Twenty years after the launch of the first Armani/Casa collection, Giorgio Armani is still bringing new design visions to life, discovers Caroline Roux
Parties are far from rare occurrences in Miami, coronavirus outbreaks aside. But in March of this year, before the US lockdowns began, a party of an unusually high standard of elegance took place, when models in feathered outfits from Armani’s Privé collection strode through the freshly minted interiors of the Residences by Armani/Casa in Miami.
Inside the slinky, 60-storey tower, completed by superstar architect César Pelli just before his death in 2019, walls were lined with luxurious silks in muted tones of gold and ivory. Furniture pieces from the carefully crafted Armani/Casa collection – sofas upholstered in fine fabrics sitting on faintly glimmering brass bases – blended into the generous internal spaces. Even Giorgio Armani, a man whose utterings can be as restrained as his designs, admitted that his company’s first real estate venture in the US was “ambitious”.
Even at the age of 85, Armani – who is still in sole charge of his company – seems unable to resist a new challenge. From the beginnings of his eponymous fashion label, he has been known to lead the way with diffusion lines such as Emporio Armani, as well as perfumes and cosmetics. But he has also exercised caution. Though Ralph Lauren had been leading a lifestyle charge since the 1980s, with all manner of brand-relevant homewares, Armani is only this year celebrating 20 years of Armani/Casa. “It had been on my mind for a long time,” he said in 2000, when the first store opened in Milan, “but only now did the time feel right.” By 2003, it had expanded into a complete interiors service.
Armani set up his eponymous fashion label in 1975, with his then partner Sergio Galeotti. Born in Piacenza, a pretty city an hour from Milan, Armani had first taken up medical studies, but found his niche while dressing windows at Milan’s famous La Rinascente department store instead. He went on to be a buyer there, and then to work with the entrepreneurial couturier Nino Cerruti before striking out alone.
By the early 1980s, Milan was a byword for the highest of fashion, and Armani represented the ultimate in Milanese style. His vision – softening suits for men into something fluid and functional, while simultaneously empowering women with extended shoulders and added attitude – was suddenly right for the times.
The world of furniture, however, is a different beast. Italy became a design leader thanks to the country’s post-war rebirth. The youthful Vespa, the witty Fiat 500, the classy/sexy output of the Cinecittà film studio, the brilliantly coloured plastics on furniture by Joe Colombo – all these were symbols of a society that was pushing the old world well out of the way.
By the 1980s, modernity meant a certain sophistication in high fashion, but in design it took a few more decades for pop to mutate into the ironically patterned pieces of post-modernism, before moving into the calmer waters of minimalism thanks to designers such as Antonio Citterio, returning to architecturally rigorous furniture for companies such as B&B Italia.
Finally, the moment had arrived for Armani’s own interest in furniture created with craft and restraint. “Fashion and design are both expressions of the human spirit, and I can express my aesthetic vision and style in both worlds,” Armani said. The opening of the huge Via Manzoni store in 2000 was a landmark event. The shop’s floors felt more like rooms in an elegant Milanese apartment: subtly lit, and with each piece of furniture given room to breathe.
These days, Armani is said to be worth around $10 billion (£8.4bn). He owns many homes in places such as Saint-Tropez and St Moritz, and he has a 65-metre yacht, Maìn, completed by Codecasa in 2008. Inside, the ceilings are grey lacquer, and a line of windows, with bespoke louvres, circle the interior.
In fact, Armani created his first piece of design back in 1982. The Logo lamp, which he designed for his own office in Via Durini, went on to become just that – the logo of the Armani/Casa brand, and once put into production in 2000, it became a big seller. With nothing more than a pyramidal fabric shade on a slender stand with a round base, it bears out Armani’s assertion: “I like everything that’s simple, that isn’t loud. I’ve always appreciated the ability to do more with less.”
As the furniture line has grown since 2000, Armani’s personal tastes have become ever clearer to see. First there is the love of minimal lines and then the passion for materials and the traditional skills of craftsmanship. It is, of course, exactly what you see in his fashion design too. “I believe we need to support and encourage craftsmanship as a source of talent and richness,” he says.
This is not just lip service: Armani has kept quite a few skills alive. The vertical panels of the Freud bookcase, for example, launched in 2012, are clad in straw marquetry, which is a French technique that was used in the 1920s and 1930s. Only a few workshops now offer this process, which involves smoothing out every piece of straw with a tiny hammer. “Jean-Michel Frank used this method,” says Armani, referring to the great early 20th-century French designer. “And I’ve always loved his style.” Indeed, art deco, as well as the simplicity of Japanese design, underpins Armani’s interior choices. The Riesling bar cabinet takes two craftsmen 60 hours each to make – the bamboo pattern carved into the walnut wood doors takes five hours alone. The patinated linen tops of the Trocadero tables are made individually by hand, as are the lacquer tops of the Norigami tables that are inspired by the sky in Constable’s paintings. “They are not a copy, but an interpretation,” says Armani.
Bearing in mind his age, Armani is said to have succession plans firmly in place. But for now, it is his continuing dedication to every part of his business that beguiles. “Almost 20 years after the launch of that first Armani/Casa collection in 2000, I still see it as a wonderful opportunity,” he says. “A field in which I can experiment and create objects and spaces that reflect my philosophy and my aesthetic.” Timeless, then, but always timely.