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