Virtuous circle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 June, 2012, 12:00am

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Asked what lessons he has learned from almost five decades in fashion, Giorgio Armani says, 'Good ideas always find their place to flourish.'

One such place is the mainland, which has been 'most receptive to my message', he says.

To mark 14 years on the mainland for his fashion house, the designer held a glittering evening in Beijing last week at New Tank, a giant industrial building in the capital's 798 Arts District. The autumn-winter 2012 Emporio Armani and Giorgio Armani lines, and the latest Armani Prive line were shown to more than 1,000 guests and celebrities.

'I felt it was my duty to bring my vision directly to the public with a one-off event at a high-impact location,' the designer says. 'I am in debt to Chinese culture: it has always been a source of inspiration for me.'

It was a star-studded assembly: Mary J. Blige performed while a remarkably youthful-looking Tina Turner watched from the front row. There was a mix of the old guard and the new, with film stars Fan Bingbing, Shu Qi (one of Armani's Asian campaign faces), Daniel Wu Yin-cho and Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng serving as beacons to a new legion of fans in the country.

As might be expected, they were all dressed in Armani, many in dramatic couture and coiffed to perfection.

The Armani empire on the mainland has grown along with its rapidly expanding luxury market. The designer opened his first boutique in Beijing in 1998; today, there are 289 stores across the country, with plans to open another 60 to 70 over the next two years. His fashion lines now include Armani Exchange and Armani Jeans, and EA7, a sportswear line that will be seen on the Italian Olympic team next month. The Armani world has extended to cosmetics, chocolates, homeware, flowers and partnerships in restaurants and bars.

The 77-year-old Armani keeps a firm grip on all operations, insisting that even the tiniest details meet his exacting standards. Which may be why he remains one of the last true emperors of fashion. Armani has not only built a billion-dollar empire from scratch, he maintains 100 per cent ownership despite investment talks with LVMH in the 1990s.

Forbes reports that, as of March, he has amassed a personal fortune of US$7.2 billion.

'I have a big ego and to be someone in this business you need to have a strong ego,' he says. 'That's another reason why you want to keep everything under your control. One of the key reasons we chose to remain entirely independent is that we don't need to make compromises with anyone.'

Italy's most successful designer has held to his core values of pared-down, understated chic, and the Armani name carries the same megabrand status on the mainland as older European luxury labels such as Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton.

Even so, cultivating the more sophisticated clientele is a challenging business.

'The Asian market is both exciting and complex,' Armani says. 'It demands competence and, at the same time, great consideration. It is ready to receive the Armani message, but with a sense of taste that has yet to be discovered.'

That's not to say Armani imposes his sensibilities on others: he has adapted his style in collaboration with celebrities as different as Robert De Niro and Lady Gaga, who wore his clothes in Hong Kong last month during her world tour.

'I look for a challenge [when dressing celebrities]; getting their needs to match their style,' he says.

But the designer has little time for the fashion industry's current obsession with outrageous showpiece designs that are never meant to be worn on the street. For Armani, pragmatism has to go hand in hand with fantasy.

'I think that, perhaps, nowadays a greater sense of rigour would not be a bad thing,' he says. 'In fashion, what is important is to start from a component of genius. But then the genius needs to be disciplined, needs to be rigorous so that you can build a success. Without these, this industry is not going to be able to make it in the future.'

True to his words, Armani's style has evolved over the years while remaining true to his aesthetics. There is a relaxed masculinity to his menswear and an elegant wearability to his womenswear. Both fans and critics agree on that.

So how does Armani manage to keep his designs relevant when they feature few flourishes to follow seasonal trends?

'My passion for what I do charges me constantly, as well as observing life, which always gives me new cues and ideas,' he says. 'Inspiration can come from a woman or a man walking down the street, from a film, or from a book of photography. A designer must be aware of life around him, because anything can spark an idea.'

Armani is part purist and part pioneer: his work in the 1980s (when he helped transform menswear) and the 1990s was groundbreaking and he was also the first to broadcast his couture collection live on the web, in January 2007.

He has supplied costumes for dozens of feature films, and some of his greatest triumphs have been immortalised on film: American Gigolo, The Untouchables and, more recently, The Dark Knight.

His influence was also reflected in an exhibition of his work by New York's Guggenheim Museum in 2000; it was the first time the museum had honoured a designer still living.

'There are no magic formulas,' Armani says. 'But there is a vision. Results come from hard work, consistency and honesty. But also from chance meetings, opportunities one seizes upon or lets pass, according to one's own credos.'

Despite a debilitating bout of hepatitis in 2009, he is still pushing forward. And, if his interactions with his team in Beijing are any indication, the designer is still very much in control.

'There have been times when I felt that I had chosen a rather lonely path,' he says. 'No winking at the public, no flash, at the time when the media only seemed to be interested in coup de theatre and exhibitionism on the runway.

'I asked myself if I was being excessively rigorous, if my style, which went beyond fashion, was too challenging a choice. But I held on because I had a global vision - about my aesthetics and my life.'