Giorgio Armani transformed a courtyard that was awkwardly shaped into a contemplative, quiet space. This is the ideal place for fashion samurai (a lion in winter) to relax and reflect on his accomplishments.
Giorgio Armani, however, is not that person. He declares, “I must forget that I’m only 88. Otherwise, it’s over.” “I must try as if it were today. This is a problem because I wake up at 88 every morning. It’s very difficult.” Even with all the money, the billions, and the awards, he is still in perpetual dissatisfaction. “I am not satisfied because I want my current work appreciated. I don’t want to receive an award for what you have done or an attestation that something was passed. This is what gets me up in the morning. “I still have to prove myself.” He told me that he had never dreamed of so many things in his life. He has only ever had two to three dreams per night. Sometimes I dream of doing beautiful fashion shows, but when I wake up I am so mad because it was only an illusion. He is driven by dissatisfaction even while he sleeps.
We are sitting in a small room next to the garden with Paul, his assistant, and Anoushka, our translator. At one point, Armani says he likes my accent (“Australian-British” he calls it, only 1,300 miles off from my native New Zealand). It hurts that I don’t know English. It would have been a great pleasure to learn it. It’s something that I have always loved to learn. The wall features a huge work by Silvio Pasotti, an Italian artist. It is a surrealist mix of fashion history, designers, and models. The magazine covers are collaged with iconic images such as the Helmut Newton Helmut photograph of Karl Lagerfeld wearing a black bathing suit. He sprawls out insouciantly along the bottom of the painting. This is not his only appearance in the story. Armani is seated in the left-hand corner looking over his shoulder at Pasotti. He is shirtless and sexy in jeans and shorts. Pasotti has also tattooed a Lacoste Crocodile on his shoulders. The designer laughs, “Because that’s the time of Lacoste.”
This is just a week before Armani’s Spring-Summer 2023 collection for his sub-brand Emporio and his namesake line. His workload remains the same. I ask him how each season begins for him. He says, “With a blank sheet of paper and my hands in mine,” with a sigh. “Then, I remove what was not good in the past. Then I focus on what is happening right now. I also look at the work of my coworkers. Sometimes I am positively surprised. Other times, I am disappointed. Armani is known for being very judgmental. He’s not surprised at the moment. What is he looking for? “Where novelty is, there’s fashion that can still be appropriate for today.”
What is right when “today”, is defined by war, financial instability, political turmoil, and environmental catastrophe? Armani has been hard hit by the war in Ukraine. Armani has his own personal World War II memories from childhood as a guide. Piacenza is a small town to the southeast of Milan. He grew up there and has vivid memories of hiding in the local theater during Allied bombing raids. He was 9 years old when he found gunpowder in a bag with his friends. It exploded while they were playing with it. Six weeks later, he was on the verge of death and spent six weeks in the hospital. Legend has it that his shoe buckle is still visible on the skin of one foot.
Armani states, “When I look at the news and see images of suffering it feels like my work doesn’t make any sense anymore.” This is why it’s so difficult for me in my job. But I must overcome this feeling. It’s a kind of brake that prevents me from creating. An example is the recent women’s show that I chose to do without music. This was only a few days after the war broke out. I held a press conference there. When I was asked about fashion, I couldn’t answer the question. Anoushka interrupts, “I was there so it is true that Mr. Armani began crying.”
Giorgio Armani is not known for his tears. His main motivation for nearly 50 years has been: “It is important not to live off nostalgia. To not be doing any gratuitous things. And, most importantly, it’s important that you invent, but also keep in mind that men and women need to feel comfortable in their clothes. That’s the main purpose. This way, I can help my customers live better. This has been his constant support during the most difficult times in his life.
It’s difficult to understand how a proposal that seems so simple now can be so radical in the beginning. Armani recalls that fashion was trying to do something very explosive and not to be familiar at all. Slowly, however, everyone realized that my proposal to make fashion more acceptable was the right thing. It was almost as if he was more reactionary rather than revolutionary. He took a stand against extreme proportions, extreme hairstyles, and the extreme everything of the late ’60s to early ’70s. Ironically, then, reaction breeds revolution.
The 1978 Pasotti painting that hangs behind us dates back to 1978. Armani’s company was only three years old when the Pasotti painting on the wall behind us dates back to 1978. However, the artist saw fit to include Armani in the fashion pantheon along with Chanel, Dior, and Balenciaga as well as Saint Laurent, Chanel, Dior, and Balenciaga. Armani was instantly a part of history after he de-stuffed fashion in the same way his idol Coco Chanel did half a century ago. However, that history can tend to smear a revolutionary and make him forget his past accomplishments. Armani claims he is happy that he thinks of himself as a radical. It’s even better that I don’t refer to him as nostalgic. He says that “my big fight is with the time” and that when time is your enemy, you don’t want to indulge in it.
He can still make it seem like time is passing in a somewhat liberating way. He speaks of feeling less anxious about aging, more detached, and perhaps more cynical. Some things I find absurd. Sometimes, I feel that the designer gets too caught up in trying to create something that will shock or be featured in magazines. He doesn’t think about the real purpose of his job. I get even more skeptical when fashion is trying to be featured in the news for its novelty. It’s not a true belief for me. Even when they talk about me, even if they make it a little outrageous, I don’t believe them when they claim they sold it. There may be 100 people in the world who like extravagant things, but I don’t believe it in my normal life.
Does Armani use the term “novelty”? Is it possible for fashion to be truly new? “No. But maybe you can find a way to adapt something that is already in use to the present context. So you might find a way to propose something.” He hates the “fashionable” factor. It begs the question if such a thing is still possible. He instantly responds, “Si certo,” You only have to look around and notice how people dress. They all follow a particular style that is current. They all look the same.”
Armani describes himself to be isolated and not social. He is a slave for his job. It’s different than before. There’s a lot of wealth behind me now that I have to keep in mind for when I’m no longer here. Because it is so mysterious, this is the succession plan that drives speculation crazy in the fashion industry. Armani-branded products accounted for 4 billion euros ($3.9 Billion) in 2021. Rumors of Bernard Arnault’s LVMH, Mayhoola’s Qatari investment fund, and Exor, the Agnelli family, maybe a sign that they are making overtures. Rumors. Armani cryptically says, “Forgetting about what’s going on in the rest of the world, that’s my plan.” “That’s why I’ve taken refuge. To be able to discern what is right and not follow the path that doesn’t suit me. It is simple, you know. “Say no.” Armani is very proud of his independence. He would love to be able to do that.
His net worth is estimated at $9.5 billion by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, making him the most successful fashion designer in the world. He has made sacrifices for this success. Armani said that if he could have his life again, he would change things. He says that he would still change some things today. “I realized that I didn’t have any friends outside of my family and those in the company. You need to nurture your friends and you need to incite them. He has done neither. Armani once told me that he didn’t want children because he was afraid he would become an “envious father.” I thought he meant that he would be too protective. But I wonder if he feels that he was left out. Karl Lagerfeld spoke to him about how he had found true love for Choupette and Hudson — and Armani’s sparks lit up. “Yes, it was incredible for me too. You’re right. It’s completely different now. Two years ago, I had a little girl running around my offices. She was the daughter of one of my closest collaborators. She has turned into love and I’ve found vulnerability for the first time. This kind of love has never been possible for me. It has changed me. “I’ve discovered my tender side.” Armani, a coincidence of sorts, is also attached to his cat.
Giorgio Armani is finally happy. He learned long ago to not trust this feeling. His company was founded by Armani and Sergio Galeotti. They met on the beach in 1966 when Armani was designing menswear for Nino Cerruti. Galeotti, eleven years older, had an innate sense that Tuscans have superiority (according to Italians), and it was this drive that drove his older lover to start his own business. To seed his fledgling company, he made Galeotti sell his Volkswagen. Armani recalls those early days of creating something together with his loved one as an “indescribable joy”. It was thrilling and full of enthusiasm. Sergio was explosive. He was more courageous than I was. He smiles as he looks back. He chuckles as he recalls, “Sometimes he forgot about his conscience, other times he was a bit too much.” Galeotti was the alter ego. Galeotti is remembered as ferocious and sardonic, driven but entertaining. It was a good balance between Sergio being bold and me being more reserved. It could have been because we didn’t realize what we were creating together.
Galeotti was first diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. Galeotti moved to Paris to be close to the Pasteur Institute where Luc Montagnier was making important breakthroughs in HIV research. Armani moved between Milan, Paris, and New York for 12 months until Galeotti died in August 1985. “I had no choice but to continue with my job. I had to design. But I had to be near Sergio. Although it was the worst year, it was done step by step. I didn’t think about what was coming. “I didn’t believe I could do it all by myself,” I said.
Nobody else did. Many in the industry assumed that Armani would just retire. He is a Cancer, and “a crab collects all the things it needs,” he said. After Galeotti’s passing, he found a new sense of self-determination, taking on his alter ego and moving forward as the sole owner of the company. He agrees with me when I say that the entire Armani edifice was a monument to Galeotti. He gave me strength. Sergio was the catalyst for everything. Without him, I wouldn’t be able to respond as well. It’s all due to him. He wonders if Galeotti would still be alive to see how the world might have been if he hadn’t. He muses, “I think Sergio might have made Armani more revolutionary, more explosive.” He was a dreamer and I’m very practical.
Armani interrupts his thought process. Leo Dell’Orco is the current head of the Men’s Style Office and has been with the company since 1977. Silvana Armani, Armani’s niece, is his counterpart at the Women’s Office. Armani states that Sergio’s passing made him the closest person to her. He was a tremendous support person for me, both work-wise and practical. First Sergio, then Leo. For future reference, successors may want to file this name away.
However, his acknowledgment of Dell’Orco confirms the vulnerability Armani was referring to. He is more open. In photos, he appears more relaxed. All those moody monochrome photos from the past decades with Armani being portrayed as if by George Hurrell during Hollywood’s Golden Age are still there. These photos made sense because Armani’s original goal was to act. Paul Newman was an inspiration. It is a compelling idea that he has been playing a role for so many years: Giorgio Armani. “Yes, acting is part of my job, isn’t it? He agrees. He said, “It’s nothing that I’m not natural. I keep true to myself. I need to be more. People around me expect me to be a certain person, so I have to be a little more.
The act’s elements have gained a lot of fame over the years. Armani, the demanding taskmaster, is so well-known that many former employees wake up in cold sweats thinking they haven’t completed something. Is this an act? Or an extension of his conflicted frustration? Armani insists that he does not want to be perceived as “a usurper or someone who takes advantage” Armani hopes his reputation will be one of “a kind man.” He also once said to me that his reputation was “like handcuffs.” His professional opinion has not changed. “People see me in a particular way. They think I do a certain style.”
This begs the question: How Armani would want to be remembered? After a long pause, he finally answers “…as an honest man. “I say what I mean.” This seems like a humble reply from someone who runs a large fashion empire. He laughs again. “I am an Emperor who doesn’t feel like one,” he says. Armani’s fashion shows are the most interesting part of his empire. It’s extremely satisfying to see what I had in my head come out on a model and that it matches my ideas. At that moment, no one else is there. It is very intimate. It is not a contract. A few days later, I am backstage at Emporio and witness Armani working his way through a line of models just minutes before they get on stage. He adjusts every young woman’s eye makeup to create a glintilla.
Armani’s neutral tones were so distinctive that he was known as “The King of Greige” for many years. Armani was furious at the sobriquet. His collections were then distinguished for their vivid shades of blue: sky and sea. In recent years, light has been the key ingredient. Armani called his haute couture collection “Petillant”, which means sparkling. Armani’s Spring-Summer 2023 ready-to-wear collection shimmers with gold and silver. It is contrasted by bright evening shades of purple and blue. Although it may be more reflective of my current needs, I can see a spiritual thread within this glimmering of the great beyond. Armani offers some thoughts on this. “As we age, there is a certain distance from the materiality of things and also from the hustle and bustle of work. I don’t care about the opinions of others and have never been interested in trends. I continue doing what I do and I keep improving the output. What would I consider spiritual? It is not. You probably don’t. Spirituality is private while clothes are public. It is certain that everything I do right now is pure, and has more light. It reflects my existential lightness. However, it also hides some gravitas.
This sounds very much like the thoughts of a winter lion to me, which is why my last question is so obvious. Is Armani ever thinking about the next steps, not just for his business, but for himself as well? Although I don’t expect him to, he will. “For now, I am focusing on work and my daily life, and not worrying about the afterlife. This is something I hold in the deepest parts of my mind. It will surprise me when it happens, I’m sure.
Armani purchased a house in Piacenza, his hometown, many decades ago. He lived near beautiful trees and once said to me that he wanted to name every tree in the park. “And when a tree falls, something inside me also goes.” That was quite a surprise. It was so touching to me to feel his connection to nature, that I had to bring it up while we sat looking at his gorgeous Japanese maples. Armani replies, “No, that’s not what I remember.” “It’s nice. It could have been. It could have happened. It will always surprise me when it happens.