He's one of fashion's true greats: a designer, hotelier and restaurateur with a billion-pound business to his name. But who is the real Mr Armani? Ahead of his outstanding achievement award at the UK's 'fashion Oscars' earlier this month, Jane McFarland was granted a rare audience at home with the fiercely private man the Milanese call King Giorgio – while his friend the model Eva Herzigova wears his latest Resort collection.
It's not wholly exaggerating to compare securing an audience with Giorgio Armani (or Mr Armani as he is known to his inner circle) to arranging a casual cuppa with the Queen. Or maybe the Duchess of Sussex. He rarely talks to journalists, even less so the British press, so when I'm finally granted a 15-minute conversation at home with the king of Italian fashion, solo owner of Giorgio Armani SpA, who Forbes estimates to have a personal fortune of £8.26bn ($16.7bn), I'm excited to chat. Except, he doesn't speak much English. It's more than a little odd to be at liberty in his sprawling Milan palazzo while he finishes breakfast, enjoying a tour with his translator, right-hand woman and all-round head honcho, Anoushka Borghesi. But any hopes of a glimpse into his fiercely private personal life are quickly quashed: first impressions are sparse but serene.
With few personal effects, it's a lot like a luxury hotel — of which Mr Armani owns two. It smells utterly divine and the sofas are plumped to perfection. Housemen regularly appear from hidden corners. For a man who trades in understated, elegant clothing, he owns one hell of a flat-screen television. There are animal figurines on some surfaces, from panthers to reptiles — perhaps unsurprising, given his second home, an hour from Milan, has a zoo. Outside, there's a parked Bentley, doormen and 24/7 surveillance. Across the road are the Armani offices, and nearby, his hotel, the Emporio Armani cafe and the Via Manzoni concept store. Even the hangar at Milan Linate airport bears a giant Armani logo; make no mistake, Mr Armani wields the power in Milan. According to one Italian editor I spoke to, a rare glimpse of the designer in the wild provokes applause from locals. Despite only starting his label at the age of 40, he has more influence than any politician or football star (incidentally, he also designed the national teams' off-pitch uniforms) in Milan. A self-made man and a household name, "King Giorgio" is the local hero.
Now 85, Mr Armani still epitomises the three Ts — trim, tanned and toned. Despite a severe case of hepatitis in 2009, he remains in good shape, with a permanent sun-kissed glow (his eye-watering property portfolio includes houses in St Moritz, the Sicilian island of Pantelleria and Antigua — where he will spend Christmas — plus a yacht) and a shock of white hair. He works out regularly and fastidiously follows a strict, chef-prepared diet, which he likes to consume alone.
Despite his somewhat diminutive stature, it's clear Mr Armani, who slowly descends a staircase to join us, is the alpha male in the room. There are few designers who are as entwined with their brands as he is, meaning he can run his independent business as he wishes. With no shareholders to answer to, earlier this year he added the title of general manager to his existing chairman and chief executive officer roles. It's 9am and he is already issuing his instructions with alarming intensity. His dedicated team, which grows in number by the minute, spring into action — regardless of the request, it appears "no" isn't a word often heard at Armani HQ.
He may have been talked into a shoot at home, but it's clear he isn't staying — he has a press conference to attend, then he will prepare for the brand's first pre-fall show this evening. He loves to work and insists it keeps him healthy. "My happy place, where I feel best, is my office. It's where I achieve my visions, where what's in my head becomes real and tangible," he says. "It's the most incredible feeling. It fills me with energy and adrenaline every single time."
His office uniform is pristine white trainers, navy trousers and a navy cashmere jumper. Today he is wearing a fluid navy cashmere jacket in the style of deconstructed tailoring that first put him on the map, after designing Richard Gere's wardrobe for American Gigolo in 1980. Dubbed the "master tailor" by The New York Times in the 1980s, Mr Armani has had an undeniable influence on fashion — he dressed men and women in soft, rounded suiting, defining the new working wardrobe of the late 20th century. If you wanted elegant yet relaxed suiting, you went to Armani. "I made ease and sophisticated simplicity a powerful style tool, liberating men and women from many constrictions," he says of his work. "That's my achievement. That's where I want to stand in fashion history." The same rings true today: the impeccably dressed Borghesi, who previously worked for Saint Laurent, is a walking ambassador for his tailoring.
He dutifully shows me around, pointing out some of his favourite things. The minimal space, with low lighting and dark floors, is devoid of personal photographs, bar one: an old picture of him, his two siblings, Sergio and Rosanna, and their mother, Maria. "She was stylish," he sighs. "She had little money, but look how modern we are dressed." Next is a Matisse drawing, given to him by Eric Clapton. "I love him. Moltissimo. He is the greatest. Because he is modern, but he is not annoying." (One senses Mr Armani gets annoyed easily.) He takes me to his cinema room, complete with plush recliners, and an extensive library, which is organised by theme. Decorative artefacts, picked up from his travels to the Far East, are scattered throughout.
Mr Armani certainly doesn't do warm and fuzzy, but it does feel more personal through his eyes. He shares the elegant space with his true loves — two cats, Angel and Mari, and his talking blackbird, Merlino. There is also a larger-than-life gorilla in his living room, a discarded model from the Cinecitta film studio in Rome. I ask about the TV. "At the end of the day I take time for myself, just to think. I usually have a simple dinner at home, after which I like to relax in front of the television watching a good film or a TV series. I've watched all of them with the royals — I'm obsessed. I've just finished Catherine the Great with Helen Mirren." Warming to the topic, we discuss the hit series The Crown. "The Queen is an institution and everyone knows her, but you can't get close to her. The series is the only way to have an imagination of how her life could be. People are looking for a myth." Did he dress Princess Diana over the years? "Yes," he nods discreetly. "She liked our jackets."
Mr Armani's female devotees are numerous — he became the go-to designer for Kate Winslet, Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchett and more, harnessing the power of celebrity long before multimillion-pound ambassador contracts were the norm. "He was one of the first people to use actors in their campaigns, and I was lucky enough to be one of them," recalls Kristin Scott Thomas, who first met the designer in 2003. "I have collected some pieces from various collections and wear them 17 or 18 years later." Winslet has a similar history. "I hate the idea of wearing a dress once, but Armani's elegance doesn't go out of style. My daughter has her eye on a few of my gowns, so she'll wear them one day," she tells Style. "Stepping out on the red carpet is exciting, but it's still a bit daunting, even after all these years. I know if I am dressed in Armani, I'm ready for anything — his gorgeous gowns give me stealth power."
He also counts the Beckhams as fans: they starred in an Emporio Armani campaign more than a decade ago. "His creative flair and eye for detail are legendary," David tells Style. "He is a great person and a good friend who deserves all the love and admiration he gets from his industry, and anyone lucky enough to wear his clothes."
"I first met Giorgio in Paris during the 1960s," says the actress Sophia Loren. "It was the start of a great friendship, one that we still enjoy today. I was taken by his charm and pure elegance, and since then I have always known I am in good hands. He is a brilliant designer, a tireless worker and, above all, he is my dear, dear friend, who I love very much."
Mr Armani first met the supermodel Eva Herzigova "a very long time ago, in St Tropez", when he was struck by her unique beauty. "She's a beautiful woman, but it's not obvious," he says.
"They would fly me over every season and I never did the show," Herzigova laughs. "They always wanted to use me, but I wasn't the Armani girl at that time — I wasn't androgynous enough. It feels like I've known him for ever because I have seen him so much over the years." In 2016 Herzigova — who shot to fame in 1994, thanks to the Wonderbra campaign — officially became an Armani face, cast alongside fellow 1990s supermodels Stella Tennant, Nadja Auermann and Yasmin Le Bon for a campaign.
On set, Herzigova and Mr Armani reunite like old friends. "It's amazing to see how he has dominated the market for so long — in each sector, he makes beautiful things. The furniture! He is modern, in his way," she says. "Look at him now, he's still so immaculate and elegant."
Tomorrow, Mr Armani will receive the Outstanding Achievement award from the British Fashion Council at the Fashion Awards, celebrating his long-standing contribution to the industry. It's the starriest night of the year for British fashion, attracting Hollywood stars and even members of the royal family (the Duchess of Sussex presented an award last year). Previous recipients include Miuccia Prada and Karl Lagerfeld, neither of whom Mr Armani counts as a close friend; a reclusive figure, he admits gatherings of this kind are outside his comfort zone. "I don't go out in the evenings. When there are events like this, I'm a good actor, so I'm going to participate," he says, with more than a hint of irony, "but if I could, I wouldn't do it. I would like to stay at home with my drawings and with my seamstresses — that's my life."
Over the years the brand has had an on/off relationship with the British press. Critics — always in search of trends — have said his collections are not modern enough. His refusal to use a stylist or invite outside expertise means he is often accused of repetition, so to be finally acknowledged by the UK feels particularly poignant. "It's important, because British fashion is known for being quite different or particular. For me, it's even more important to have been recognised as somebody who changed fashion for a certain moment."
Mr Armani admits he fell into fashion almost by accident, working as a window dresser, then a menswear buyer, after studying medicine. "I ended up in this world because I wanted to dress real people and meet their needs, but I don't come from this environment," he says. Encouraged by his partner in life and work, Sergio Galeotti (who died in 1985), he founded his brand in 1975. In 1981, he launched the diffusion label Emporio Armani, followed by fragrances in 1984. (A bottle of Acqua di Gio is still sold every minute.) In 2000, he brought the celebrity haunt Nobu to Italy, with business partner Robert De Niro. From haute couture to hospitality, the Armani empire now includes hotels, nightclubs, cosmetics and fine jewellery, but it's fashion that remains his true love.
"The main focus is still fashion. It's stimulating and every six months you have to do something new, so you have to create. It keeps you alive," he says. "The fashion system has changed so much, I inhabit a completely different environment compared to when I started. The pace has become faster and faster, and as designers we are forced to dish out products at an alarming rate, something I do not like that much. On my end, I never forget that we are here to dress people with something authentic, useful and beautiful."
The Giorgio Armani Group currently employs 8,000 people worldwide and has more than 12,000 points of sale — the scale of his one-man brand is vast. The elephant in the room remains the question of Mr Armani's successor: there have been mutterings of a legacy plan. With no children or named other half (his private life has never been up for discussion), Mr Armani's closest family is his sister, Rosanna, and her son, Andrea Camerana, plus his two nieces, Roberta and Silvana, daughters of his late brother, Sergio. His closest friend is the sixtysomething Pantaleo Dell'Orco, known as Leo, who has been a menswear collaborator and confidant for more than 20 years.
Several hours later I find Mr Armani backstage ahead of the catwalk show. Ever the perfectionist, he examines each model and makes necessary tweaks. He never raises his voice, but his exacting eyes flicker cold when he sees something he doesn't like. Nearby, Dell'Orco is watching a basketball game on his laptop. Later, they sit together at dinner, where Mr Armani will nibble on a crispbread (even he isn't immune to the odd carbohydrate), before shaking hands with well-wishers and excusing himself. The collection is a masterclass in Armani signatures: elegant eveningwear with a twist. An ode to the pantsuit, there are inky-black velvet trousers and cropped tuxedo jackets. An embellished capelet would look divine slung over Blanchett's shoulders this awards season. Herzigova, fresh from our shoot, sits front row wearing a sequined blazer.
As Mr Armani takes his finale bow to a standing ovation, he gives his first real smile of the day. His face, usually solemn and stern, betrays a softer side — this truly is his happy place. Fans on the front row queue for a photograph; he happily obliges. "Maybe it's a bit presumptuous to say," he shrugs, when asked if he considers himself the godfather of Italian fashion, "but yes, maybe I am."
Written by: Jane McFarland
© The Times of London