Giorgio Armani started an empire at a time when Italy was still reeling from a post-war economic collapse. His clean lines, minimalist colour palettes and timeless elegance put Italian fashion on the map. Today Mr. Armani is the fifth wealthiest Italian with a net worth exceeding €7 billion. Having barely survived war-ravaged Italy as a child, his success defied all odds. The sheer scale of his empire remains unparalleled to this day. By Priya Kumar
“Ieliminate the differences between men and women. I gave to man the looseness, the suppleness, softness of the woman. And to woman the comfort, the elegance of the man.” –Giorgio Armani, June 1994 Back in 2007 I had my first brush with Giorgio Armani. As a business student at the time, I was placed in Armani headquarters in Milan for a work-study programme. On day three of my placement I was seated patiently in the lobby waiting for the workday to begin at their Via Borgonuovo 11 office when a gentleman exuding charisma and taste brushed past me. It was Mr. Armani himself. He is notoriously uninterested in speaking English to the public, so all I could muster up was a faint “Bonjourno,” before he was abruptly hustled away by his team. The moment could be described as nothing short of surreal. Besides being the driving force behind Italy’s rise to power on the international fashion scene, Armani is one of only two fashion house founders that continue to serve as CEO and Creative Director concurrently. Having turned 80-year-old this past summer, this is no small feat.
Giorgio Armani S.p.A. is one of the most profitable and expansive fashion houses the world has ever known. The empire includes 5,000 employees, 13 factories and 500 retail stores across 46 countries internationally. Due to Mr. Armani’s consistent presence and direction, the company remains one of the few privately-owned entities in the industry. With an sharp business acumen coupled with an intuition for fashion trends and style, Giorgio Armani is the largest fashion conglomerate in Italy with a retail turnover in 2013 topping €7.8 billion. The house oversees an anthology of collections that encompass Armani Privé, Giorgio Armani line, Armani Collezioni, Emporio Armani, AJ | Armani Jeans, A/X Armani Exchange, Armani Junior, Armani Baby, Armani Dolce and Armani Casa. Armani produces fragrances under L’Oreal, watches under Fossil and glasses under Luxottica, an Italian eyewear manufacturer that Mr. Armani shrewdly has a major stake in.
In 2005 the company expanded beyond luxury apparel and into hospitality by opening its first hotel in Dubai in 2009. Under their agreement with Emaar Properties, Armani would look after the design and style concepts for the hotels including lighting, mood and of course interiors. The experience offers guests complete immersion into the world of Armani. A year later a second property opened in Milan. The project ranks Armani among one of the few fashion houses to have profitably made the audacious crossover into hospitality.
“I’m a revolutionary, and I’m unwilling to accept the way the system works. I am fed up with overemphasis, contrivance, and insincere enthusiasms.” says Giorgio Armani.
Giorgio Armani was born on July 11th, 1934 in the northern Italian factory town of Piacenza. He and his siblings Rosanna and Sergio bore the brunt of World War II firsthand. He lost several childhood playmates in the bombings of Milan and its surrounding areas. Years later he told a fashion magazine, “We were poor and life was tough. The cinema in Milan was a refuge—a palace of dreams—and the movie stars seemed so glamorous. I fell in love with the idealized beauty of Hollywood stars.”
His interest in the human form also began early; he would make dolls out of mud and coffee beans as a child. This interest in anatomy led to two years of medical school at the University of Piacenza. It was on a break from his studies to carryout Italy’s required years of military service that he got his first taste of fashion. “I was doing my military service and I had 20 days off on vacation in Milan,” he told the press. Through his contacts he began working at the legendary department store La Rinascente. “I started assisting the photographer, designing the windows and things.”
Shortly after joining the ranks of La Rinascente as a window dresser he began dabbling in design under Nino Cerruti. This experience was followed by freelancing for other labels with the encouragement of his friend
Sergio Galeotti. Because of their chemistry for good business, Armani and Galeotti became founding partners of their own company Giorgio Armani S.p.A. in 1975. The newly minted company’s first collection was menswear followed by womenswear a year later.
Armani’s collections could be described as nothing short of revolutionary; he removed the linings from garments to allow for a more natural fit. “My vision was clear: I believed in getting rid of the artifice of clothing. I believed in neutral colours,” he said of his line to an industry newspaper.
The 1980s also marked the birth of the “Power Suit” for Armani. To keep up with demand, the company began opening up eponymous boutiques starting with Milan. Suddenly, tragedy struck. Sergio Galeotti, Armani’s longtime business partner and friend, succumbed to a deadly disease. He had been the business mind behind the label with Armani filling the role of Creative. Now it was up to Armani alone to fill both roles. He did so with finesse and the empire continued to thrive.
Although Armani quickly caught on in Europe, the American market remained unmoved. The early ‘80s were heavily influenced by Ralph Lauren’s variety of country club chic. It was not until Richard Gere donned an Armani suit in American Gigolo (1980) that America took an interest in the Italian fashion label. Soon the label was approached by hit TV series Miami Vice (1984-89) to dress Don Johnson.
Armani pioneered the business of dressing celebrities on and off-set. Although only recently eclipsed by rival
designers Chanel, Dior and Marchesa— specifically in the red carpet category— the label continues to align itself with the biggest and brightest names in the business. Mr. Armani’s niece Roberta Armani took on the role of manager of VIP relations and asserts that such partnerships keep the label young: “A huge company like Giorgio Armani has the duty to always be alert to trends and what appeals to young people.”
As Giorgio Armani approaches his fifth decade in fashion, he has dressed his clientele for the boardroom to the red carpet, and every occasion in between. The effortless elegance he lends to a look has been as celebrated by patrons of every generation. In 2010 when Giorgio Armani teamed up with Lady Gaga to create a series of ostentatious looks for her “Monster Ball” concert tour, the two mega-watt stars appeared to have little in common given their half-century gap in age. Lady Gaga—who’s real name is Stefani Germanotta, also of Italian heritage— succinctly put all doubt to rest: “Gaga is so avant-garde and he is so timeless that they meet.”