There are few designers working today who have had as big an influence on fashion as Giorgio Armani.
Founding his company in Milan in 1975, he modernized the suit, giving it a relaxed, soft silhouette, and created a daytime uniform of power and success that defined men's and women's style for two decades. He banished the ugly red-carpet excesses of the 1980s and introduced a modern way of dressing beginning in 1990, when his sleek Oscar-night designs for Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster transformed Hollywood from tacky to tasteful overnight.
Since then, he's dressed seemingly every star in the universe and parlayed his minimalist cool into a global empire encompassing 650 stores worldwide, Armani hotels and eight brands selling such disparate items as Armani sofas and Armani chocolates, plus eyewear in collaboration with Luxottica and fragrance and cosmetics with L'Oreal.
But increasingly, it's not the 78-year-old taut and tanned Giorgio who is the public face of his multibillion-dollar brand but his 43-year-old niece, Roberta Armani. Like most of the big fashion houses in Italy, Giorgio has always kept his family members close, and several of them hold or have held top positions in the company. But Roberta is the most visible, perhaps even the heir apparent, who during two weeks in April traveled to Madrid for the opening of an Emporio Armani boutique, back home to Milan for the Armani Casa presentation at the Salone del Mobile design week and then to Los Angeles to host the Armani-sponsored opening party for the Paris Photo fair.
As brand ambassador, her role is to be a model of effortless Armani elegance on the red carpet and to encourage celebrities to do the same. Being a friend to Hollywood can mean holding Anne Hathaway's hand during an Oscar gown fitting in London or hosting a dinner in Beverly Hills for Sean Penn and his Haitian relief organization and handing over a $500,000 donation "on behalf of Mr. Armani."
It's easy to see why Giorgio has chosen her. Roberta is a bubbly brunet who gives a hug by way of introduction instead of a handshake. In contrast to her uncle, there is nothing intimidating about her. She has polished good looks and a camera-ready smile. On this particular day, in the sunny offices above the Rodeo Drive Armani boutique, she's not dressed in a suit but in a pleated print skirt and matching sandals from the spring Armani collection.
"Roberta brings the aesthetic Giorgio created into the 21st century in a very feminine way," says activist, attorney and former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver, who has known Roberta for more than 20 years and counts the Armani brand as a donor to his Product Red and Special Olympics charities. "[Armani] didn't have a person within the company who spoke as a woman to women. She's become a lot more than Giorgio's niece. She's become a force in her own right."
"She's a supernatural when it comes to public relations and celebrity dealings," says J.J. Martin, a Milan-based journalist who has covered fashion and design for more than a decade. "She's also young and attractive and makes good Armani-clad arm candy for her uncle or for any one of the million celebrities that he dresses. She's a fundamental link to him, both internally and externally."
But more than just looking great in the clothes, Roberta Armani has "a tough mindedness," Shriver says, that's similar to her uncle's. To that end, she is never afraid to voice her opinion, especially if she thinks the button-down shirt-and-T-shirt combo you're wearing makes "you look like a dope," he says.
Roberta was born in 1970 and raised in Milan by her father, Sergio Armani (Giorgio's brother), who launched the lower-priced Emporio Armani line in 1981. At age 16, she moved to New York City for a summer to work as a saleswoman at the Emporio Armani boutique on Madison Avenue and to study English, which she now speaks almost flawlessly. She was surprised to see how devoted people were to the Armani brand. "I was so honored," she says. But before she went to work in the family business, she tried acting, landing a few minor parts. In 2000, she stepped into an official role at the company, taking charge of the global brand and entertainment relations when her uncle saw her talent for communicating with people. "My work could not reflect better my personality," says Roberta, whose sister Silvana Armani and cousin Andrea Camerana work on the design and commercial sides of the business, respectively.
When she's not traveling, she is at home in Milan, where she lives next to the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, home of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper."
When asked about the speculation that she will be the one to take over if and when her uncle retires, she demurs. "He's got a great network of managers, and he's a man of incredible energy," she says. "He's going to live forever."
Giorgio, who has no children, has always been a guiding presence in Roberta's life, especially after her father died in 1993.
Over the years, he's taught her a lot about style. "For one, when you enter room, it's important to be noticed," she says. "Another, before you leave the house, always look in the mirror and take a few things off, because there's always too much."
When Roberta was 20, they attended a film premiere together in Berlin and Giorgio didn't like the dress she was wearing. So he took off his tuxedo vest and pants, pulled out a needle and thread, and altered them to fit his niece. "His motto and the motto he raised me on, is 'Make the world more beautiful,'" she says.
Over the years, they've bonded over their love of movies. (His favorite is Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" from 1946; hers is Martin Scorsese's "Kundun" from 1997.) "Hollywood has been his whole influence," she says. (Armani has provided costumes for nearly 200 films, including "American Gigolo" and "The Untouchables.") "And I'm proud that he was one of the first to understand the importance of the entertainment industry and how celebrities influence the market and sales."
Armani opened his sprawling flagship in Beverly Hills 25 years ago, when it was the first luxury temple of its kind on Rodeo Drive, and hired Wanda McDaniel, a former journalist who is married to "Godfather" and "Million Dollar Baby" producer Al Ruddy, to dress the Hollywood elite. McDaniel works closely with Roberta, trading emails 24/7 to coordinate VIP needs around the globe.
Roberta travels to L.A. several times a year and moves easily in the Hollywood community. Because celebrity guests have always been invited to Armani runway shows in Milan, Roberta was drawn into her uncle's starry world at a young age. When a 17-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio was visiting Milan, Roberta, who was not much older, was asked to take him out for a night on the town. ("I always loved Leo because he's a very curious person. He asks a million questions," she says. "I love people who are curious, it's a symptom of intelligence.") The relationship with DiCaprio is still going strong; Armani is providing vintage 1990s suits for his upcoming film "Wolf of Wall Street," directed by Scorsese.
She first met Tom Cruise back when he was with Mimi Rogers. "We took this picture where my hair was out to here and I was wearing a jacket that looked like a sofa," Roberta remembers. "I was not ready for a picture with Tom Cruise." Roberta became such a close friend to Cruise that she helped organize his 2006 wedding to Katie Holmes in Odescalchi Castle outside Rome.)
Although many fashion houses pay celebrities to wear their clothes, Roberta says that's not how it works at Armani. "It's more about relationships," she says, explaining that Cate Blanchett has been loyal to Armani for years and that in turn, her uncle has been a patron of the Sydney Theatre Company, where Blanchett was co-artistic director. All that loyalty has apparently paid off in other ways too. It was recently reported that Blanchett has signed a $10-million Armani fragrance deal, although the brand will not confirm it.
At the Milan Armani headquarters, there's an atelier devoted to red carpet dressing, with designers who can cater to a celebrity's every whim, whether it's putting orbital rings on an Armani Prive gown to create Lady Gaga's unforgettable look for the 2010 Grammys or drawing up sketches of age-appropriate dresses for 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis to wear to the 2013 Oscars. Who's left for Armani to dress? "Michelle Obama," Roberta says. "She embodies grace and class."
Jessica Chastain was seated between Roberta and Cameron Diaz at the Armani Prive runway show in Paris in January 2012 when she got the call about her Oscar nomination for "The Help." There wasn't time to create a dress for the 2012 Oscars, but she did wear Armani at the 2013 Oscars. The gown, a coppery-nude sequin mesh, was four months in the making. "I met with my uncle, who had ideas about how he saw her, then had his team design sketches and send them to her stylist. It's a collaboration," Roberta says.
That may be why Armani clothes usually look so right on the red carpet, because he lets stars be who they want to be. "Sometimes you see celebrities get carried away by their gowns on the red carpet," Roberta says. "But not with Armani."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times