Giorgio's hotel a fashion statement

Giorgio Armani, the fashion designer, talks about the opening of his Dubai-owned hotel in Milan and the personal emotions behind its creation.
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National

On a bright autumn day in Milan last month, Giorgio Armani spent hours walking around a hotel, meticulously inspecting every last detail.

Having designed the property himself, just as he would normally ensure that the stitching, the cut, and the quality of one of the suits he had created met his exacting standards, it was crucial that this hotel, set to open the next day, was perfect.

"I feel very involved because Milan is my city," Mr Armani explained.

Dressed in a fitted black suit, the 77-year-old, who sports a glowing tan accentuated by his white hair and blue eyes, remained intensely focused, but calm and unfazed throughout the day, even as an array of celebrities, including Jessica Alba, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the footballer Alexandre Pato, and other socialites, arrived at the hotel for the opening bash.

A very private person, the designer seems unaffected and even puzzled by his fame, although for years now he has been one of the most popular names in fashion and the designer of choice for many of the biggest Hollywood actors, music starsand models.

In Milan, "people actually stop me in the street just to say 'hello'," he says humbly. "I'm very much loved here and well-known."

The hotel, located in Milan's fashion district and housed in a building dating back to the 1930s, was the second property to launch under the Armani brand, as part of a joint venture with Dubai's Emaar Properties. The first Armani hotel opened last year in the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, in Dubai. But Mr Armani says he feels much more of an "emotional" connection with the Milan property.

"In Dubai, it was a more international experience," he reflects. The Armani Hotel Milano is a smaller property and the tones are lighter than those found in the Burj Khalifa hotel, but otherwise the styles are similar, with clean lines and a minimalist feel.

Nothing in the hotel seems to have escaped Mr Armani's influence, even the bathroom accessories. From the rich, wood-scented soap down to the long, sleek, black cotton buds, all were designed by Mr Armani.

"I always take care of all details," he says. "It's a spontaneous thing and I can't delegate because when you start creating, of course you can change your mind in one second. You can't delegate because you can't tell other people to change things if you are thinking of new changes constantly."

Mr Armani, one of three children, grew up in the northern Italian town of Piacenza. He actually set out to be a doctor. But after two years of studying medicine at the University of Piacenza, he decided to quit his courses to pursue his burning interest in fashion. He accepted a job as a merchandiser at a well-known department store in Milan, La Rinascente. After that, he worked as a fashion designer for Nino Cerruti, and then as a freelance designer for various companies. In 1975, Mr Armani set up the company that bears his name with his friend Sergio Galeotti.

From there the company grew into a multibillion-dollar empire.

He explains that he eventually decided to move into hotels because he was looking for a new outlet for his creativity.

"It's always a challenge for a creative person - and supposedly I am a creative person - to try new things. There are different sectors that I had been working in - apparel, shoes, sportswear - so I therefore wanted to try something new and this is how it all started. I tried to do something for the home furnishings and decoration and from there I then moved to the hotels and the Emaar group was very willing to work with us. And they were also a very brave group in deciding to work with us."

The launch of the Milan hotel came at a time of great turmoil in Italian politics. As deepening economic concerns spread across Europe, rattling financial markets, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, pledged to step down the same week the hotel was scheduled to open.

Mr Armani expressed his approval of the changes that were taking place. "It's a very positive aspect of the issue," he said. "[The government] didn't work." But he is less opinionated when speaking of other designers and he's reluctant to say that any of them are really his competitors.

"We are lucky enough to have different fashion styles. If designers decide to do something different, then they're different, so there's no real competition."

One gets the impression that the hotel in Milan really is very much a reflection of Mr Armani's own personality. It quickly becomes apparent that he is someone who loves his privacy and, perhaps somewhat ironically, does not particularly enjoy the superficiality of the celebrity world. The rooms are sound-proofed and as you enter through the main door to your room, there is a circular vestibule, which you can then close off behind you, screening off the door and meaning that staff don't have to necessarily enter the room.

"The starting idea was to build a hotel which doesn't look like a hotel, but rather apartments or a group of residences," says Mr Armani. "This idea was developed through the choice of specific materials, specific furniture styles and use of light in the rooms. The idea was to make sure our guests here do not feel like they're in a hotel, but rather as if they were at home."

Then, he realises that this concept of wanting to create the anti-hotel could be misconstrued, given the fact that six years ago his company tied up with Emaar to establish Armani Hotels and Resorts.

"Of course I've got nothing against hotels," he quickly adds, and laughs. "I'm not criticising hotels. It would be a great sin on my part to say something like that. The main concept in developing this hotel was to avoid developing large halls, large stairways. Just think of the pleasure of silence you can enjoy."

Still, there are fundamental differences between designing hotels and creating clothes, he concedes.

"The main challenge is to create something [timeless]. A hotel is of course very different from fashion, where you can have a new collection every six months. With hotels you have to create something long-lasting. Even the ideas you start with in your work should last for four years. You think of something four years in advance and you have to keep to those ideas."

But he seems glad that he now has a hotel in his home city, a place that seems to have been designed to suit his character and his brand.

"Milan's a city you have to live in or you have to experience day by day - this is what makes Milan a really great city, the daily experience you can have walking in the street," he explains. "Milan has lots to offer, but it's different from other wonderful towns in Italy, like Rome for instance. In Rome you have the Tiber River, Castel Sant'Angelo, San Pedro Square, wonderful masterpieces. But in Milan, you have a different experience and it's the daily life. The inner courtyards are really wonderful and you shouldn't miss them - they convey to you a sense of intimacy. They remain private."

Published: December 16, 2011 04:00 AM


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