magazine cover imprinted with the title “Giorgio’s Gorgeous Style”. At the time, he was 48 years old and his brand, barely seven years old.

“It was because of the cover that everyone knew me, and it made me realise where I should be headed in the future,” he says.

Fast forward four decades to date and Armani is still very much the same man pictured on the cover — he still has those piercing blue eyes, the same air of resoluteness, and a bronze tan the result of the quintessential sun-loving Italian lifestyle that he leads — save for the crop of short grey hair, which has since turned platinum white. The 84-year-old has the stamina and health of his youth, something that he thinks is important. “A healthy body is like a good name card. But of course, your intellect and knowledge are the most important things, but a healthy physique helps,” says Armani.

Although similar in physique, the Armani today is a far cry from the burgeoning designer photographed on the cover. Today, he is Giorgio Armani S.p.A.’s sole owner — a company that started with two staffers, including himself.

“Sometimes when your responsibilities get too heavy, you might start questioning if it’s a bad idea,” says Armani. Yet, Armani finds a silver lining beyond his endless responsibilities. “To me, 100 per cent ownership means I am 100 per cent responsible for all decisions, and that obviously means I have a huge burden. But the good thing is that this means 100 per cent no limitations.”

His career trajectory is one that most of us are familiar with: having completed his medical studies at the University of Milan, he enlisted into the army and later dressed windows at the Milanese departmental store, La Rinascente and eventually started designing menswear for Nino Cerruti, an Italian businessman and stylist.

In 1973, Armani opened his own design studio in Milan and started designing for numerous brands. Two years later, the Giorgio Armani label was birthed. “I properly came into contact with the fashion industry only after I was in my middle age. So when I started my brand, I had sufficient experience and the maturation to face the passion and dedication that a designer should have. What I have today is a result of my past. It’s the journey and experience that defined the person, businessman, and designer that I now am,” he says.

Alfred Piola/ Giorgio ArmaniModels in translucent silk kimonos painted in the blues and reds of the sky, also Giorgio Armani's inspiration for his Armani Privé Spring/ Summer 2018 haute couture show which concluded on a high note when Armani sent out this wire-sculpted bustier gown (pictured right).
Models in translucent silk kimonos painted in the blues and reds of the sky, also Giorgio Armani's inspiration for his Armani Privé Spring/ Summer 2018 haute couture show which concluded on a high note when Armani sent out this wire-sculpted bustier gown (pictured right).

So, what kind of a designer is Armani?

In the 1980s, his designs foreshadowed how men dressed in the future: he dropped the shoulder pads for a relaxed silhouette but kept the authority that a masculine suit stood for. His designs disputed the alpha masculinity of the time but won the public over. Hollywood actors, like Richard Gere responded to his radical preposition with enthusiasm. The actor even chose to wear his designs in the 2004 film, “Shall We Dance?” — a move that propelled Armani from merely a designer to a celebrity in the film industry. His influence also earned him a plaque along the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style in Beverly Hills.

Armani debuted in the era of power dressing, a time when fashion designers put women in masculine clothes to assert their professional and political authority. His womenswear designs, likewise, favoured menswear elements — albeit with a feminine flair.

“In those years, women needed clothes that made them feel comfortable yet secure. It was definitely not a cold armour,” says Armani. His clothes were a celebration and liberation of women.

“The year I first debuted my
menswear collection, I started thinking
that womenswear can have masculine elements and bold jackets, especially after my sister and some of my female friends started telling me that they wanted to wear my menswear designs,” says Armani. “I realised that what they needed was lightness and movement around the shoulders, clean designs, and jackets with soft lines. It responded to their rapid advancements in society, and the new societal role of a female as a professional woman. It was all based on intuition, and I started adding menswear elements into womenswear,” he continues.

Then came haute couture. In January 2005, a year after he celebrated his momentous 70th birthday and the brand’s 30th anniversary, Armani ventured into haute couture. It was the only arm of the fashion industry that he hadn’t set foot in then. The 22 les petite mains (seamstresses) stationed at his Milan couture atelier completed 31 elegant yet pared-down evening gowns for the debut collection.

At a time when the rest of the industry questioned the sustainability and relevance of haute couture in a contemporary society — Armani’s fellow Italian label Versace temporarily shuttered their couture arm — Armani nosedived into it. What initially seemed like a crazy investment eventually reaped returns. From then on, Armani Privé has been a mainstay on the red carpets and in the wardrobes of a fiercely private couture clientele.

As a fashion industry luminary, Armani’s design vocabulary has evolved with the ebb and flow of time. The woman that Armani designs for today is no longer the same from the ‘80s. To Armani, their needs have indubitably changed over the years. They may no longer identify with the past, and do not want to copy the men.

“They have become more secure, so much so that they are willing to experiment with new and peculiar things, or even feminine elements — whether straightforward or discrete,” he says.

At the Armani Privé Spring/ Summer 2018 runway at Palais de Chaillot in Paris this January, Armani departed from his usual vocabulary of greys, creams, and rust. He cited the skies and clouds as his inspiration and opted for a diverse palette depicting the pinks, blues, and glimmers of dusk, sunset, including all the clouds and rainbows in between.

SGP/ Giorgio ArmaniA close-up of the feathers used in a dress and two shoulder capes of the Armani Privé Spring/ Summer 2018 collection; key design elements such as pleats held together by a simple button
A close-up of the feathers used in a dress and two shoulder capes of the Armani Privé Spring/ Summer 2018 collection; key design elements such as pleats held together by a simple button

“I will never hide women beneath my designs, so the Armani woman can come in any form,” he says. From the edgy Lady Gaga, to the taciturn Cate Blanchett, and the approachable Adele — different as they are, they all part of Armani’s clientele.

The Armani Privé shows are held in Paris — the home of haute couture — but Armani’s empire will always remain in Milan. The Armani/ Teatro was completed in 2013, and has come to be the appointed show venue for both the Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani labels. It is also an incubation space for emerging designers.

The Chinese designer Angel Chen presented two of her collections here. “In other words, I want to give my own stage to these young designers. The future of fashion is in the hands of these younger designers. And of course, I want to encourage them, support them, but at the same time, keep a distance from them, so their pure vision will not be influenced,” says Armani.

He believes that all of today’s successes are but the seeds of the past. Despite having been a designer for an illustrious four decades, he remains curious about innovation and newness — the same curiosity that propelled him to diversify into other creative fields and businesses.

To Armani, these are new platforms for him to unleash his creativity and every work from his hands seems like a quiet extension of his personality.

As the photo shoot progressed, he occasionally got up to quietly adjust the clothes on the models. His discrete gestures say a lot but above all, he is a man who prefers to speak through his clothes.

Translated by Guan Tan
Photographs by Qi Li
Directed by Fanny Lu
Modelled by He Jing/ SuperMii Models & Xiaohan Wei/ China Models
Hair and Makeup by Giorgio Armani Beauty
Produced by Zhe Guo
Photographer Assisted by Yanming Chen