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Photograph by Mariano Vivanco; Armani Privé clothing, jewelry, and accessories.

Never forget that Giorgio Armani—or Mr. Armani, as he is often deferentially called— is a small-town boy. Born in Piacenza, a cathedral town in northwest Italy, in 1934, he grew up dreaming of more for himself. He talks often of his mother’s rigor and dignity; of the hardships of interwar and postwar Italy. It sounds like the script of an Italian neorealist lm by Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica except, of course, that it was real. “It’s that idea of achieving so much, even with so little,” says the designer, who has achieved so much.

Given Armani’s backstory, it’s fitting that the images on these pages— these scenes, even—look like outtakes from a movie. They star Armani alongside Michelle Dockery, who reprises her role as Lady Mary in a big-screen continuation of the period drama Downton Abbey, in theaters this fall. A fashion designer who is as famous and recognizable as any movie star, Armani has dressed the great and good of Hollywood’s nest. “Cate Blanchett, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kristin Scott Thomas, Richard Gere, Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Chastain, and Lady Gaga,” he reels o names from his studio in Milan.“But the list goes on.” He left out Sophia Loren, a veritable Armani avatar of understated, timeless Italian style.

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Photograph by Mariano Vivanco; Armani Privé clothing, jewelry, and accessories.

Even before Armani began dressing Hollywood—when a young director, Paul Schrader, recruited the breakout star of Italian menswear to dress a near-unknown Richard Gere for the 1980 movie American Gigolo—the designer’s point of view was all allied more with cinema than with fashion. Perhaps alone in the late ’70s, Armani perceived the bigger picture of fashion not as an adjunct to living but as part of it, and that designers should and could create not just style but a lifestyle. It’s a hackneyed view today, but then it was revolutionary, as was his idea of dressing actors and actresses on the red carpet. Believe it or not, no one had thought of it before him. “A new generation of actors was emerging in Hollywood, less theatrical in their appearance than the previous generation,” Armani says of that period. “They were men and women looking for a new image. Turning to me was,in some way,a natural choice.” Diane Keaton was the first to wear Armani, in 1978; in 1992, he dressed Best Actress winner Jodie Foster for the Oscars. They wore the designer’s signature softly structured beige jackets (Foster glitzed hers up with beaded trousers) and looked entirely, applaud- ably, natural. “I think women need clothes that allow them to appear as they are, strong and feminine at the same time,” he says. “Clothes that don’t mask them and don’t transform them into objects, but rather give them personality and presence.” Hence the reason his clothes became a hit with Hollywood: When you pretend to be someone else your whole life, on the red carpet you want to be yourself.

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Photograph by Mariano Vivanco; Armani Privé clothing, jewelry, and accessories.

For Armani, the world of movies first and foremost was a means of dreaming about something better, and it was an important part of his life growing up. “I belong to the generation that saw lm as a way to escape reality,” he says now, having spent the past 40 years dressing movie stars with the aforementioned rigor and dignity. “Cinema creates a type of magic that’s difficult to resist, even today.”

It’s difficult for Armani to resist, for sure. His fashion shows are staged with a cinematographic eye. This past September, he opted to showcase his Emporio Armani line on a vast, egalitarian scale, in an Emporio Armani–branded hangar at Milan’s Linate airport. Meanwhile, his Giorgio Armani shows have been taking place in the refined confines of his Armani/Teatro and Armani/Silos museum complex, both designed by Tadao Ando. Men and women walked together, adding to a sense of narrative, of interrelation, and romance. It’s the oldest story in the book: Guy gets girl, girl gets a dress.

“If I didn’t become a fashion designer, I would have liked to be a director.”

His haute couture, however, is perhaps the most cinematic. For the past two seasons,Armani has staged the collections he calls Armani Privé with breathtaking intimacy in hôtel particuliers, the grand townhouses that were once home to Parisian aristocracy. Walking into the 17th-century, ormolu-swirled Hôtel d’Évreux on Place Vendôme for the Spring 2019 collection in January, beneath its faded mirrors and clinking chandeliers, you felt as though you were stepping into the past. The soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist played as the models meandered through a warren of rooms, the audience close enough to touch. It was an elegiac experience. It made you dream. Later, for the Bazaar shoot, the same elegant environs frame Dockery, in Lady Mary mode, like a ghost of the past haunting the present. Bar the clothes, which, as always, showcased Armani’s fascination with the near future, the almost present.

“I’ve often said that if I didn’t become a fashion designer, I would have liked to be a director,” says Armani. “I would have liked to direct a lm about my life, with me played by Paul Newman. I regret never having asked him.” It’s easy to imagine Armani achieving it. His empire, a multibillion-dollar behemoth (around $2.7 billion in annual revenue, to be exact), spans not only clothes but also esoteric delights such as Armani/Casa (home), Armani/ Dolci (sweets), and even Armani/Fiori (flowers). He can truly lay claim to having invented a universe—his is the rarest of breeds, the fashion auteur.

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Photograph by Mariano Vivanco; Armani Privé clothing, jewelry, and accessories.

Like any auteur, Armani exercises complete control. His singularity of vision is unparalleled. I have watched him backstage, and in his atelier preparing for his shows: It is Armani who shapes the garments, building looks on models. He adds and removes accessories, twists garments around and adjusts their fit. There is a retinue of assistants and designers ever present, of course. They include his niece Silvana, who is the head of design for womenswear, and seamstresses from his couture atelier, based in the grand Palazzo Orsini in Milan, who dart forward to, say, stitch down the pleats across the bodice of a dress as Armani places them closer to the body. The designer directs everything, as opposed to employ- ing an outside stylist.“For me, it’s impossible, very difficult, to imagine somebody else making that decision for me,” Armani once told me after one of those fittings. “My job, it’s not only creating, but also styling. It’s how things are put together, which is important, it’s essential.” Then he paused, smiled. “We are all stylists.”

Giorgio Armani is a knot of contradictions and paradoxes. His couture expresses that perfectly: It is a wellspring of extravagance for a man known for dressing the world in 50 shades of beige. Similarly, while Armani grounds his clothes resolutely in reality (“I ended up in this world because I wanted to dress real people and meet their needs”), he nevertheless adores the fantasy inherent in cinema. “What I love about cinema is its ability to transport,” Armani says. One could say the same of his fashions.


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This article originally appears in the May 2019 issue of Harpers BAZAAR, available on newsstands April 23.


Hair: Diego Da Silva for Oribe; Makeup: Niki M’nray; Production: Ben Faraday for octopix.fr.