Giorgio Armani won't let the pandemic slow him down: 'I feel I have so much still to do'

In an exclusive interview with 'The National', the Italian designer talks couture, colour and custom after his Armani Prive show in Milan

Armani Prive designer Giorgio Armani. Courtesy Armani
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Italian designer Giorgio Armani delivered his summer 2021 Armani Prive haute couture collection on Tuesday, his first in a year. Yet, with the pandemic still raging across Europe and the world, the designer took the difficult decision to show it behind closed doors.

In another break from tradition, the show was held not in haute couture's philosophical heartland of Paris, but in Armani's home city of Milan, a move the designer describes as one of support and gratitude.

An original sketch by Giorgio Armani for the summer 2021 haute couture Armani Prive collection. Courtesy Armani Prive

Armani at Palazzo Orsini

In choosing to show at a 17th-century palace once owned by the Orsini family in central Milan, Armani, 86, is proudly showing off his home city. Speaking exclusively to The National, he says: "I wanted to show my support and make a statement about my love of my home town, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. That's the reason I decided to present Armani Prive in Milan at Palazzo Orsini.

“My couture ateliers have been working hard for many months on a new collection, and I believe it was right and proper to show this to the world, even if that is via a screen rather than in person. The collection is a very special tribute to my city, telling the story of my journey, my sense of freedom and my independence from fleeting trends.”

Embroidered washed silk for the summer 2021 haute couture Armani Prive collection. Courtesy Armani Prive

Now owned by the designer, Palazzo Orsini is home to the atelier, where ideas are hatched and where hours of intricate haute couture handwork are carried out. Armani has also leaned on the neoclassical palace's historical charms. "In my new Armani Prive collection, the clothes have the typical Armani palette with colours such as navy and grey, alternated with softer tones inspired by the colours of Palazzo Orsini's interiors," he says.

Moving spirit

Having had to cancel the winter 2020 haute couture show (originally scheduled for June last year) owing to the pandemic, there were hopes that this latest collection might be shown to an audience. However, the designer is in the high-risk category because of his age, so he took the decision to make it entirely virtual to protect himself and, by extension, his teams and customers. Instead, the show was streamed live on the company's website and across social media platforms.

Over the years, I have discovered that people – regardless of age, geography or culture – can relate to and desire sophistication, elegance and comfort

While this may feel unorthodox, for Armani, it is simply a case of life imitating art. He was the first haute couture designer to broadcast his show online in January 2007. It was simultaneously seen by a live audience and telecast from Paris, via MSN and a mobile phone network. Fast-forward to this month, and while the audience was absent and the city different, the spirit remains resolutely the same.

Effectively a year in the making, the show delivered something extraordinary, even by Armani's own high standards. Taking inspiration from his refusal to follow trends, he is at once celebrating the incredible know-how of his atelier while also reaching out to a new generation of rule breakers who appreciate exceptional quality.

No substitute for sophistication

“The clothes are full of light and colour,” he says, “with a balanced use of fluidity and proportions, where opposites alternate and merge, and always with an eye to craftsmanship and careful execution.”

Despite decades separating them, Armani is adamant his buoyant thinking and attitude will speak to even his newest customers. "I am constantly responding to reality, which is my primary source of inspiration, and evolving my viewpoint on the world. Life is constant change, an endless flux," he says. "I have to create beauty that resonates with my customers, in a way that is relevant to their lives.

Although there is nothing left to prove, I feel that I have so much still to do

“I have a very particular personal aesthetic, which is based on sophistication, elegance and comfort. And over the years, I have discovered that this is something that people – regardless of age, geography or culture – can relate to and desire. With this collection, my intention was to convey the profound aesthetics of haute couture to the younger generation, playing with volumes and proportions, and using unexpected shades of colour.

The Armani colour wheel

A split-fronted midnight blue velvet dress from the summer 2021 haute couture Armani Prive collection. Courtesy Armani Prive

The designer is famous for his muted palette that pivots around variations of grey and beige (even sparking a new colour, greige), and those unexpected shades come as dazzling pops that are brimming with energy. With a firm grasp of the power and mood that colour conveys, the sudden arrival of a shocking pink, say, or intense red amid Armani's subdued tones is no accident.

I love my work, and I am passionate about it, as I know that the lives of others are profoundly impacted by clothes and furnishings 

"I instinctively favour neutral colours that have a natural feel. People associate Armani with greys and beiges, and I love navy blue, too, for its subtlety and depth. Over time, these colours have taken hold, and now when I use them, I often alternate them or mix them with other shades, sometimes with brighter, more dramatic hues, which can be a highlight.

"For instance in my autumn / winter 2014 Armani Prive couture collection, whose theme was 'Red, White and Black from a Lacquer Box', there were outfits entirely in bold red, including a coat made from red vinyl strips with rhinestone studs, though there were also black outfits with red heels and gloves and bags. Or in the Homage to Japan autumn / winter 2011 couture collection, orange was the predominant shade, and bright green in the spring / summer 2012 one."

Tailored to perfection

A close-up showing the level of handwork in the summer 2021 Armani Prive haute couture collection. Courtesy Armani Prive

Known for a lightness of touch that has made many, including actress Cate Blanchett, devoted followers, Armani's clothes are created to flatter, skim and elongate the body, without ever feeling heavy or overwhelming, regardless of fabric. Leaning on the expert cutting skills of his atelier, one dress in the new collection is sculpted from midnight blue velvet so that it floats rather than covers, and flows like water around the model. Split-fronted, it sits over a translucent layer and is finished with a ruffle of organza around the neck.

Another dress arrives as a gossamer sheath of punch-pink organza, embroidered with delicate clusters of abstract spring flowers, now reduced to pixels of Egyptian blue and white. Light and sophisticated, it also feels fresh and audacious.

Elsewhere, slimline jackets and light-yet-embroidered slip dresses are all pitched at the summer days to come. Despite the real risk this season could well be spent cooped up at home, the show offers tantalising glimpses of escape, in dress if not in person, via flowing silk tunics and voluminous dresses scattered with crystals.

In a deliberate mixing of codes, the halcyon lightness of washed silk, tulle and organza nestles alongside the masculine formality of pinstripes, offering a new perspective.

Fashion forward

This seemingly endless ability to adapt, shift and refocus is entirely routine for Armani. He was, after all, the first designer to comprehend the seriousness of Covid-19 last February, when he pushed his autumn / winter ready-to-wear collection behind closed doors. The fashion world accused him of overreacting, yet within weeks, millions were under lockdown.

Going further back, he invented the concept of red-­carpet dressing in 1978, when he dressed Diane Keaton for her Oscar acceptance at that year's Academy Awards.

And he forged the link between film and fashion by creating the wardrobe for actor Richard Gere in the 1980 film American Gigolo.

In 2010, he opened his first luxury hotel in the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, and has even launched a music label.

Despite all his achievements, Armani has no intention of stopping, or even slowing down. “Although there is nothing left to prove, I feel that I have so much still to do. I love my work, and I am passionate about it, as I know that the lives of others are profoundly impacted by clothes and furnishings.

“Being able to do this job is a unique, fulfilling privilege that always pushes me to give my best. And I genuinely enjoy getting to my studio every day, just as I did when I first started out all those years ago.”