YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Sultan of subtle

Giorgio Armani's contribution to Hollywood has its own reward.

September 09, 2003|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

Giorgio ARMANI stepped onto the balcony of his Beverly Hills boutique on Sunday to take a call. "Rickyyyyyyyy!" squealed the designer who -- more than any other -- is on a first-name basis with Hollywood. On the line was Ricky Martin, calling from his tour in Germany with regrets. He won't be able to attend tonight's ceremony at which Armani will be honored with the first Rodeo Drive Walk of Style award. Not to worry, though: Plenty of other high wattage stars are expected, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Diane Keaton, Sophia Loren, Debra Messing and Steve Martin.

For the bash, Armani is recreating his fall/winter runway show. So the designer, a consummate micromanager, spent the weekend casting models, fitting celebrities with free dresses and fine-tuning the run-of-show. His white-walled fashion fortress on Rodeo Drive was buzzing with assistants, bodyguards, caterers and tailors. Rolling garment racks took over the terrace, along with tables set with berets, bowler hats, shoulder-dusting earrings and silver-buckled stilettos.

Thora Birch dropped in to choose gowns for the Walk of Style party and for the Emmys. (She's nominated for the Lifetime miniseries, "Homeless to Harvard.") Standing on a platform before the designer, the 20-year-old actress modeled a short black dress, the top encrusted in rhinestones. Scrutinizing her ample bust through his sunglasses, Armani summoned a seamstress to take some volume out of the back of the dress and the hips, and to shorten the hem.

"Molto sexy," he pronounced, his tanned tummy peeking out from beneath his signature tight, black T-shirt. An assistant translated Armani's wishes into English for Birch, who nodded in agreement. "I'm not going to argue too much," she said, chomping on a piece of chewing gum. "I'm sure he knows what he's doing."

Armani, 69, is in startlingly good shape for his age. Though he is small in stature, with a shock of white hair, Mediterranean blue eyes and a perpetually bronzed body, he has a regal presence. The way he walks, the way he talks, the way he nibbles on a piece of prosciutto communicates molto confidence, if not cockiness. Treated reverentially wherever he goes, he presides over a $2-billion empire, with more than 200 stores in 35 countries selling everything from blue jeans to lipstick, business suits to throw pillows, but most of all selling the simple, uncluttered Armani aesthetic.

It is style without excess, and in the case of his women's clothes, femininity without overt sexuality. This alone has set him apart from the flesh-peddling fashion pack.

Like so many designers, Armani came to love Hollywood as a child when he would lose himself in films. Growing up in a Northern Italian industrial town that was bombed during World War II, he idolized Gary Cooper and Cary Grant -- and later James Dean. As an adult, he figured out how to co-opt Hollywood style and sell it back to Hollywood. The first designer to understand the value of cultivating celebrities to wear his clothes on the red carpet, he opened an office here in 1988 to cater specifically to their clothing whims. Since then, he has dressed nearly everyone who matters in Hollywood -- stars, studio executives, agents.

With a slew of movie credits to his name -- "American Gigolo," "The Untouchables," "Shaft" (2000) -- his current project is the forthcoming Cole Porter biopic, "De-Lovely," starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd.

While he has had a major influence in Hollywood, he's most famous for revolutionizing the way fashionable people dress, making the supple suit a uniform for both men and women. He's never been fond of runway folly (though he certainly appreciates a celebrity-heavy front row), or a slave to trends. He designs expensive clothes that are meant to be worn -- and are -- season after season.

Criticized for a simple signature

Armani's first fashion job was dressing windows at La Rinascente, a large Milan department store. After noticing his work in the windows, Nino Cerruti hired him, and it was there that Armani learned to sketch, make patterns, sew and cut.

In 1966, Armani met Sergio Galeotti, an architect who became his lover and business partner. The two men sold their Volkswagen and launched the Armani men's line in 1974 with just $10,000. They were together until Galeotti died of an AIDS-related illness in 1985.

Armani quickly gained notice for creating a new, fluid and relaxed silhouette, which he achieved by ripping the padding and the lining out of men's suits. In 1975, with perfect timing, he introduced a similar silhouette for women. For women entering the workforce, Armani's were feminine suits of armor -- serious and tailored but comfortable. By 1982, he had become the first designer to appear on the cover of Time magazine since Christian Dior in 1957.

Los Angeles Times Articles