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Giorgio Armani

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

October 20, 2000 to January 17, 2001

Beyond The Neutral Rush and the Stereotyped monochromism

giorgio Armani

Giorgio Armani

(photo by Walter Chin)

By Michele Leight

Only a few months after the Metropolitan Museum decided against holding a fashion designer show at its Costume Institute because of controversies that it might be considered commercial, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art has opened a larger show devoted to the career of Giorgio Armani, the fashion designer, shown above.

Although the Armani show has not generated much controversy, it will come as a great surprise to many visitors who associate Armani with the casual, almost neutral look that dominates in his New York boutiques as almost half the exhibition is devoted to his quite dazzling and beautiful evening clothes for women, some of which New Yorkers may have noticed on some famous movie stars on Oscar nights.

"I came here half expecting to see an 'Arrangement in Slate and Mushroom,' with museumgoers p;roviding the only variety in sight," wrote Herbert Muschamps, the architectural critic of The New York Times, wrote in his amusing and laudatory October 20, 2000 review of the exhibition.

For those who associate Armani with androgynous "power suits," the exhibition offers a lot of surprises.

Armani spectacular evening dresses float in a world of curving light "plants" in elegant settings designed by Robert Wilson

Photos by Carter B. Horsley

While many of his monochromatic and often miminalist clothes for both men and women are shown to great effect in the exhibition's special installation by Robert Wilson, the theater impressario and designer, the evening clothes reveal Armani to be not only extremely glamorous but very diverse in his styles, many of which are an amalgam of other styles. While the trademark, fluid look of his famous suits and jackets occasionally shows Eastern influences, the gowns seem to borrow from a great many cultures and styles but have a very high consistency of quality with a fine flair for texture and run the gamut from formal to flamboyant.

Photos by Carter B. Horsley

The exhibition not only encloses the museum's rotunda with white scrim, but also makes very dramatic use of curved light "plants" that greatly enliven the presentation of many of the fashions. The installation also uses different dark carpeting on the different ramps to also transform the traditional Guggenheim experience. Eastern-style music by Michael Galasso wafts about quite effectively.

Photos by Michele Leight

In Armani's extravagant clothes, there is no apparent, rigid style consistency other than quality and when some appear derivative of past designs they are nonetheless done with boldness and élan. Armani, however, is also capable of sumptuous subtleties.

Photo by Carter B. Horsley

As for the clothing itself, Armani puts it best, as in this excerpt from "Contemporary Designers, Third Edition," 1977, St. James Press:

"I do not design for a tall person or a short person, ugly or beautiful, jet-set or middle class. I aim at a client who dresses from individual choice, not imposed fashion, and not simply because something was designed by Armani. One must make one’s own very eclectic and very subjective definition of style. A suit may now be a jacket with a pair of subtly contrasting sports trousers worn with a printed shirt and a zip-front vest. There should be no dictates, no rules.

My ideas come from unimportant things, from a book, a film, from talking to my staff, or from watching how people behave and live. I cannot allow myself the luxury of waiting for the 'moment of inspiration,' I design clothes that can be produced at a certain cost, that can be sold and worn…"

Armani's interpretations of "individual choice" allows those fortunate enough to afford and wear his clothes to look and feel the way they want to. (The exhibition, of course, does not have price tags on the garments and the gowns are probably not inexpensive. The labels merely indicate the year the garments were made and unfortunately give no hint of who has worn them.)

Hal Rubenstein, features editor of In Style Magazine, which sponsored the show, expressed it well in an interview at the exhibition's press preview: Armani’s clothes are easy to walk and move in, catch planes in; they are comfortable, elegant and can go from 9AM till midnight without showing it; his clothes work with our busy lifestyle, they do not impose restraints on us.

Photos by Carter B. Horsley

Mr. Rubenstein also remarked that the Armani clothes shown in most of his American boutiques were more "pragmatic, to suit the American lifestyle" as opposed to the more adventurous and imaginative clothes shown in Milan.

The Armani show has been installed with considerable subtlety by Robert Wilson, the famous theatrical designer known best for his collaboration with composer Philip Glass on "Einstein on the Beach."

Robert Wilson’s description of his working process – which he stressed began with light - was delivered to a group of rapt press, fashion dignitaries and photographers in a quiet, unassuming style reflecting the designer Armani’s own trademark of elegant restraint. Wilson’s "fine arts" roots and his deft handling of light, sound and architectural elements combine to transform this "show" into a soothing and memorable experience. Wilson’s 1976 collaboration with Philip Glass, "Einstein On the Beach," achieved international success and changed conventional perceptions of opera as an art form. In 1998. Wilson produced "The Woman from the Sea," for which Armani designed the costumes. Designing costumes for the theater and dance – and most notably for film – is a perennial activity with Armani, who has described his clothes as costumes for the world stage.

Armani’s clothes have become synonymous with power and success, yet here they appear quite natural in one of the world's greatest architectural spaces - they are portrayed as elegant, self-assured and relaxed universal icons of modern dress.

Diaphanous membranes designed by Robert Wilson enclosed the normally open spaces between the ramps in the museum's famous spiral atrium

Photo by Carter B. Horsley

Indian music rippled across the curved balustrades of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous building, a diaphanous "membrane" of opaque off-white fabric filling the usually open spaces between the curving "floors." Stagings like this one magnify Wright’s genius, the continuous curve from floor to ceiling "seaming" together like a flawlessly tailored garment from one of Armani’s workshops, defined by suffused light as membrane meets concrete. (See The City Review article on the museum's recent commissioning of major artists to transform the rotunda atrium for special exhibitions, which includes another photograph of Wilson's treatment of the rotunda.)

The overall effect is to soften, soothe the senses, cutting back sharp silhouettes, smudging edges to render the atmosphere dreamlike. Fashion can so easily become a spectacle, but Wilson intuitively opted for an alternative route for this designers collection - one more in keeping with Armani’s "oeuvre." These clothes are anything but "showy," despite the Academy Awards and the red-carpet occasions which embrace them and Wilson’s "set" enhances both the radical and the timeless quality of Armani’s designs, without diminishing their enormous significance or Armani’s impact on modern style.

Paul Schrader’s "American Gigolo" hit screens worldwide in 1980, starring Richard Gere, who, in one memorable scene, pulled from his closets shirts, jackets and ties – all signature Armani – and danced whilst scattering them with sexy abandon around the room. These "designer" clothes embodied a trademark combination of power and sensuality, the "power suit" symbolizing an era of international economic boom.

The film brought Armani instantaneous fame with the general public and launched a long and successful history of collaboration on "popular" films – the most recent being the remake by John Singleton Copley, the film director not the painter, of "Shaft" – with Samuel L. Jackson decked out in signature Armani leather. The window of the designer’s Madison Avenue showroom proudly displayed the outfit against a backdrop of the movie poster, slowing down pedestrians of all ages and economic backgrounds, eager to take a closer look.

The beginnings of all this glamour and fame were simple: Armani was born to a humble family in Piacenza , a small town near Milan. He attended the local public school and was interested in cinema and the theater; in 1953 he did military service for a year and attended the University of Bologna from 1952-53 – to study medicine! He got a job at the Milan department store La Rinascente as an assistant photographer before being promoted to its style office, where he bought and exhibited quality goods from India, Japan and the United States, helping to introduce foreign cultures to the average Italian consumer.

Photo by Michele Leight

Without any formal training Armani designed a line of menswear for Nino Cerruti in 1964; his partner Sergio Galeotti encouraged him to leave Cerruti in 1970, to become a freelance designer and consultant. At the prestigious Sala Bianca fashion show in Florence in 1973-74 he caused a stir with his leather bomber jackets, treating leather as a regular fabric. Armani’s genius for using materials in unusual contexts and combinations made an enormous impact, similar to Coco Chanel's revolutionary use of jersey for women's clothing during World War II.

In partnership with Galeotti, Armani started their company, Giorgio Armani S.p.A in 1975 and founded the Armani label. That same July, Armani launched his unlined, unconstructed man’s jacket; loose and informal, the "blazer" hinted at the body underneath – it launched a revolution, and marked the end of the straight-jacketed stuffy suits of 1960s, and the carefree abandon of the hippie generation. Three months later, he presented an unstructured jacket for women, made with traditional menswear fabrics, and bore a masculine authority. Once again, women were offered an alternative to flower-child printed skirts and strait-laced French "tailleurs" and Armani joined Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel as liberators of women’s fashion.

Photos by Michele Leight

The exhibit at the Guggenheim explores the designer’s evolution and contribution to fashion over the last 25 years. Narrative "clusters" express motifs visible throughout Armani’s career; knock-out evening wear and translations of the tuxedo for women introduce the designer's style. His sandy, "greige," neutral palette allude to Armani’s fascination with the North African desert. His androgynous look, inspired by Marlene Dietrich, and masculinized jackets for women are presented with sensual, body-conscious suits for men. Modernism is softened by the romance of tradition and a nod to historical fashion – with references to the Empire, Belle Epoque and Directoire periods.

The impact of non-Western cultures – India, China, Polynesia - upon Armani and his work is forceful at this show: graceful and spectacular embroidery and beadwork is "taken down a notch" by his minimalist approach. Beading which could easily be excessive, "over the top," is cut back to a sophisticated, wearable simplicity. There are suggestions everywhere of sarongs, kimonos, salwars and of Japanese elements like oroyoi and samurai armor. His color sense is impeccable and artistic, his combinations of pattern, texture and line - his "use" of fabric – is awesome, drawing on many cultures, artistic sensibilities and fantasies.

Photos by Carter B. Horsley

The following quotation comes from "Armani," by Richard de Combray, published by Franco Maria Ricci, Milan, 1982 (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Libraries – Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Library and Archives, New York City):

"The culture of fabric, its weave and texture – in both senses – go hand in hand, for Armani, with the organization of his design. It is the opening chapter to his work, and is planned three months in advance of any other aspect of his design. It is the backdrop to the design phase, which is usually, erroneously, obscured, but which is an integral part of his method. It is as if one were to say that the architect doesn’t know, before he begins to design, whether the house will be made of cement block, brick or glass and steel. It is absurd, and yet, analyses of Armani always seem to end without ever having considered his ingenious invention of materials, his use of 'tensions' and consistencies between materials, the relation between these, and the line, the preconcieved design….We have already seen the way fabrics are tucked on the drawing surface itself, and not just some of the time, but consistently, from the initial sketches of the design phase onward. The fabric sample is always at the designer’s side, providing the basis of all sequences of design. But why pin them together in this way? Armani is a cultured man, refined, and notably experienced in the artistic avant-garde. This fabric citation, apparently as a 'found object,' or fragment, makes reference to the culture of dada-ism – to Schwitters above all – even in its tonal arrangements, not to mention echoes of such historical tonal relationships as seen in the work of the analytical cubists, particularly that of Braque and Picasso…"

In the same book, Armani states that "First of all I must preserve my own image, the image of Giorgio Armani, designer…I must never allow avant-garde or retro tendencies to work their way into my own personal backdrop. I always try to draw upon dreams. Whether they are references to my past or passages into the future, this is where real fashion is made, for me."

To own an Armani suit or dress is regarded by many people these days as a symbol of success or a talisman; clothes are a projection of our desires, of the characters we would like to be. Armani, essentially a private man, wants to reach a wide range of people and continues to do this with a return to his first innovative, body-conscious, streamlined silhouette. His signature style is a harmonious balance of sophistication and pret à porter, wearable by all, black or white, Eastern or Western, traditional or modern – his is a refined, sensual and democratic mission, not unlike most of his clothes, while his grand dresses are dreamy flourishes whose beauty can be widely appreciated.

The museum's expensive "catalogue" for the exhibition surprisingly contains very few reproductions of the clothes in this show, but instead has many photo-essays by 25 prominent fashion photographers on Armani's influence on style and culture.

In its fall guide, the museum has an article on the exhibition in which it states that "by removing excess ornament from clothing and translating traditional sportswear looks into business- and eveningwear, Armani has developed the relaxed style that defines the contemporary wardrobe."

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is available at and

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