Giorgio Armani: a rare interview with the man behind the empire

The indefatigable powerhouse behind one of the world’s most successful independent fashion houses is now a serial entrepreneur with furniture, five-star hotels, private residences, a fabulous nightclub and even fine chocolate bearing his name. Angelo Flaccavento is granted a rare interview with Giorgio Armani. Portrait by Richard Grassie

Giorgio Armani at home in Milan
Giorgio Armani at home in Milan | Image: Richard Grassie

Giorgio Armani, the 83-year-old president and sole administrator of Giorgio Armani SpA, is an unstoppable force. Not content with running an empire that encompasses clothing, furniture, restaurants, hotels, a nightclub, perfumes, make-up, watches, even a chocolate and sweets line, he continues to expand his business. In April, he kicked off Milan design week with the launch of the Armani/Casa flagship store on Corso Venezia, in the building previously occupied by iconic furniture store De Padova, a landmark of Milanese design. In May, a new 308sq m Emporio Armani café and restaurant opened in Bologna, while this month sees the unveiling of two new scents, called Because It’s You, for women, and Stronger With You, for men. The newly renovated Emporio Armani store opens on Bond Street in early September, and to celebrate this, the Emporio Armani spring/summer 2018 show will take place at London Fashion Week rather than in Milan. Armani has bought back the licence for its fast-fashion chain Armani Exchange, and there are big plans for expansion. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Dubai and Qatar major store revamps are in the pipeline. There are also two Armani-designed private residences on the market in London.

Left: a room at the Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa, Dubai. Right: Armani Casa lizard-effect-leather Borromini chaise longue, £12,510
Left: a room at the Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa, Dubai. Right: Armani Casa lizard-effect-leather Borromini chaise longue, £12,510 | Image: Davide Lovatti

Armani’s stamina and determination are legendary. Being a control freak, he admits, helps too. “To run an enterprise like this, every little detail counts: it’s like nurturing a baby,” he says. “You cannot overlook or underestimate the tiniest detail, or the whole endeavour will fall apart. It is invariably me who points out mistakes and comes up with solutions. I trust the people around me, but I’m the only one making the final decisions.”

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In other words, singular vision requires a smidge of dictatorship. It’s clear that Armani’s success is built on obsession; it’s been like this since 1975, when Armani founded his label with the help of his late partner, the visionary businessman Sergio Galeotti. Many years have passed and a vast personal fortune has been amassed (valued by Forbes at around $8.3bn) – yet today, 42 years later, Armani still finds it hard to delegate. He is unremittingly hands-on, constantly there, briefing and checking, and making sure that everything falls into place. “Eighty per cent of what I do is discipline,” he tells me. “The rest is creativity.”

Left: Giorgio Armani cupro jacket, £710, and matching trousers, £500. Right: silk/linen jacket, £1,700, cotton-jersey T-shirt, £260, linen trousers, £780, and jute hat, £270
Left: Giorgio Armani cupro jacket, £710, and matching trousers, £500. Right: silk/linen jacket, £1,700, cotton-jersey T-shirt, £260, linen trousers, £780, and jute hat, £270 | Image: Courtesy of Giorgio Armani

On the day we meet in May, Armani is busy debating details with his staff as the spring 2018 pre-collection takes shape. It is 9.30am, but King Giorgio as he is affectionately known, is already locked on, sleeves rolled up, unforgiving eyes scanning every stitch on the samples crammed on a rack. But he is not happy with the model. The slightest crescendo in his voice is enough to make his team jump into action. As he approaches me, he looks friendly yet resolute. It’s been a long time since Armani has given a face-to-face interview. He is both an extremely busy businessman and a reserved person, so an actual meeting is a rare occurrence. His buongiorno is followed by a rapid scan of my appearance: he just can’t help checking out how people present themselves through their clothes.

Gowns on display at the Armani/Silos museum, Milan
Gowns on display at the Armani/Silos museum, Milan | Image: Davide Lovatti

We are in the brutalist spaces of Armani/Teatro, a spare masterpiece built in 2001 and designed by Tadao Ando, a fellow purveyor of less is more. The building, formerly a Nestlé factory, is just one of the many properties Armani owns and runs in Milan. On the opposite side of the street is the Armani/Silos museum. On Via Borgonuovo, in the arty, central Brera district, are two historical palazzos housing his style department and press office. Armani lives right next door, in a minimally furnished house he has inhabited since the early 1980s. The Borgonuovo area, so distinctly Milanese – classy but not showy, with marvellous gardens hidden behind austere façades – is the epicentre of the Armani world, so much so that one of the Giorgio Armani iconic bags, a boxy style with small handles and contrasting artisan lining, has been christened the Borgonuovo bag. A stone’s throw from the headquarters sit the Armani Hotel and the Armani/Manzoni concept store. The Giorgio Armani flagship is housed not far away on Via Montenapoleone. To put the company in a broader context, according to 2015 figures (the latest available) it had 2,983 global points of sale for all the different lines and employed around 9,000 people worldwide.

From left: Giorgio Armani  calfskin Le Sac II, from £1,500. Armani/Dolci praline gift box, €30 for 16 chocolates
From left: Giorgio Armani calfskin Le Sac II, from £1,500. Armani/Dolci praline gift box, €30 for 16 chocolates

As he speaks, I cannot help noticing Armani’s piercing gaze. His clear blue eyes are lively and curious, but he puts a bit of protective distance between himself and his interlocutor. Today he is dressed in navy blue, as he has been for almost 30 years: a crewneck jumper, easy slacks, white tennis shoes. It’s a look that speaks of pragmatism and a taste for simplicity. People who constantly create often revert to a uniform – it helps them to focus on work. Armani talks slowly, thoughtfully and concisely. Sparks of passion and human warmth glint through his trademark steely, assertive demeanour, and there’s a moralistic streak he’s not afraid to show. “I detest it when fashion turns into costume,” he says bluntly, “and I think most of the things we see today on the catwalks are too fancy.”

From left: Emporio Armani Because It’s You, £66 for 50ml EDP. Richard Gere in American Gigolo, 1980
From left: Emporio Armani Because It’s You, £66 for 50ml EDP. Richard Gere in American Gigolo, 1980 | Image: Courtesy of Giorgio Armani

Armani has never got carried away with what’s au courant, sticking instead to a vision of sophisticated simplicity. “I have never been interested in being trendy for the sake of it,” he says. “I have my own vision and ideas and am not afraid to go countercurrent. Fashion tides change constantly, after all. There are times when fashion drifts away from my aesthetic beliefs, and there are times when it gets close. I just don’t care.” Still, not even he is absolutely immune to the vicissitudes of fashion. “As time passes, the pressure to change drastically becomes stronger, and so too the effort to maintain my authenticity. It’s a struggle. I am perfectly aware that there is no use in fighting the zeitgeist: if times require vulgarity, so be it. Still, I’ve never been one to think that if something is new, it is automatically right.”

The Armani/Privé nightclub, Milan
The Armani/Privé nightclub, Milan | Image: Beppe Raso

Over the years, Armani has managed to keep his finger on the pulse while remaining true to himself, and it’s a skill amply demonstrated by his latest collections, which express a fine balance of streamlined, pure lines and touches of the decorative that is so relevant right now, from an Emporio Armani T-shirt (£300) with a fingerprint motif to a Giorgio Armani quilted silk/linen jacket (£1,700) paired with slouchy linen trousers (£780) for men; and, for women, an embroidered Giorgio Armani cardigan (£7,450) worn over silk marine-print trousers (£960) to a bright-red Emporio suit (jacket, £710; trousers, £500) with tiny elephant embroideries. What sets these pieces apart is the way they follow the body: supple and naturally. Touches of exoticism are another Armani trademark. The Armani pieces whisper designer instead of shouting it. 

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Armani first came to prominence with a line of softly structured men’s suits. Then, under pressure from his sister and her friends, who found his style perfect for their relaxed lifestyles, he created something similar for women. In 1980, Armani dressed a young Richard Gere in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, a film that perfectly captured the obsession with appearance that would define the decade. It also made Armani jackets a must‑have. From then, it’s been constant expansion. In 1981 he launched his younger Emporio Armani line, and with that, designer jeans. Fragrances came in 1984 – there are now 10 lines and today, around the world, a bottle of Acqua di Gio (€52 for 50ml EDT) is sold every minute. In 2005, having been a loyal red-carpet choice for at least two generations of Hollywood actors, he added haute couture to his roster with Armani Privé. Hospitality followed with the opening of the Armani hotels in Dubai in 2010 and Milan in 2011. “Not even in my wildest dreams would I have imagined getting this far,” he says. “I have achieved a lot more than I thought was possible, even 20 years ago.” The company’s 2015 revenue was €2.65bn, 4.5 per cent up on the previous year. “Style, for me, is a mood that can be applied to everything. I’ve always thought fashion is much more than just clothes: it is a way of being. Expanding my vision to different fields, yet still striving to create something useful and durable, I can reach a wider audience. Flights of fantasy are not my thing.” 

The furniture in the new Armani/Casa collection perfectly reflects this ethos: they are timeless objects that look minimally designed while being made with the best possible materials. The intarsia cabinets (£44,000), square-looking sofas (from £6,480) and curvy limited edition chaises longues (£12,510) have something of art deco elegance and preciousness. There is also a range of sumptuous beds (from £10,000) with a choice of finishes, from oak to satin and brass, and coverings by Armani/Casa Exclusive Textiles by Rubelli. “You have to get into the head of your clients and understand how they live, who they want to be and how they want to represent themselves in society. Avoiding excesses, at all costs, is my sole rule,” he says.

For all this fervent dedication to sophisticated asceticism, Armani also knows how to enjoy life: in the sunny splendour of his vacation mansions in Antigua, Broni, St Moritz or on the rocky island of Pantelleria, but also at his home in Milan, where he is often seen at his Armani/Privé nightclub. He laughs when I suggest it’s slightly contradictory that a man so wary of ostentation should be behind one of Milan’s glitziest nightspots; then, ever the businessman, he fires back: “I did not expect success to be so huge, so much so that now I plan to extend the endeavour to other cities: every major capital in the world should have an Armani/Privé club.” It sounds like a deal, more than a wish.

Time is running tight. “My work is my life, that’s for sure,” he says, as he’s called off to a string of meetings. “This came with the high cost of sacrificing everything else. I have some regrets, in fact: for the time I could not spend with loved ones and for the beautiful places in the world that I did not get to see.” At this point, his voice is trembling with emotion. He stands up and shakes my hand warmly. The elephant in the room, of course, is what happens to Giorgio Armani SpA after Giorgio Armani. Rumours have been circulating for years. But it’s a subject on which he remains determinedly vague and mysterious. When the topic is raised, Armani will politely and quickly answer that everything is under control, and that plans will be disclosed at the appropriate time. He is already back debating with his team. “I would be a lot less strict, with myself and with my people,” he shouts to me, “if I had the time.”

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