To mark 40 years in fashion, Giorgio Armani has written his autobiography. Part coffee-table book, part memoir, the lavish, 576-page tome titled "Giorgio Armani" (Rizzoli), chronicles his career in his own words. It uses personal photos and those from runways, red carpets and ad campaigns, along with candid shots with celebrities and a handful of wonderful drawings, to explore his rise from childhood to global fashion power, a man whose empire includes clothing, cosmetics, home furnishings, hotels and even his own museum, Armani/Silos, now open in Milan, Italy.
"I chose to subtract instead of add, to react against style that served as an end in itself," he writes of his vision.
Throughout his career arc, the influence of film is a through line. It started when he was growing up in post-World War II Italy, where movies were an escape. The actors and their costumes (he name checks Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Lauren Bacall) informed his aesthetic, and eventually the development of his signature soft, sensual suiting for men and women in muted "greige" hues.
When he started his brand in 1975, he looked to the past to create a new future. "In the 1980s, when color was the rage everywhere, I explored myriad shades of gray, casting yearning looks at 1940s movies, which have always struck me for their elegance and refinement," he writes. "How was a woman rising up the ranks of power going to be credible, in an environment that was still all-male, if she was dressed like a doll or restrained by excessively formal feminine clothing? How was a young, dynamic and uninhibited man going to contrast with the old modes of thinking if he was constrained inside a suit that denied his individuality and oppressed his energy and physique? The discrepancy was what I decided to resolve."
The movies were also the designer's way into the pop-culture consciousness, starting in 1980 when he designed Richard Gere's slouchy menswear in "American Gigolo." Since then, he's provided costumes for several other films ("The Untouchables" and "The Dark Knight" among them) and, as the original go-to designer for the red carpet, he's dressed pretty much everyone in Hollywood, including George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cate Blanchett and most recently, Jaimie Alexander at last month's Emmys.
To mark the release of the new book, whose sales will benefit UNICEF, I caught up with the designer via email to chat about his favorite '40s flicks, his ambitions for directing and who he would like to play him in an Armani biopic.
What is the first American movie you remember watching as a child and what impact did it have on you?
I remember "Gone With the Wind." The epic of war and the twisted events that happened kept us glued to our seats. Even now, looking back, I can still feel that sense of total involvement. Going to the movies was always a surprise for us as children. Italy was much poorer in those years. The magic of projection charmed us and dragged us into a new dimension.
Who were your movie idols? Did you ever try to emulate their style?
I remember looking for a checked shirt which I saw in a movie, and slicking back my hair with pomade. The cinema was our aesthetics training academy.
What are your favorite movies of the 1940s?
Aside from the whole strand of "white telephone" genre movies, sophisticated comedies in which women were always elegant, and men were in their double-breasted suits. As an Italian, I have to mention "Obsession" by Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini's "Rome, Open City," a movie full of nuances and dramatic aesthetics, always pervaded by a sense of rigor and dignity that for me expresses the true spirit of those tough and intense years.
I was fascinated to read about your visit as a young man with your sister to the Rome film studio Cinecitta, where you found yourself wandering in the middle of a movie set. How old were you then, and have you ever considered the idea of becoming an actor or a director in the past?
I must have been slightly over 20, or maybe even less, and I remember the sense of awe, but also the adrenaline of being in the "dream factory." Of course, at the time I would have liked to be an actor as well as a director. But they were only fantasies, far from my innate pragmatism.
Do you remember your first trip to Hollywood?
It was the early '80s and the old star system had fallen under the arrival of a new generation of actors and directors — the same ones that gave me success in this area. Hollywood was different from that of the golden age that I had dreamed of as a child, but the encounter with the reality gave me a magical feeling. Suddenly, I found myself immersed in the fantasy world that always seemed so far away from Italy! The surprise was to see that the dream factory was much more pragmatic than I could imagine, and the stars much more human.
Do you take a cinematic approach to your fashion shows and advertising campaigns?
With regards to advertising campaigns I would say so. Both in the photographs and in the commercials, I like to use a visual language, often in black in white, which goes back to the movies. The catwalk is more technical; the models have to interpret the clothes, but without exaggeration.
Many fashion designers have become moviemakers, including Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld. Is there anything you'd like to do in this area?
It would be nice. I would think a sophisticated noir and I would like to interpret my actor friends so it would be an incredible cast, with clothes designed specifically to emphasize the personality of each character.
What is the movie that you have watched more times than any other?
There is not one in particular. I watched "American Gigolo" several times, which marked a milestone in my work. "Blade Runner" is also one of my favorite movies.
What was the last movie you watched and when?
"Youth" by my friend Paolo Sorrentino. A sardonic and sharp movie about aging.
Who would you choose to play the role of Giorgio Armani in a movie about you?
It's hard to say that. But I'd like an actor who has the same determination in his eyes that I do.