Giorgio Armani, a former window dresser with no formal training in fashion, founded a company in the 1970s that is today worth over 3 billion dollars. He dressed countless celebrities and made fashion history with the creation of what we now call the “power suit”.
Giorgio Armani was born July 11, 1934 in Piacenza Italy to parents Ugo and Maria Armani. His father was a shipping manager, and his mother was a homemaker. He had an older brother Sergio and a younger sister Rosanna. His family experienced many hardships of World War II, with some friends being killed during Allied bombings. Worst of all was his experience at the age of nine, when he and some friends discovered an unexploded shell. The gunpowder caught fire and suddenly Giorgio was covered in flames. His burns were serious and he spent a month in the hospital where at one point he was placed in a vat of pure alcohol to remove the dead skin. His vision was damaged and doctors weren’t sure if he would ever be able to see again, but thankfully he recovered. Also by some miracle, he was barely scarred.
Despite his family’s struggles with poverty and hard times they encountered in the 1930s, Armani says his parents had a certain “inner elegance”. His mother sewed all the family’s clothes and he was the envy of his classmates at school. He says that although they were poor, they managed to look rich. In those years, young Giorgio spent a lot of time at the cinema. In his words it was “a palace of dreams” and he fell in love with the beauty of Hollywood’s actors. Cary Grant was his favourite star and Hitchcock’s ‘Notorious’ was his favourite film.
Perhaps due to his childhood accident, one of Giorgio’s early ambitions was to become a doctor. He studied anatomy and spent two years in medical school at the University of Piacenza. As was tradition at the time, he took a break from school to complete his mandatory military service and worked in the army as a medical assistant. But after experiencing the reality of working in hospitals, and discovering that he hated the sight of blood, Armani realized that a medical career was not for him.
He returned home from the war and through a good friend, managed to get a job at the department store ‘La Rinascenta” (sometimes described as the Sears of Italy) where he worked as a window dresser. He also assisted the store’s photographer and did other odd jobs around the store. In the early years of his employment, he admits he didn’t have to work too hard just due to the female store managers favouring him because he was good looking. But he realized that he didn’t want to spend his life relying solely on his looks. He craved a real career in fashion — a profession he loved. Consequently after much hard work, he became a manager on the sales floor and later a buyer.
His years at the department store paid off and he learned a great deal about fashion, including how to sketch and design clothing. After leaving La Rinascenta he went to work for Italian fashion brand Nino Cerruti, where despite having had no formal training, he was able to design a complete men’s wear line for the prestigious label.
During the late 1960’s he met Sergio Galeotti, an architectural draftsman, with whom he established a long-term personal and professional relationship. Sergio encouraged him to leave Cerruti and go out on his own as a freelance fashion designer and consultant.
In 1973, at the Sala Bianca fashion show in Florence, he presented bomber jackets that treated leather as an everyday fabric. His talent for using unique materials in unexpected combinations came to be known as one of his defining styles.
“I’ve often wondered what my life would have been without the silver screen.” –Giorgio Armani
Armani’s first iconic blazer appeared under his own label between 1974 and 1975. The style featured a relaxed and almost rumpled look. He softened his jackets by pulling out the interfacings, shoulder pads, and linings. “Armani’s unstructured look makes even his English wool suits feel as comfortable as silk pajamas,” said a writer for People magazine.
In 1975, Armani and Galeotti started their own company, Giorgio Armani S.p.A., and founded the Armani label. They sold their Volkswagen to help finance the label, which has since grown into a billion dollar industry.
Armani’s initial designs were re-interpretations of the traditional business suit — unstructured, relaxed designs for men, and masculine styles for women.
His suits became hugely popular in 1980 after Richard Gere wore them in the movie ‘American Gigolo’. Ever since then, Armani’s “power suits” have been symbolic of monetary success for those who own them — and those who aspire to own them. His other claim to fame was the fashion he designed for 80s hit TV series ‘Miami Vice’.
Due to his long-standing love of cinema, he’s since collaborated on wardrobe for many popular movies including Goodfellas, The Untouchables, The Dark Knight and The Wolf of Wall Street. He’s said that he always had a fascination with dressing villains in refined menswear — giving evil characters a touch of polish and elegance.
As far as women’s wear is concerned, Armani dressed many Hollywood celebrities for the red carpet, including Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon, Beyoncé, Kate Hudson and Juliette Binoche. He says of his couture creations that it’s particularly liberating for a designer to make one dress, perfectly, to satisfy only one customer.
In 1979, the Armani empire grew with the formation of the Giorgio Armani Corporation. Giorgio Armani launched Armani Jeans in 1981 and and Emporio Armani, a line that consisted of stylish products at affordable prices. In 1989, Armani opened an Emporio on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, offering many more items than just clothing. He added a wide selection of accessories, underwear, products for the home, and leather goods.
His wildly popular Acqua di Gioia women’s perfume was launched in 1995 and the equally popular men’s version followed in 1996. More recently there was a Mercedes that carried the designer’s label, and luxury Armani hotels have opened in Dubai and Milan.
Giorgio Armani always had a fascination with sports. He designed uniforms for the English National Football team twice, uniforms for Italy’s Olympics and in the 80s, Armani made a point of seeking out Pat Riley, the stylish coach of the Los Angeles Lakers to wear his suits — a big success in terms of increasing brand awareness.
Most recently, he has designed uniforms for Italian and English soccer teams and Alitalia airline flight attendants.
“Perfectionism, and the need to always have new goals and achieve them, is a state of mind that brings profound meaning to life.”
Although he is 82 years old and well past the age when most people retire, he is still actively involved in the company he founded. He is unique, being the only one of the big designers still creating multiple collections under his own name. At present, his brand is believed to be worth $3.7 billion dollars and has more than 2,500 shops in 60 countries.
Today, he lives and works in a 400-year-old palazzo (or palace) in Milan. He’s a vegetarian who doesn’t smoke or drink and exercises faithfully every day. He’s involved in many worthy causes. For example, he was one of the first designers to ban models with a body mass index (BMI) under 18 (the minimum healthy BMI). In 2002, he was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And his Acqua for Life project is a humanitarian campaign launched in 2011 to help provide clean drinking water for people in third world countries.
Armani has no plans to retire, and has no succession plan. What is going to happen to his empire when he is no longer alive is a mystery. But he is content. In his words: “Perfectionism, and the need to always have new goals and achieve them, is a state of mind that brings profound meaning to life.”