Giorgio Armani, you are currently the face of the history of Italian fashion for the world. ‘Fashion should be made for the moment you live in,’ you’ve said. How has the fashion world changed in the last 60 years?
The fashion world has changed a lot in the last 60 years.
It started out as a small sector – albeit one that made a substantial profit – and became a mass phenomenon in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently with the explosion of social media. Today, it even seems to me that it is turning into an entertainment industry rather than an industry that produces clothing and accessories, and is moving away from the materiality of making clothes. Personally, I think fashion is about dressing for the moment, it is a response to what is happening in society and that is how I have always understood my work. Fashion has received an enormous amount of attention over the years, which has partly distorted it. This is perhaps the main change.
Lately we have also been witnessing another important change, one that concerns aesthetics more, and that is the affirmation of a new inclusiveness, where men and women are on the same level. I think I can say that I anticipated this phenomenon, because in my aesthetic vision, men and women have always been side by side.
As someone who has always innovated, at what point did you realise that the canons of classical beauty that dominate in the West are not exhaustive or representative of the variety and diversity of all possible identities?
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but I felt almost immediately that the Western canons of classical beauty were too narrow and too rigid and needed to be torn down, or at least expanded.
Certainly, my world has always been interwoven with a dense network of references to other cultures. Exoticism is a fundamental part of my aesthetic, and I have dedicated an entire section of the permanent collection in my exhibition space, Armani/Silos, to this theme.
And for me, looking at other cultures naturally means looking at other forms of beauty, other aspects of appearance, other physicalities. My fashion is characterised by soft lines that flow with the body: I have never liked the idea of clothes that hide the body, constrict it or camouflage it. Rather, I like the idea of clothes that move with the wearer, underlining their personality and making it stand out; I like the idea of a confident and elegant person, with an inner self that must shine through. I have felt inclusive in this way since the very beginning, even though we didn’t use this adjective at the time, because that way of thinking was perhaps still far from entering our consciousness. I would say that my awareness of the vastness and changing idea of beauty has been and is a process of continuous enrichment. The beauty of my work is that you never stop learning and evolving. I create things and, in the meantime, I learn and absorb from the world around me.
Among the innovations mentioned above, you were the first to soften the boundary between men’s and women’s clothing. Do you also see a relationship between anticipating this and the fluidity around gender that we talk about today (e.g., in reference to those who identify as non-binary, or as belonging to both genders)?
I don’t know if I can consider myself the forerunner of gender fluidity, which is the label used today in fashion to indicate the phenomenon whereby men and women dress alike. The foundation of my fashion, the principle I have always based my work on, is built on the reality of clothes that are made to be worn, clothes that create new attitudes, new ways of behaving and new ways of being. I did this at a time when women were advancing in the workplace, they were career women who needed to present themselves in a new way, with the same dignity and authority as a man.
Androgyny is part of my aesthetic, in a very fluid and natural way that I think reflects what is really going on in the outside world. But I’m not convinced that it’s being talked about in the right way. There is an interpretation, at least on the catwalk, that tends to be a bit sensationalist. I believe that real revolutions happen from below and through habit, and I see this fluidity of customs simply as the way people use things, including mine. So, it makes me smile to see labels put on things that are happening anyway.
Bodies tell stories: how does fashion listen to them and re-propose them?
Absolutely. Bodies tell stories and without bodies there would be no fashion. Because a dress on a hanger is simply a piece of fabric. It becomes a dress when it is worn by a person and experienced in everyday life. Fashion listens to the body. For a long time, it idealised it, forcing everyone to bend their physicality to the dominant model. Today, this top-down imposition is no longer there, and models have been fragmented. We are increasingly attentive to the choral nature of what is happening around us and fashion can only continue to listen to bodies, responding in a way that enhances them all, each body with its own specificity.
How did you manage to reconcile strict rules and freedom of expression in your creative expression? Has it ever been necessary to violate a ‘sacred’ rule to discover a new kind of beauty?
The work of a creative person develops precisely in the space between freedom of expression and rules. Progress starts with reading the rules, because rules – often the fruit of experience – help shape an idea into something feasible. Perhaps the first break with the rules that I had to and wanted to impose was when I literally took apart the jacket and removed padding and epaulettes from the open jacket, shaping it almost like a shirt, so that it followed the true lines of the body, not ideal ones.
Breaking this rule, which had long been imposed by the system, led me to create my own aesthetic. So I would say that the balance between freedom of expression and strict adherence to the code is as stimulating as it can be for a creative person.
In an interview you once said: ‘The dress should never overpower the body’. This ‘secularity’, in my humble opinion, has a lot to do with the concept of imperfection: how, then, do you find a balance between the model of beauty that inspires you and self-love?
The question is very subtle and complex because it is both physical and existential. It is true that clothes should never overpower the body. It is imperfection that makes us truly unique and special. I think we should move away from absolute parameters so as not to reinforce an outdated model of thinking. Fashion can play a very important role in this, questioning old preconceptions and suggesting new paradigms. Personal perfection is a parameter that everyone should have but which cannot be imposed from above, neither by me as a designer, nor by society as a source of role models.
I think everyone aspires to a high level of self-expression, without having to adhere or conform to a general model. On the one hand, there is a more widespread acceptance of imperfections, because they are part of existing, and perhaps the most beautiful part of existing; on the other hand, there is an awareness that, whatever the body, commitment and self-care produce a graceful, beautiful, complete expression of what one is or wants to be.
What responsibility does the fashion world have – and what role can it play – in promoting inclusion?
I’m thinking of different ages, sexual orientations, religions, disabilities … issues that major international companies have been investing a lot of energy into recently. There’s a great deal of openness going on with regard to diversity – be it in terms of physique, age or beauty – and I think fashion is absolutely in the vanguard here. And this is no coincidence, because fashion is a sort of aesthetic laboratory, where changes often take place and are registered earlier than elsewhere.
And they are processed quickly because they are essentially aesthetic changes, and as such they are immediately visible. So, as far as age and beauty are concerned, fashion is doing a great job of breaking down the barriers of outdated cultural patterns, and can still do a lot for diversity, when it comes to casting, for example, but not only there.
It’s a very fine balance of components, but it’s important that this happens within the language of fashion and that the desire to open up is honest and not just a reaction to a perceived opening in the market.