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Life on the rocks

Fashion great finds peace and quiet on rugged volcanic island off Tunisian coast, writes Jacqueline Tsang

 

GARDEN OASIS
“Over the years I have worked on this special oasis garden that surrounds my house,” says Giorgio Armani. “It includes spectacular tiaré trees, magnificent rose bushes, hedges of jasmine, rare cypress trees, and 300-year-old palm trees imported from Sicily, not to mention the local prickly echinocactus grusonii (cactus) plants and cycads.”

In addition to the local flora, the designer also loves his holiday home for its peaceful ambience. “[There is a] sense of calm and relaxation,” he says, adding that one of the main attractions is also “the fact that it’s so close to Milan, yet feels like I am miles away from civilisation”.

 

Giorgio Armani is full of surprises. As the man behind - and at the helm of - one of the biggest fashion houses in the world, one might expect his pied-à-terre, his vacation home, to be in any number of exotic locations.

Rather than building himself a mini-resort in Mauritius or a party pad in Boracay, he cast his sights southwest off the Tunisian coast, onto a volcanic, somewhat forbidding, island named Pantelleria.

Armani first visited the rocky island more than 30 years ago. "Believe it or not, I didn't like it," he admits. "I expected it to be more exotic, not so hard. There were no nice hotels, no restaurants, no life. The greatest excitement of the day was if a car passed by on the road."

After a few days, however, the fashion designer felt something shift, as he settled into a stillness in which he, perhaps unexpectedly, found a certain beauty. "I suddenly looked up into that clear sky and everything was just so quiet and calm. A pure silence," he recalls.

That changed everything. Armani bought a house on the island in 1981, before returning a few years later to buy another piece of land closer to the water. While the sea provided stunning views and a calming presence, the designer says that, strangely enough, it wasn't his priority.

"It's the whole island, the light, and the coarse wild terrain," he explains. "It's being surrounded by the black volcanic rock that is humbling and so strong. I need a force this strong to make me relax."

The designer compares this place to his home in Milan, where he spends much of his working life. "They are two completely different realities and functions," he says. "[The Milan home] is modern, functional and linear - in line with the fact that I am working. Pantelleria is my summer refuge … the only place where I truly feel I can 'turn off' from the wear and tear of working life."

As a result, now, Armani finds himself visiting his holiday home not just in the summer, as he did over the first few years, but also for long weekends in the autumn and spring.

Of course, the island has also become a lot more liveable over the years. "Now Pantelleria has electricity, there are a few hotels, and cars passing on the road are no longer the big attraction," Armani jokes. Nevertheless, he says, it maintains that untouched wildness and beauty.

It is for this reason that the designer hired Gabriella Giuntoli to be his architect. As a local, she understood the nature and surroundings, and Armani particularly appreciated her "innate ability to comprehend someone's taste and needs, transforming these ideas into a reality that is simple, natural and ultimately luxurious".

His home, for example, initially consisted of two traditional Arab-style dammusi houses. With Giuntoli's help and planning, it has expanded to two central areas with an open-air living room and dining room, and seven dammusi. Even fitted as it is with furniture, drapes and other modern comforts, the architecture of the home is resolutely traditional and authentic. "The dammusi houses date back centuries from the Arabic population," Armani explains. "They feature two-foot thick stone walls constructed from volcanic rock and white domed roofs that allow natural insulation and protection from the extremely high temperature."

This structure makes full use of Pantelleria's natural breezes - in fact, when the Arabs conquered the land in AD700, they named the island "the daughter of the winds", for the winds that came off the African coast.

Within the stone walls, the designer made sure the home showcased his own tastes by bringing in furniture pieces from his Armani Casa line.

"As with clothing, one's home reflects their personality," he says.

"I love anything that has a base in nature, whether we are talking about materials, colours or forms."

He adds that Armani Casa is founded in these very natural elements of wood, stone and the sea, which results in the clean lines, luxurious materials and functional comfort that characterise the home furnishing line.

With a beautiful home on a peaceful island, the designer makes the most of the gorgeous surrounds. "A day in my life on Pantelleria is very simple. It is island life - lived to the fullest outdoors," he says.

His day may start off with an early power hike around the island, followed by breakfast with any family and friends that are there with him. "Contrary to what people tease me about, I do not make my guests come with me - of course unless they want to," he jokes. "Anyone is welcome."

Breakfast is often followed by taking the boat out for a swim, then a late outdoor lunch, after which the exhausted designer takes a nap. In the late afternoon, the group might take a trip out to the local market or watch a film, before ending the perfect day with an al fresco, candlelit dinner.

Given the dramatically different pace of life, it's no surprise that Armani becomes a different person when he escapes to his holiday home. "My sister says it's the only place where my face changes," he says. "Pantelleria is the place where I truly relax … I turn off the spotlight and my eyes are always focused on the clear sky. The stress disappears."

 

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