Armani Mania: Happy Twenty-Fifth

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Say what you will about Giorgio Armani — chances are it will be pretty much the same thing everyone else is saying. On this, his 25th year in business, Armani has been the subject of stories in dozens of newpapers and magazines including Vibe, Vogue, Vanity Fair and some that don't begin with the letter V. Behind the media frenzy: a new line of cosmetics, a new line of home furnishings, an expanded line of accessories, a huge new superstore in Milan and an exhibition of his work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York — a first for a living designer. In an average year, any one of these would be reason enough to reprise the Armani success story. But all six? In one year? There may not be an adult left in the Western world who doesn't know that Armani is a control freak, favors blue T shirts, once worked for Nino Cerruti and vacations in Pantelleria.

But what makes his story worth telling is that Armani has accomplished something few designers ever do: he changed forever the way people think about clothes.

It began with the suit. Armani started tinkering with the traditional uniform in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for menswear. French designers including Pierre Cardin and Daniel Hechter were turning out tight little trendy numbers with bell-bottom trousers and wide-lapel jackets that were not going down particularly well, especially with large American men. Armani, working as a freelance designer at the time, did the opposite. He took the suit and ripped the stuffing out of it. Gone were the shoulder pads, the tight armholes, the straight trousers. Armani's suits draped, they flowed, they allowed wearers to exhale. This was the path forward.

In 1975, at the urging of his business and romantic partner Sergio Galeotti, Armani started his own business. It wasn't long before he and Galeotti were visited by Fred Pressman, the visionary owner of Barneys, which was then on its way to becoming America's chicest department store. According to Joshua Levine's book, The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys, an immediately enthusiastic Pressman secured the exclusive rights to sell Armani in New York for $10,000 a season — a huge sum for Armani's fledgling company. What Pressman saw in Armani was a way to make designer brands appeal to American men. More than $90,000 of Armani merchandise sold that first year in the U.S. Five years later Armani sold $14 million there, 10 years later $100 million. By 1999, that was the size of Armani's paycheck. With retail sales of over $3 billion, he was the best-selling clothing designer in the world, after Ralph Lauren, and the sole owner of one of the most profitable companies in Italy.

Although 55% of his clothing sales comes from menswear, the Guggenheim show focused instead on lavish eveningwear for women — a strength of the designer but not the backbone of his career. "At first we thought 50-50," says co-curator Harold Koda, "but then we went into the archives and there was all this material we'd never seen. Most of the stuff the public sees is filtered through buyers and fashion editors." The show, he argues, "is expressive of a side of Armani that people didn't know but consistent with what people did know." With average attendance of 29,000 a week, the show, called simply "Giorgio Armani," is outdoing the Guggenheim's other recent blockbuster, the "Art of the Motorcycle," which drew about 24,000 a week.

And yet, all this praise, attention and success create a certain amount of confusion among fashion's most serious devotees. "He's someone who is perceived as one of the handful of designers who is determining the course of fashion," says Koda. "But that doesn't make him a fun story." In other words, fashion editors and style slaves wonder why he's still so popular when he's so, well, dull? Especially compared to today's designer-heroes — avant-garde talents like Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Hussein Chalayan.

The answer is that Armani is popular precisely because he is boring. Boring, done well, can be elegant. For people who care more about looking good than looking fashionable, boring is just fine. Great even. The most obvious examples of the success of dull come out of Hollywood. Few stars want to be overpowered by their clothes. When Armani opened his first Los Angeles store in 1988, he was already dressing Richard Gere (most notably in the 1980 film American Gigolo), Warren Beatty and Sharon Stone. But even Armani wasn't sure the store would be successful. L.A. was all about big — big studio films, big stars, big hair, big egos. Armani was and is about understatement. "When I was at the party [to celebrate his arrival in L.A.], I continued to be worried," Armani said at the time. "Here I was looking at these people overdressed with these big dresses ... I'm taking a risk. I'm doing a store that's maybe not for these people."

But it takes only one appearance on a worst-dressed list to send the most confident of stars running to his beige suits. In 1989 Jodie Foster turned up at the Oscars in a prom-date nightmare — a strapless baby blue taffeta dress with a big bow on the back that she bought off-the-rack. It didn't go unnoticed by the press. When Wanda McDaniel, Armani's L.A. representative, offered the designer's assistance to Foster, the actress accepted. Now she is better known for simple suits and the shirtless Armani tuxedo that marked her arrival at the Oscars the following year.

Armani doesn't dress would-be starlets. He dresses the stars — Foster, Glenn Close, Mark Wahlberg, Ricky Martin — who want respect. He also dresses L.A.'s powerbrokers, including über-agent Michael Ovitz and the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, Pat Riley. None of this happened by accident. Armani was the first modern designer to recognize the marketing potential of celebrities and to set up an L.A. office to lend clothes to the famous and cater full-time to their sartorial whims. This year he dressed the casts of two big films, Shaft starring Samuel L. Jackson and Bounce with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck. Says rag-trade publisher Fairchild's editorial director Patrick McCarthy in the Guggenheim show's catalogue: "The movie community adopted the designer more fervently than any other group."

Certainly more fervently than the fashion press adopted him. And the feeling was mutual. Almost from the beginning of his career, Armani tried his rip-the-stuffing trick on the fashion media, arguing that the way they portrayed clothes was out of touch with the needs of real people. In 1980 he told Fairchild's Women's Wear Daily, "Fashion is not a circus spectacle," and gave up large shows in favor of small presentations. "Everyone has to deal with the collection the way a customer deals with it," he said. Two years later, when Time put him on the cover, he had no show at all. Photos of the new collection appeared in the magazine before they appeared anywhere else. And if that weren't bad enough, Armani declared that from then on the press would be allowed to report on the collections only once they were in the stores, not when they were sold to buyers. "It was my rebellion against the whole system," Armani says now. "I didn't want to feel forced to show something that didn't belong to my philosophy just to have reaction from the press." It was a declaration of war. "He's trying to control the press," complained John Fairchild, then chairman of Fairchild Publications, as he vowed not to cover Armani at all.

Eventually a truce was called. Armani was too important to retailers for Women's Wear Daily to ignore, and the fashion press was too influential for Armani to circumvent. Celebrities now help bridge the gap. Armani's big fashion shows are back and at his spring-summer 2001 presentation this fall, Armani orchestrated the arrival of his brand-name guests like a pro. He trotted out, in hierarchical order, a few Italian performers, Sarah Ferguson, Sophia Loren and Robert De Niro. With the paparazzi on the runway reined in by velvet ropes, everyone got a shot and important guests got a view.

At some point even legends have to confront their mortality, or at least that of their company. Noting that his 20th year in business would happen during his 65th year, Armani began publicly pondering scenarios for the future of Giorgio Armani SpA — taking it public, merging with a luxury goods group — stirring excitement among financial journalists, who acknowledge that an Armani sale could be the luxury goods deal of the decade. Armani hasn't publicly ruled out any of these options, but he has begun investing the firm's $355 million of cash in the future. Last year he made key staff appointments, including a new managing director and a director of communications, and bought back large licenses to gain control over quality. In July he did an unusual deal with one of his biggest competitors, the suitmaker Ermenegildo Zegna Group. For 49% of a newly formed company, Zegna would help manage production and distribution of the Mani and Armani Collezioni men's suit lines. Armani would keep 51% and do design and sales. The arrangement works in practice the way various luxury goods conglomerates work in theory. "In the market, we compete," says Zegna ceo Gildo Zegna. "In the back office we help each other. We want to keep Italian brands Italian."

But the question remains: Can Armani be Armani without Giorgio? There is no clear family succession, though his nieces and nephew work for the company. When asked to name the company he thinks has done best without its founder, he replies, "Chanel has not done too badly." Chanel, now with Karl Lagerfeld at the creative helm, is one of fashion's enduring success stories. Its legacy is one that Armani, like most living designers, covets.