I grew up in a small city outside Milan in Italy called Piacenza, where the outside world arrived courtesy of the cinema. So in my youth, my idea of the Middle East was forged entirely by films, and the odd book. It was a romantic view of desert wanderings and spectacular landscapes. It spoke to me of adventure. I dreamt of seeing it for myself.
Years later, when that dream came true, what I found was very different to my boyhood imaginings. My introduction to the region was Dubai, and I discovered a vibrant, modern, energetic city, stimulating dreams, for sure, but ones of the future, of progress and opportunity. The recent Expo there, as with the one that was hosted in my hometown of Milan in 2015, seemed like a very appropriate statement – a declaration of the region’s status as a global centre, and an expression of just how far Dubai and its surroundings have come in so very short a time.
I was reminded of this rapid transformation when I recently curated a photographic exhibition. Called Magnum Photos – Colors, Places, Faces, it opened last month to coincide with Milan men’s fashion week, at the Armani/Silos, my permanent exhibition and educational space in the city. The show is in partnership with Magnum, the world-famous photo agency that has been nurturing photographic talent since its foundation by a group of photographers in Paris in 1947, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. My aim was to seek out great colour photography by 10 practitioners of the art, both established names and new voices, and in the process of looking through Magnum’s huge archive, I came upon a curious set of recent images of Dubai by a young British photographer, Olivia Arthur. Olivia’s portfolio was called “Stranger” and the idea was to imagine how a fictional survivor of a shipwreck in the 1950s would view Dubai on returning today. The photos are observational and slightly surreal, and capture perfectly the sense of how strange it would indeed be for this stranger to find a global metropolis where once there was only desert.
When I first visited the Middle East, as is often the case when I travel to different parts of the world, I was pleased and fascinated to find that my aesthetic really resonates with people there. It has had me thinking about the relationship between a part of the world’s sense of style and its broader identity.
One of the other photographers in my exhibition, who travelled to Milan for the opening, is another young woman, Newsha Tvakolian, from Iran. She explained that people in the region really care about their appearance, and there is certainly an elegance to the way people dress in the Emirates that chimes with my understated approach to design.
But I believe there is another reason why the kind of fashion I promote speaks to so many there, and that is that I have always been passionate about the idea of comfort. In the ‘80s I pioneered the idea of deconstructing tailoring so that jackets for both men and women would feel almost like wearing a cardigan. I felt profoundly that it should be possible to look chic but also feel relaxed at the same time. This approach was in part made possible by the new lightweight fabrics that were available, and I’ve continued to champion soft construction and lightweight materials ever since. Naturally, because of the climate in the Middle East, this is hugely important.
And so when I think about the style of the Middle East, I think of elegance, but also comfort, and how to meld those two ideas together. Last Monday I showed my spring/summer 2023 Giorgio Armani collection for men in Milan. It is in many ways the perfect wardrobe for the Emirates: fluid trousers, slim-lapelled, soft-shouldered double-breasted jackets, collarless jackets, lightweight shirts, summer knits and slip-on shoes, all in the subtle, neutral and natural colour palette that I have become famous for. Some subtle prints add pattern, and iridescent fabrics like silk bring a touch of night-time glamour, too.
I started this article by talking about adventure, and it seems only right to return to this theme at its conclusion. Because adventure is another important element of what defines the Middle East. And I understand that, because my own life has been one big adventure, taking me to parts of the world I never imagined I would see. Of course, adventures take many forms, and the Middle East has indeed been the setting for one of the greatest adventures of my life – the creation of my first ever hotel and residences at the majestic, towering Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Last year I was lucky enough to celebrate a decade of the Armani Hotel Dubai with a fashion show at the foot of this great structure. It was a wonderful and memorable evening, and reminded me of what a leap of faith the entire project had really been. Not because I was in any doubt of the engineering prowess of the developer and my partner in this project, Emaar Properties, but because I had never before created a place for people to stay where they would effectively be entering an entire Armani world – from interiors to food and drink, and, of course, the all-important aspect of service. This was the fulfilment of another long-held dream – that of creating a total Armani environment. And in the event I decided that Dubai would be the perfect setting for this, as it really is a city that knows no bounds and fully embraces new ideas, set in a region that similarly looks always to the future.