If a Renaissance prince had to pick a clothier today, he'd surely choose Giorgio Armani. The 66-year-old Italian fashion designer understands power better than any designer alive. Here's the Machiavellian precept Armani has translated into sartorial terms: To ensure domination, members of the ruling class must appear both lovable and fearsome. Armani outfits are loose but rigorously structured, seemingly neutral in color but actually made up of strong hues that, when blended, cancel each other out. Though the clothes sometimes reveal flesh--the women's do, anyway--they never expose their wearer, especially not to ridicule. An Armani is like a piece of armor made out of supple fabric. It provides total social protection without giving away the fact that there's the need for any. This is a neat trick, and indispensable in an era when so many people have jobs that require a painful consciousness of the minutest fluctuations in status. If Armani's clothes didn't function as a drug for the professionally insecure, do you really think agents, studio heads, basketball coaches, rock musicians, and actors would get up to deliver fulsome public testimonials to the man?
You've probably read about Eric Clapton's, Matt Damon's, Ben Affleck's, and Gwyneth Paltrow's encomia to Armani at various awards ceremonies, but the place to read such things right now is at Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum, which is having a retrospective of Armani's clothes. It's jarring to encounter celebrity endorsements to a tailor hanging in a rotunda designed for art by Frank Lloyd Wright, an idealistic modernist with an anti-commercial streak. But that's the theme of this show--the triumph of the look over just about everything, from movie stars to museums of high art. You sense this from the installation design, for which theater director and artist Robert Wilson has turned Wright's stark space into a Disneyfied image of glamour. The open white spiral has been covered by sheer Chinese linen, the echoing floors muffled by thick gray carpets. Music has been pumped in, a New Agey mix of Asian and Near Eastern chords composed especially for the event. The general effect is of a postmodern harem, with little clusters of headless mannequins sporting Armani outfits huddled behind the scrim like a sultan's wives looking down at a party. As you ascend the Guggenheim spiral to see the clothes, you have the slightly smutty sense of violating a forbidden world.
If this description brings the word brothel to mind, you wouldn't be far wrong. It has been reported that the director of the Guggenheim, Thomas Krens, solicited a $15-million gift from Armani, though only after deciding to do the retrospective. You can't fault Krens for much more than overzealous fund raising, and maybe not even that, given the lengths to which all museums now go to court both corporations and mass audiences. You can wonder, though, whether the wheeling and dealing made it hard for the curators to do their jobs. There isn't a critical word on the walls or in the catalogue, and very little social context or fashion history. You'd never know that some of the greatest achievements of postmodernism--the movement according to which mass-produced clothing is deemed worthy of museum display--have been in the realm of sartorial interpretation. Why Armani? Are we dealing with the greatest designer of the 20th century, or merely one of the more business-savvy? How does his work stack up to that of the century's certified genuises--Coco Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, Claire McCardell--or to his competitors, such as menswear classicist Gianfranco Ferre? And what, precisely, did Armani contribute to the history of fashion?
There are answers to that last question buried under the puffery. Armani's greatest accomplishment, fashionwise, was his first: In 1974, the year he made his debut as an independent designer, he deconstructed the suit jacket. He yanked out the shoulder pads and the lining and put the slouch back into menswear, which had grown quite stiff and confining over the past 20 years. In so doing, he helped to bridge the gap between denim-clad members of the counterculture and the stuffy establishmentarians of the professional world. Armani came up with a version of casual elegance that was socially acceptable among the young, and his look spread quickly throughout Europe and the United States. Armani was also among the earliest designers of the '70s to understand the growing importance of the gym. His soft suits were meant to showcase buff male bodies, not to hide inadequate ones behind square lines. (Although conveniently, his designs did mask physical flaws.) When it came to women's clothing, his social foresight was equally keen. Women wanted to compete in the workplace? He altered the suit, the basic unit of male power, by adding shawl collars and drawstrings and other feminine touches, without losing the androgynous mystique that women thought they needed to be taken seriously.
Armani monopolized the early 1980s by dint of his Zoot-suity power suit, with its padded shoulders and wide lapels, and then that was the end of Armani's interest in the avant-garde. For the past two decades, Armani's success has had more to do with good taste and technical mastery than with setting the agenda in fashion. Armani knows a lot about both men's tailoring and women's dressmaking, which allows him to gender-bend with subtlety. He'll draw a classic suit collar, add an ambiguous wrap at the waist, and attach it to a skirt, thereby turning the whole thing into a dress. He has a keen eye for color combinations, though he tends toward drab, natural tones--desert sands and mossy greens and midnight blues. He is fascinated by Arab and Asian clothes, particularly the way they are layered, and is able to borrow their motifs without looking like a knock-off artist. He likes to veil--not his women, but his designs. A common Armani move is to cover some loudly embroidered dress with a fine piece of gauze that tones down the hues, masks the texture, and emphasizes the lines. Nothing is allowed to startle; nothing is oversold.
The same goes for Armani's marketing style. If there's anything Armani remains at the cutting edge of, it's the art of the subtle sell. His ads focus more on his models' androgynous beauty than on the clothes. As for product placement, Armani doesn't just dress Hollywood stars, he makes tailorly love to them, and they become love slaves out of gratitude. He was the first to offer free gowns and tuxedos to celebrities attending the Oscars, launching the fashion competition that has come to dwarf the awards. In his breakthrough film, American Gigolo (1980), Armani gently transformed the work of auteur Paul Schrader into an hour-and-a-half commercial for Armani sexiness and ease. This may be a movie starring Richard Gere as a callow male prostitute who undergoes a tragic reversal of fortune and a Dosteoyevskian redemption, but ask around, and you'll find that the only thing in that movie that anyone remembers is the scene in which Gere dances around his room in the nude, laying out and trying on his Armani ensembles. That will probably be the take-away from the Guggenheim show too--they tried to tell you it had something to do with understanding the art, but you knew in your gut it was about selling the clothes.
Photographs of Armani clothes: beige suit by Ellen Labenski; man's blouson ensemble by Aldo Fallai; woman's pantsuit by Tom Munro; evening ensemble by Ellen Labenski. All rights reserved.