With elegance and wisdom, octogenarian designer Giorgio Armani is helming the transformation of the post-pandemic fashion industry. Here, an evocative look at his archive collections. Thank you, maestro.
It almost felt like any other show during Milan fashion week. On February 23, it was business as usual, as a strong spotlight pierced through the blacked-out room at 59 Via Bergognone, followed by a group of women marching down the Giorgio Armani runway. Models wore black velvet, floral prints, and a touch of sparkle, in designs that looked elegant yet easy to wear – veramente Armani. At the end, in the best show etiquette, the revered maestro appeared for his usual salute to the guests to receive a well-deserved round of applause. Only this time, there was no one applauding. Apart from the show crew, the room was completely empty. This virtual runway presentation would mark the beginning of one of the most challenging periods in the modern history of fashion.
Before this event, held on the last day of the presentation of the Milan collections, the Covid-19 conversations had started to dominate the front rows, but with only a few happenings canceled here and there. Having Giorgio Armani hosting his show behind closed doors was a massive statement, but something that had to be done. Now, it was official: Covid-19 was a reality, even in the glossy, make-believe world of style. “It was a hard call, but my sense of responsibility led me to take this difficult decision. Giving up on the live event after six months of work, with all that it entails, was tough, because the streamed show behind closed doors is certainly not the same thing,” confides the designer. “For me, however, this was the only possible thing to do. I felt I had to act, because my health and that of those around me, as well as that of my audience, is certainly more important than the glory of the moment. I followed my intuition. I would do it again.”
The weeks that followed unfolded like a tragic science fiction movie that no one wanted to be a part of. As the number of patients with Covid-19 skyrocketed across the globe, the death rate increased by the day. This led to multiple months of home confinement and a humanitarian and economic crisis that affected everyone, even powerful fashion conglomerates. Brands saw their businesses collapse due to the closing of their factories and stores and a general retraction on the consumption of luxury goods. This didn’t mean that Armani just sat at home watching everything sink around him. Isolated in the Italian countryside, along with close members of his team, Armani found that the quarantine didn’t affect his creative process, but the slower pace allowed him to think carefully about “how to change the way I work.”
Before looking to the future, however, there was something to be done in the present. Italy is one of the countries most affected by Covid-19, with more than 35 000 deaths. For Armani, known for his patriotic pride, it was time to give back to his country so embedded in the DNA of his own brand. In March, he offered one of the largest financial donations, pledging €2 million to various hospitals and Italy’s Civil Protection Department. He also dedicated all his factories in northern Italy to the production of single-use medical overalls for healthcare workers fighting the virus. “Given the urgent need for emergency kits, I thought of acting immediately and effectively, and I worked to make this happen,” he explains. “In general, the response of the fashion industry has been fast and pragmatic. And it is great to see this. The fashion system can be full of egos sometimes. This time, we acted in unison. I believe this is the most important lesson: we must stay strong and united. It is only by sticking together that we will come through this terribly difficult time.”
While the world is slowly easing out of confinement, the “new normal” sees us question the fashion industry as a whole, with many debating the system itself, from the format of fashion weeks and their larger-than-life shows to the vast quantity of clothes that are produced every season for a quick profit, versus garments that are made to last. Armani also led the conversation when, in April, he wrote an extremely well-received open letter published by Women’s Wear Daily, proposing slowing down the fashion industry and the overproduction of shows and garments. This is a strategy that he has been practicing since the founding of his brand in 1975. Not following trends, the Armani style is consistent and punctuated with a timeless appeal that makes each piece a (good) investment. This ethos is celebrated across all extensions of his brands, from the red carpet gowns bringing to mind the Golden Age of Hollywood and worn by muses such as Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman, to the structured and tailored suits seen on Afef Jnifen and Eva Herzigová in the photoshoot that illustrates this story. “My distinctive aesthetic was there from the outset of my brand. It has always been my intention to design pieces that are timeless in terms of style. Originally, that was merely an aesthetic decision, but today we see that it has other benefits: people will wear these types of designs for longer, and wearing things for longer is a great way to contribute positively to sustainability,” the designer explains. “We need to look at how we can improve sustainability in how we create and make products, how well we design those products to last (in terms of aesthetics as well as quality), how we run our offices, and how we construct and run our stores. The consumer, too, must start to consume more responsibly. Of course, this is about education. The consumer never demanded mass fashion being pumped out constantly. The manufacturers created that situation. So now, we must start a process of re-education.”
Not afraid to take hard decisions, Armani recently announced that he is moving his January couture show from Paris back to Milan, wanting to “support Italy, severely hit by the pandemic.” For his clients based in the Middle East, one of the saddest consequences of the coronavirus was the cancelation of the Armani Cruise show in Dubai, scheduled for this past July. It would have been hosted at the Armani Hotel, which is celebrating a decade since its opening. “Dubai is quite a place. It is a cosmopolitan, exciting, and modern city, alive with potential. That is why I chose to open my first Armani Hotel there,” he explains. “It is also such a great place for me to host a show. However, at the present, I am evaluating what I will be doing in the short to medium term. Although I would very much like to see Dubai when the world opens up again, I’m cautious with this type of presentation where guests fly all over the world for just a night’s event.”
There is no question that Giorgio Armani is a great commander of his ship, and can navigate any crisis with wisdom and elegance, possibly due to the fact that today, at 86, he remains extremely hands-on, defying his age. If you walk around Milan, you might get lucky, and even find the pragmatic designer fixing his own windows – not that he doesn’t have an army of visual merchandisers to do it. “I simply love what I do; work is what I am passionate about,” he affirms. And the secret to his incredibly athletic figure? “I have a daily routine of exercise and healthy eating. I follow a Mediterranean diet and I’m extremely self-disciplined. I find discipline in my firm belief that I can do things better. It’s an endless path of improvement.”
Even with all his vitality and multiple projects, it is valid to question if Armani will ever think to step down. In this case, who would continue the legacy of the prolific designer? Although numerous members of the family are involved in the brand – the most public being his niece Roberta – he prefers to be vague when the topic of his successor arises, stating, “I have built a team around me of trusted people. They understand my vision and my wishes, and at present, this is how I see the future – as being in the hands of these talented people.” An answer that is as elegant and discreet as an Armani dress and the man himself.
Originally published in the September 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia