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Sun King: On tour with the dazzling Giorgio Armani

He's in his eighth decade, but nothing seems to slow Giorgio Armani down. If anything, he's busier than ever. Tim Blanks joins the world's richest fashion designer on the road in Japan and Australia to find out why

What makes Giorgio Armani run? "My big fight is with time," mused the designer. It was a sunny Saturday morning in November, and we were on a balcony overlooking the surfers' paradise of Bondi Beach, one of the most awe-inspiring inner-city beaches in the world, at the tail-end of a week that had seen the 73-year-old Armani wing from his Milan home to the opening of his new Tokyo flagship to a gala dinner in his honour in Sydney, with no visible pause for breath. Time was struggling to keep up, just like his much younger entourage.

And this was a mere six days out of a work schedule that has seen Armani upping his commitment to homewares, cosmetics, his interior-design business (clients such as Leonardo DiCaprio get the personal touch from Giorgio), and the global chain of luxury hotels and "residences" that he is developing. Plus there's his participation in Bono's (RED) initiative.

The shadow of oblivion is a sharp little spur - Armani acknowledges as much. As president, CEO and sole shareholder of his company (whose annual retail sales are nudging $7bn, so Forbes feels fine estimating his personal worth at $4.5bn, making him the world's wealthiest fashion designer), he'd have to be radically detached from normal human sentiment not to have succession and legacy on his mind. "I don't want my company to be precarious and ephemeral," Armani said in Sydney. "It must be something that goes on in 10 years, when I'll be much less visible... if I'm still around."

Ten years? How old is Sumner Redstone? Rupert Murdoch? Or, in Armani's arena, Karl Lagerfeld and Ralph Lauren? All of them have proved remarkably adept at putting their thumbprint on the future, buying MTV or MySpace, launching collections that target consumers a quarter of their age. These men understand appetite for life, because they themselves are of necessity consumed by it. So Armani points out that it's not simply a sense of mortality that spurs him on, but also an expectation-defying hunger for the new. "Otherwise they tend to put you in your box - Armani's the classicist - you stay in the box and that's it."

"When you know him, you can't imagine he's 73," his Tokyo architect Doriana Fuksas enthused. "Our first job with him was in Hong Kong, and it was very different from the minimalist thing he had in mind. But he started to reflect, then he accepted. He's very open, not fixed in his outlook. In some ways, he's like a child. Learning things keeps you young." And, according to Fuksas, Tokyo brought out the kid in Armani. " The people who work with him say that he's never this way."

It's true, Armani is somewhat cursed with his reputation of being a micro-managing control freak. "I'm accused of being hard when I talk to people," he admitted. "Instead of 50 words, I use three." Well, there's an efficient logic right there. But in Tokyo, he was the very essence of agreeability. That was in large part due to the warmth of his feelings about Japan itself. "The cleanest, purest culture," he called it. "There's a lot of attention to the human, a lot of respect for others."

Armani first came to Japan 20 years ago as part of a five-designer team bidding to seduce the booming local economy. Then, Tokyo was the undisputed techno-capital of the world, a Blade Runner blueprint for the future. Harsh economic reality eventually interrupted that dream, but money has restored the city's status as a harbinger of the new. This time round, however, Tokyo is taking the lead not because of the hi-tech of 21st-century gadgetry, but because of the reassuring high touch of durable luxury - at least if we understand luxury, in its modern democratic sense, to mean the all-enveloping embrace of the planet's most aspirational fashion brands.

That's why Armani was in Tokyo last month, to open the Armani/Ginza Tower, an 11-storey monument to the breadth and depth of the world he has created. It houses his signature and Emporio collections for men and women, accessories, and the Casa range of home furnishings. There is also a restaurant and a bar, reminders that Armani was one of the first designers to introduce food and watering stations to the fashion-retail mix. And there is the world's first Armani Spa, with an especially devised (and patented) three-hour treatment ritual called the Armani Ceremony, which is a mash-up of Eastern and Western massage therapies. Imagine having the audacity to reconceptualise thousands of years of human touch in a country that is home to the most advanced spa culture in the world.

But a casual conversation with Doriana Fuksas clarified the scale of the Armani enterprise. We were talking about one salient feature of the Ginza store - that the Emporio Armani department is in the basement, with direct access from the underground, which the majority of Emporio (read, younger) customers would be most likely to use when they came to the shop. She is very proud of the lighting, which creates the illusion that, even when they are in the underground, customers think they are still in the store. " Like a net," said Fuksas, drawing customers in. The same commercial canniness shaped a ground floor filled with easily accessible accessories such as trophy handbags, some distinguished by metal plaques denoting them as "exclusive edition", specially created for the Ginza store.

That's not to say that Armani imagines that his Japanese clientele is, in some way, more susceptible to retail mind games than shoppers elsewhere. Far from it. "Japan is less about tradition, more about innovation," he said at a press conference on Tuesday morning, two days after he'd flown into Tokyo. "Young people mix it up with paillettes and moon boots." But even though the Armani empire has always had the distinction of being defiantly old school - based on the sales of clothes - unlike those titans of the Nineties, Prada and Gucci, whose profits were shored up by the sales of shoes and bags - it's clear that the company has been compelled to recognise the primacy of the It bag (and any associated items worthy of those semi-mythical waiting lists).

There is, however, one corner of the modern fashion industry that Armani pioneered, and where he remains virtually untouchable. He proved it on Tuesday night, when Cate Blanchett flew in from Sydney to help the designer turn on the lights in his Ginza Tower.

Very pretty they were, too, shaped like bamboo leaves (a symbol of good luck in Japan) and laid over a mesh that covered the tower in such a way as to suggest, according to Fuksas, a woman slipping into a sensuous, sparkling Armani gown. The lighting will change to suit the seasons: pink for cherry-blossom time, white for winter snow, gold and red for Christmas. " All around in the Ginza district is aggressive neon, so we tried to do something sweet and poetic, to let people dream," explained Doriana. But, for the moment, what they had on their minds was the intimate proximity of Oscar-winning stardom.

The pregnant Blanchett's touchdown in Tokyo involved a near-20-hour round trip, but it was a spectacular quid pro quo for Armani's donation to the Sydney Theatre Company, where she and husband Andrew Upton have recently become co-creative directors. "Absurd, I know," she conceded three days later in Sydney, where she threw a dinner for 100 to mark Armani's first visit to Australia, "but the very least I could do, given what Mr Armani's patronage is going to allow us to do for Australian theatre."

So far, so typical of showbusiness and fashion's mutual admiration society. But it feels different with Armani. There's something more intimate, almost familial, about his attachment to his celebrity fans - or, perhaps, their attachment to him. That sunny Saturday morning in Sydney, we headed all the way out to Maroubra Beach, the end of the line and training ground of the Rabbitohs, the rugby- league team rescued from has-been status by Russell C rowe. Armani has been dressing the team. The first time they wore their Armani suits to a game, they won. They haven't stopped winning since, so his name has taken on a talismanic glow.

At one point, it was suggested that the Rabbitohs might be practising on the sand, but the morning turned into a photocall for Armani and the team, with Crowe looking every ample inch the rough-and-tumble manager. "This is the most low-rent beach in Sydney", he said with some pride as he surveyed the scruffy clubhouse and tumbling surf. In other words, the perfect place to come from behind, as the Rabbitohs have done. But as Crowe and Armani went off together to talk, arms slung around each other, I was reminded that the designer had dressed the bride and groom when Crowe got married (a dummy run for the Cruise-Holmes nuptials in 2006). In such circumstances, fashion designers can look proprietorial (naming no names), but Armani looked avuncular, like the generous rich uncle who lubricates the wheels of key moments in the lives of his young wards.

Nature made him for such a role, with his sleek cap of snowy-white hair, his invariably navy-clad trim figure, and his perma-tanned glow of health and wealth. Blanchett and Upton seemed to recognise as much when they toured the Sydney Theatre Company's facilities with Armani. It was more than showing a benefactor where his bucks are going. It was more... what did I say?... familial. And Armani in his turn was playful, flexing at the barre in the dance studio, goofing around with the coffeemaker that was a prop on one of the stages. Kids responded to him here, just as they did in the street or in the clubs where he and his entourage would wind down their nights (is it 4am already?). And he would always give them his time. In their minds, he was probably connected as effortlessly to Beyonce as he once was to Richard Gere in American Gigolo, his international breakthrough nearly 30 years ago.

Armani was one of the first designers to recognise the impact of recontextualising his designs, from screen to stage to red carpet. The 1989 Oscar ceremony was the real turning point, when an Armani-clad Michelle Pfeiffer made such an overwhelmingly, irresistibly chic contrast to Kim Basinger (who was wearing a "dress" she'd designed herself) that she - and Armani - promptly launched a new era of detente between Hollywood and high fashion. It has transformed both industries. Though one unfortunate side-effect of this transformation has been the rise of the Tyrant Stylist, in 1989 it was simply a case of Armani's LA rep Wanda McDaniel taking a dress up to Pfeiffer's house before the ceremony, and even accessorising her with her own baroque pearls.

Today, McDaniel's official title is Executive Vice-President, Entertainment Industry Communications Worldwide. In the interests of placing Armani's clothes in movies, she says, "I read more scripts than my husband" . (He's the double-Oscar-winning producer Al Ruddy). She was at his side on the Tokyo-Sydney road trip, seeing to the celebrities who turned out (Fergie and Il Divo performed during an Armani spectacular at the Budokan in Tokyo, which was an evolution of the evening he staged at Earls Court in 2006).

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about her fruitful relationship with the designer is that they have never had a conversation, at least one on one. That's because Armani speaks Italian and French, but no English (all my talks with him were through a translator), which is remarkable given the seeming warmth of his relationships with Blanchett and Crowe. But maybe that's what you get when such relationships are based on vibes, rather than verbals.

That might also have helped Armani cope with the hordes who stopped him to shake his hand, to wave a phone camera in his face, or simply to stare. He is, after all, an icon, his face part of the visual texture of our times, like fashion's other elder statesmen, Lagerfeld, Lauren and Valentino, and, confronted with the flesh-and-blood reality, people invariably seem somewhat awed. Still, he was surprisingly skilled at putting them at their ease. " I've learnt to be able to control my feelings, to act a part I've had to take on," he told me in Sydney. "It would be absurd if I refused to meet people. It's not an effort to be nice to them."

When I told him about a customer in his Sydney store who had curtsied when introduced, he laughed, and extended his hand in a papal kiss-my-ring gesture. "Yes, I feel that power, but it's good for the company. It makes everything much easier."

It's that avuncular thing again. Age becomes Armani. It appears to have freed him up a bit. "I like to shock," he told me last year, " that's my luxury." He was laughing again, a laugh whose ease and frequency came as a surprise from someone with such a reputation for intensely focused seriousness. There are fashion critics who would say that Armani's yen to shock - or, at least, surprise - has steered his collections into treacherous waters. Occasionally, he'll say something spiky that suggests that he takes their criticisms to heart; otherwise it sounds like the passage of time has induced a kind of stoicism. "When you get old, you get more detached, more cynical in the sense that you realise all the rush, the anguish isn't necessary," Armani said in Sydney. "The truth is, you can be at the height of happiness and something terrible happens."

There can have been nothing more terrible for Armani than the loss of his partner Sergio Galeotti, who was the driving force behind the business until his death in 1985. "Sergio had a more courageous vision than I had," Armani went on. "He'd be so happy about what has happened." The designer emphasises the importance of love in his life - "I have to be always in love" - but losing the love of his life just as the business they were building together kicked into high gear left Armani so bereft that he barely made it through. And to this day, there is a lingering melancholy.

Like the moment when Armani was, for once, completely alone, as he stood on that balcony overlooking Bondi. He seemed utterly lost in thought. I couldn't resist the temptation to ask what was on his mind. "I feel really sleepy," he said, a little sheepishly. After six packed days, he'd surely earned his rest. But would it ever come?

Belfast Telegraph


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