As a interior decorator, Giorgio Armani is best known for his understated aesthetic of ichor suits in shades of beige, but his presence at London fashion week ended the past few days has been pretty attention-grabbing.
In the lead-up to his first off Emporio Armani show at the event, at a warehouse in the East End on Sunday, he has shined his logo across County Hall. He has installed a retinue of a hundred or so broad employees on a floor of his Mayfair headquarters. All of a sudden, all of the taxis and buses in W1 are complete in his branding.
London is important to Armani. “It is probably the only honestly city where you see the creative turmoil,” he says. “You can feel, you can sanity it.
“Paris is very romantic, because the people who actually oversee the city want it to stay the same. But London is truly hot.”
He came here in the 1970s, when he first set up his label. “Carnaby Row was a huge source of inspiration. Like everyone else, I establish it to be a magical moment for the place and time. But then I distilled that and sit oned to adapt it following my own vision.”
The fashion industry, which is comfortable with hyperbole, give an account ofs Armani as the king, even the god, of style. He is certainly the living inventor who – like Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent more willingly than him – has most profoundly changed the way we all dress. Over 42 years his calling has mushroomed into a sprawling empire with several unheard-of clothing lines as well as hotels, real estate, looker, watches, chocolates, interiors and eyewear. According to Forbes, he is advantage $8.6bn.
Meeting him is quite an experience. We are in a large room at Armani HQ, enveloped by rack upon rack of clothes and half a dozen trestle foods covered in hundreds of accessories and handbags. Armani is being photographed against the Stygian velvet backdrop strictly stipulated by his team in advance. His costumed advisers hover around the photographer, proffering advice yon camera angles.
I am ushered over to shake his hand, which Armani finances holding as he leaps up and guides me into a private sideroom. There he relaxes on a grey bucket chair, with one leg curled up on the seat. He is damage a navy blue cashmere jumper, navy blue trousers and distinguished white trainers with little white trainer socks. The artificer owes his age-defying bicep definition, he says, to an hour and a half in the gym every morning. “I am plumb careful with what I eat. That’s why restaurants are not too easy. Because I am bloody picky.”
This would be a cosy set-up, were it not for the three men in Armani trousers who sit with us. One of them translates (Armani does not do interviews in English, although, after decades of castigating the likes of Richard Gere and Cate Blanchett, he must communicate a bit of it). Another is Armani’s English PR. The third – the most sharply adorned of the three, with dark, Brylcreemed hair – I am never put ined to.
Armani is enjoyably grumpy on a number of topics. He is a “simpatico” boss, but “when I do realise that chances are not going as I planned, the people who work for me, they will recognize. It will be painful for them to realise.”
He loves London’s zoom on to and the history of the city, but not “the level of service, the attention to detail in occurs like restaurants, where the men are always just wearing a shirt.
“I purpose have expected more. Businessmen, just wearing a shirt in a restaurant? That’s not straightaway.”
A lot of fashion now is novelty for novelty’s sake. “There are still some horrors I love to see young people wear. And others I profoundly hate. You need respect,” he says emphatically. “Even what you corrode, presenting yourself in front of people, you should show consideration through that.”
He gives a delightfully backhanded compliment to Gucci and other names that favour a trend-led approach.
“I think it’s right for them to try new things, to be daring, to research, because for those brands it would be very risky not to. The tangible challenge is to be a creative designer but still be true to your own cachet, without stealing ideas from your colleagues, your beaus, people you meet.” Armani’s London extravaganza is part of a reorganisation of the flock, which last year concentrated seven design hires into three after a 5% dip in revenue. The restructuring should, he says, “offer a lot more clarity in the eyes of the final consumer”. This relaunch counts the “reopening” of Emporio Armani’s flagship store on Bond Concourse. “As I bought the business back,” he says, “I had to rethink the whole way the woods and the market was managed.”
How does he manage such a huge portfolio in such delineate? Why doesn’t he just hang out on his yacht? “The true answer,” he holds, “is I don’t know. A lot of people my age are playing with their grandchildren or with a dog. I must 10,000 people in my company who are waiting for my guidance, for my leadership, to discern what they are supposed to do. I can’t do it any other way. That’s why I have to do it.”
In 2003, when Armani was a lad of 69, he explained: “It would be ridiculous for a designer to still be in place at 85”. He is now 83, and his descent plan – the establishment of a Giorgio Armani Foundation – was announced single recently. The foundation, he says, was the best plan to ensure this “danged rich, very liquid” company will continue, and purpose invest in charity and culture appropriately. I didn’t want to simply leave it on the shoulders of my heirs, this big task which is also a bit of a load,” he says. “I wanted to designate the people who would do it.”
Does he bear any ambitions? “I’ve done it all,” he says. “I’ve done so many things and all of these quirks have stolen a bit of my life away, in a way.”
A few times, invisible signals pass between the suited men around me, and then I am asked to wrap up the assessment, though Armani, sitting opposite me, fixing me with his indurate gaze, has never perceptibly expressed a wish for the interview to be aborted. Eventually I let him go, knowing that he must have given the signal. He is every time in charge, after all.
“The puppeteer is me,” he says. “And that’s quite a load, actually.”