Friday, September 07, 2007

Giorgio Armani: the emperor of Italian fashion arrives in Dallas

The emperor of Italian fashion arrives in Dallas this month to celebrate three decades with Neiman Marcus
It's a little after 5 o'clock in the afternoon inside Palais de Chaillot, the grand art deco building opposite the Eiffel Tower where Giorgio Armani is prepping his sixth Privé couture collection.

In less than an hour, models will walk the runway in the Italian designer's bold, David Bowie-inspired costumes while editors sketch and scribble into their black Moleskin notebooks. The pressure is on for the 73-year-old fashion icon.

Backstage the air is abuzz with a muddy mixture of Italian, French, Russian and English. Clear garment bags reveal punky asymmetrical gowns, skinny tuxedo suits and colorful feather capes that will soon illuminate the glass catwalk. Down a set of marble stairs, models with twisted updos and heavy eyeliner sip doppio espressos and suck sugary candies. The rest of the show's svelte beauties are below another pack of marble steps, where dozens of hair and makeup artists glob on mascara and twirl hair around jewel-encrusted headpieces.

In the wings, 60 sketches of the night's ensembles decorate a slate suede wall. Suddenly, a hidden door cut from the cloth swings open and the black-clad magician behind this spectacle struts out. The cellphone clutched in his hand is ringing a house tune you might hear at Hotel Costes K, the hip hangout where the designer's staff and socialite fans are staying.

"Si, pronto," Armani answers. The tension in his tone requires no translator. The rock symphony is about to hit the stage.
He needn't worry. Tomorrow, WWD will declare the glam colors, buoyant skirts and feather-spangled siren gowns "the designer's best Privé collection yet."

It doesn't take long observing Giorgio Armani to know you're in the presence of a powerhouse. Although soft-spoken and unassuming at 5-foot-7, he radiates charisma befitting a fashion legend.

Dallasites will have the chance to feel that charm firsthand this month, when Neiman Marcus downtown hosts the style icon at the annual Crystal Charity Ball luncheon and fashion show Sept. 7. The day before, he'll appear at NM NorthPark to sign copies of the 2002 photo book Armani: Backstage.

The partnership between designer and store stretches to the earliest years of his career, and includes a previous Dallas appearance in the late 1980s.

"I'm excited to visit Dallas again," says Armani, taking a rare break from model fittings before the Privé show. "When I was there last, things were so exaggerated. I'm curious to see the new Dallas. I'm going to pay homage to Neiman Marcus and its shoppers."

The Crystal Charity show, being held for the first time in a tented space adjacent to the 100-year-old store, will showcase the fall Giorgio Armani ready-to-wear line. The predominantly gray-and-black collection includes at least one piece made especially for the event: a voluminous cocktail dress with an extravagant shoulder bow.

"Texas shoppers are very important to me," says Armani. "I was concerned about the collection I'm showing in Dallas, that it wasn't right for Texans. But a lot has changed since I was there last.

"Fashion has arrived in Dallas; I think the city is ready for it."

It isn't only Dallas that has changed. What started in 1975 as a small women's and men's ready-to-wear line has exploded into a design empire with annual retail sales reported by WWD at more than $6.8 billion worldwide. Giorgio Armani S.p.A., owned wholly by the designer, encompasses men's and women's apparel, cosmetics, fragrance, jewelry, eyewear, home furnishings, luxury hotels, even eateries.

The seven primary fashion labels – Giorgio Armani, Armani Collezioni, Emporio Armani, Armani Jeans, Armani Exchange, Armani Junior and Giorgio Armani Privé – cover all the clothing bases, from trendy tees and jeans to boardroom suits and Oscar-entrance eveningwear.

"The cool thing about Armani is that we can go super chic in Paris with couture, but get down and dirty with a DJ and the kids at Armani Exchange," says one of Armani's Milan-based PR directors over champagne at Castel, the Saint Germain lounge where the company held its couture show after-party in early July.

Armani's empire also includes a global retail component, his name emblazoned above the doors of grand flagships on via Manzoni, Madison Avenue and Avenue Montaigne; freestanding stores; and boutiques in specialty stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. This month, he'll add a 5,300-square-foot NorthPark Center location offering the Georgio Armani ready-to-wear apparel and accessory collections for men and women.

Although the company is continually expanding and evolving, Armani's signature style has never strayed far from its roots. The self-taught designer is known for delivering clean lines, neutral colors and superb but soft tailoring year after year. His jackets are legendary – in both looks and comfort.

"I've seen it all," says Armani. "Some people have said my fashion has evolved, yet always kept a consistent feel. For me, a collection is just about falling in love with what I'm doing in the moment. But I always look back and see the defects. You need the past to keep you going forward. You live and learn."

Armani is known to be a harsh self-critic. (He reportedly stopped dancing at age 25 to avoid looking ridiculous.) While sunbathing in the Mediterranean on his 163-foot yacht, he had plenty of time to dissect July's well-received couture collection, which he says "broke the waves" of his usual style rhythm.

"My inspiration always comes from an idea that transforms into a collection; this season it was the world of rock. I wanted the collection to be a little aggressive and to use stronger colors. But at the end of the day, I want my shoppers to wear what's on the runway."
That has seldom been a problem, especially among celebrities. Armani was one of the first designers to dress Hollywood, starting in the early '80s when he outfitted Richard Gere in American Gigolo and virtually rewrote men's style history for the balance of the 20th century. His film cred continues today with stylish hits such as Ocean's Thirteen, starring Armani friend and front-row staple George Clooney.

Other runway and red-carpet fans include Clive Owen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes (who could forget that wedding dress?) and one of Armani's favorites, Cate Blanchett, who sat front-row-center at summer's Privé show. Rumor has it she picked a show-stopping black-and-chartreuse gown for an upcoming appearance.

Odds are good that more of the show's edgy styles will pop up at this month's MTV Video Music Awards and at the Grammys in February. Particularly on longtime fan Beyoncé Knowles, the face and voice of the new Emporio Armani Diamonds fragrance, which starts sparkling in stores this month.

Other recent projects include Armani's first foray into skin care, the luxurious Crema Nera, with an obsidian mineral complex inspired by Pantelleria, the Italian island where he has a home, and the August launch of, which joins existing and e-commerce sites.

Technology has always been important to Armani. Last January, he became the first designer to offer everyone a front row seat at an haute-couture show via live streaming on and Cingular cellphones.

Personal appearances, fragrance and Web launches, award shows. A hotel, his first, scheduled to open in Dubai next year. The demands for the designer's time and attention would seem overwhelming. Does Armani feel the pinch?

"September is one of the most beautiful months in Italy. During this time of year I prefer to be there on my boat or in my house than anywhere where else in the world," he admits.

"This year, I'm making an exception. But I'm not going to miss another one."

Is that a hint at retirement, which many have speculated is on the horizon? Armani quickly brushes off the rumor.

"I'm always thinking about work. It's difficult to see myself not being part of this world. They'd have to tie me up at home to keep me from doing what I love and do best."

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