Giorgio Armani has yet to arrive for our interview, in his office in Milan, but already I am caught in his steely gaze. Five portraits of the designer hang from the walls; five pairs of ice-blue eyes staring intensely. In one almost life-sized Aaron Shikler oil painting, his arms are crossed, his biceps visibly sculpted. In another, an Andy Warhol screen print, he is suited and slick-haired, the epitome of the 1980s power-dressing aesthetic he created.
The imposing decor adds to the sense of occasion as I wait, with two of his team, for the 85-year-old to arrive. I am shown to the seat opposite Armani’s empty leather chair. Then the man himself – a little shorter and whiter-haired than the Masters of the Universe vibe might suggest – pops his head around the door.
On Monday night, Armani was given the Fashion Award for outstanding achievement at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Cheering him on was an impressive squad – including Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchett and Tom Cruise. The recognition means a lot, he says in Italian, speaking through a translator, “and thank God, because getting used to beautiful things is not positive”.
“I would like to say,” he volunteers, “that I really believe the English were the first to create a new fashion. The designers of the 1970s were really innovative. When I decided to do a suit in a different way, it was thanks to English fashion.” He pays particular respect to Mary Quant (“She really invented a new fashion – she had courage,”) and Vivienne Westwood.
Armani’s style, on the other hand, is very Milanese. For 44 years, he has stuck to sleek, understated design – think beige linen and navy-blue velvet – an aesthetic reproduced across an empire of hotels, florists, perfumes, interiors and cosmetics. Today he employs 8,000 people across the globe. Last year’s revenue was €2.1bn (£1.8bn); Forbes puts his worth at $10.7bn (£8.2bn).
Armani customers rhapsodise about the cut of his tailoring, claiming it looks current even 20 years after purchase. The secret to this, he says, is “restraint. Trying not to exaggerate in my idea – even if my fantasy sometimes goes further I take a step back.”
The fashion critics sometimes have other ideas, knocking his shows for being predictable – when they simply present another collection of nice suits – or complaining he has distracted from the nice suits if he jazzes things up with natty accessories.
In many ways, Armani has set himself apart from fashion, whether criticising its lofty side (he described Prada’s conceptual style as “elite, snob fashion”) or becoming embroiled in the odd spat (his 2009 contretemps with Dolce & Gabbana about a pair of quilted trousers was particularly enjoyable). Unlike any other designer operating at his level, he styles all of his shows himself, sometimes teaching models “the Armani walk” backstage and – as legend would have it – even touching up their makeup.
Counterintuitively, Armani’s trend-free approach is now on trend, as fashion grapples with its status as one of the world’s most polluting industries. I ask him how it feels to hear his competitors suddenly talking about longevity of design? He gives an entertainingly Bond-villain response, pausing for dramatic effect, laughing heartily then saying: “Finally!”
What he is doing about sustainability? “I am obviously aligned,” he says. “We are all desperately, us in fashion, trying to find solutions, [trying to] provide something that is more sustainable, with every moment.”
“My values have always been in a way sustainable – I’ve never done things to be thrown away after one season.” Later, over email, he adds: “I’d love for us all to slow down the cycle of collections, and produce less, but of better quality. It seems that designers are locked into a system of renewal that, for me, often seems arbitrary.”
Though the Armani Group has signed the Fashion Pact, a series of pledges aiming to make the industry greener, he would like to do something more direct, he says, such as dealing with “the pollution, the trash that is left out in Rome – it’s a disaster.” He brings up the flooding in Venice, and “big boats crashing in front of San Marco – impossible. It’s a very impossible world at the moment,” he continues. “Children dying because they haven’t got food, wars still happening. Obviously, every now and then I myself have a doubt if what I am doing is correct, if I should be pushing the pedal or accelerating to provide luxury when all of this is happening.”
It’s a fair point. Like most businesses, the Armani Group is pushing for growth, launching a pre-fall collection and new high jewellery range the day before we meet. “The press and the clients always want more,” he says, “and me, too. At the top of the pyramid is me.”
I ask about Extinction Rebellion’s recent protests, of which he says: “I’m against exaggeration, by nature, in everything. I don’t like exhibition, though there is a basis which is justified.” He flirts with the conspiracy theories about Greta Thunberg, seeming reluctant to endorse her unequivocally: “I don’t know enough of her history to know if there is somebody moving her, behind her, but I must say she is strong.” He says she has “una faccia di bronzo” – a phrase similar to “bold as brass” in English. Of the media’s response to her, he says: “I don’t like it when [there is] too much shouting.”
He raises the issue of exaggeration, again, when I ask whether he feels targeted by the billionaire bashing that has become key to the rhetoric of the US and UK elections. “I don’t like it,” he says, but says I should take the Forbes listings with a pinch of salt. Once they had him as the third richest person in Italy, he says. “I don’t believe it. There are some people who are hiding.” That said, it has been beneficial: “In a way, being known for what I earn has helped the brand and made it the pinnacle of luxury.”
Whatever his bank balance, it is safe to say Armani has quite a lifestyle. He just spent his 85th birthday “in my house in St Tropez, just before starting the summer holidays on my yacht”. He has more modest hobbies, too, such as watching Downton Abbey. I am surprised by the strength of his views on its film adaptation. “I didn’t want to see the film. It was stupid, in a way, to put together in two hours everything that took time to see over series and series [for a] commercial reason.”
A decade ago, Armani said it would be “ridiculous to still be in charge at 85,” but here we are, and he has still yet to announce a successor. Today he tells me: “I don’t think one person will work – I think it’s somebody on fashion, somebody on commercial, someone on financial.”
“Obviously, nowadays, it’s my decision what will happen,” he adds, “but when I won’t be here any more they will decide what’s best.”
Does that worry him? “It’s my first thought every morning,” he says. “It’s not a nice feeling.”
“But you have to be strong,” he continues. “The company has to go on, aside from my person. But I don’t see the alter ego of Armani out there. I also think it’s not fashionable any more. Now companies are done by good people working together.”
The night before our interview I attend a dinner after Armani’s pre-fall show. The velvet-clad guests applaud him on arrival; the significance of the seating plan (at dinner, he sits between the menswear head Pantaleo Dell’Orco, and his niece Silvana Armani) is analysed by the media table: “It’s like Versailles,” proclaims one Italian journalist as necks crane to see who the boss is talking to. For me, it is impossible not to draw parallels with the Logan Roy birthday party scene in the HBO show about a media clan jostling for power, Succession. Armani leaves at about 9pm and the guests applaud again; the atmosphere immediately flattens.
The next day, I ask Armani whether he watches Succession. “No. On purpose. Because then I would think about it in the morning but also in the evening when I am watching TV to relax.” Plus, he says, “I don’t want to be influenced by a TV series – and [nor do I want] my influencers [to be].”
“Once upon a time, there was a big boss,” he says, and gestures towards one of the oil paintings on the wall. “Maybe the future won’t be like that.”
Travel to Milan was paid for by Armani.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010