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TALK ASIA

Interview with Fashion Designer Giorgio Armani

Aired June 22, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: (voiceover): The empire of Armani. A name behind fashion to suit high rollers and every-day fashionistas. But it's much more than just clothes. It's hotels, restaurants, watches and fragrances.

Behind it, Giorgio Armani, a master of design and branding. Born out of his vision of style more than three decades ago, the company has become synonymous with clean lines and tailored suits.

But it wasn't until 1980 that Armani designs were propelled to mass acclaim by a young Richard Gere, in the film "American Gigolo". And he attracted attention again by cutting a modern, soft-shouldered silhouette on his famed suits.

Today, celebrities are still strutting his creations on the red carpet. From the glamorous, to the international glitterati.

MORGAN FREEMAN, ACTOR: I must say, compared to your usual requests, jumping out of an airplane is pretty straightforward.

COREN (voiceover): To the suave, for the fictional Bruce Wayne in the Batman film, "The Dark Knight".

At 77, Giorgio Armani and his design house are still standing strong. The business valued by Forbes at $7.2 billion this year. And, as other major fashion houses buckle under the pressure to go public, Armani remains one of the few luxury labels to stay privately owned.

This week, Talk Asia's Stan Grant meets the style icon in China, home to almost three hundred of the brand's outlets. He gives us a rare insight into the making of an Armani catwalk show and sheds some light onto the sensitive subject of succession.

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STAN GRANT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Mr. Armani, welcome to "Talk Asia". Thank you very much for giving us your time. I want to ask you about your attraction to China. You've been here before. You have a relationship that goes back several years. What is it about China that keeps bringing you back?

GIORGIO ARMANI, FASHION DESIGNER, PRESIDENT AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, THE ARMANI GROUP (through translator): Well, at this moment, China is before the eyes of the whole world. It is a nation that, in a short time, within just a few years, has seen enormous development. And in this enormous development, it is understandable that there may be a greater interest towards Western fashion. And, if it is so, authentically, fashion also becomes more interesting for people in Asia.

GRANT: Their interest in Western fashion, of course, is growing and we're seeing that reflected in your own stores. You have a big expansion planned for China. Tell us more about your plans for the China market.

ARMANI (through translator): In practice, I've had a presence in China since 1998 with my commercial spaces and shops. But, in the last five to seven or eight years, we've given a big boost to the presence of Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani in China. Because we believe it is an extremely interesting new market.

And I have to say that the interest of the Chinese public for Giorgio Armani is outstanding. I have experienced this through my stores and also through the welcome I've been given in China - in Beijing and Shanghai - from the public.

GRANT: The luxury market brand in Asia, in general, has become more sophisticated, they've become more wealthy. How much potential is there? Is there more growth in a market like Asia, and in particular, China, than you'd find, say, in Europe, which is going through tough economic times right now?

ARMANI (through translator): China approaches fashion with strong enthusiasm. And I believe that this enthusiasm can be translated into something interesting, economically speaking. Not only for my brand, but also for other brands. We noticed this by wandering around in Shanghai or Beijing. And also smaller cities. We see the presence of important brands and less important brands.

I'm sure it will take time before even the Chinese public, who are willing to buy luxury goods, will be able to approach our products. Because it's clear many don't yet understand Western luxury, style, or fashion. It will take us a few years before we will be able to see a wider public totally understanding my product.

GRANT: You talk about the Chinese public preparing for this type of brand its changing tastes, but I'm just intrigued. How much do you have to change as well? When you design for China, is there a different look? Is there a different attitude? Do people see style - see fashion differently in China? How do you take that on board?

ARMANI (through translator): I would say, "No". No, because I have always considered that my collection must have an international flair so it can be at the service of the European public. Or to people in Asia. Yes, there are tiny little alterations I notice in the proportions of the outfits, but fundamentally, the collection is that way. And it should follow the mark and must have the mark of the Giorgio Armani brand.

GRANT: That's a really good answer, because if I think of Armani, I don't think of fashion, I think of style. This is a victory of style over fashion. Is that what you're about? Are you about creating something classic? Something that is lasting and not something that may just be this year's look?

ARMANI (through translator): It is a kind of elegance that belongs to me and, probably, sometimes it doesn't have anything to do with the trends. It's outside the normal tendencies. We have active brands that space (ph) from the jeans. We have collections. We have Emporio Armani, Giorgio Armani, Armani Prive. So we serve a very important global market. Very wide and very large. And so, in my opinion, it has been very appropriate to be faithful to my principals. To my personal history. Although, sometimes, the way I am - it might not belong to the present world of fashion.

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COREN (voiceover): Coming up, we get access-all-areas for Armani's latest runway show in Beijing and see the designs created exclusively for his tribute to China.

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ON-SCREEN TEXT: Armani celebrates 10 years of his brand's presence in China with a runway show of his latest Armani Prive line.

15 new looks were added paying tribute to China.

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GRANT: What is your idea of how someone should look? What is it about Armani that, when people put that on, they have a look, they have a style, they have a feel, they have an image? What is it that you see? Your vision.

ARMANI (through translator): It is difficult to talk about fashion in the abstract, without a human body before my eyes, without drawings, without a choice of fabric - without a practical or visual reality. What I can say, answering your question, is that I've have always imagined a woman or a man who have great sensitivity in accepting what fashion can offer and what is not good at all.

And, again, the choice - a man moving in front of a mirror, looking at himself, and saying, "I am this type of person and I cannot dress in a way that is totally distant from the way that I am". And so, in practice, it's like wearing your own mentality or your personality.

GRANT: I want to ask you now about y our early life, growing up, how did fashion enter your life?

ARMANI (through translator): Well, yes, I wasn't born with an extreme passion for fashion. Even when I was a kid, I never had such an inspiration of becoming a fashion designer. It was almost by coincidence that I joined a big department store, La Rinascente, through an acquaintance. And from that moment, I started to direct a boutique and to experience products, especially for men.

It was a very interesting experience, because I was in touch with the public and I found out, even at that time, how big that gap is between what you see when looking on a drawing on a piece of paper, and then what people really want. These two things do not always match. So it was a great practical experience.

GRANT: Reading about you, didn't have an easy childhood. Of course, your childhood was set against a backdrop of so much turmoil in your country and war - what was your experience, living though those years? What did it teach you?

ARMANI (through translator): That experience taught me to build a world around myself that resembled my image. War taught me that not everything is glamorous. And so, it taught me how to deal with this comfort. Then my work has taught me to pay great respects towards human beings. All of these things together equal experience, passing by the years. I admit, I've made mistakes along the way as well. I have to say that, occasionally, I misinterpreted my way of thinking and got off-track. But all of this is a precise perception of myself.

GRANT: I want to talk about your parents. And I understand you didn't see a lot of your father. He was very busy, he was working all the time. And, of course, you lost your father. But your mother - your mother has had a great sense of style. Is that where you got it from? Was she a really pivotal figure in your life?

ARMANI (through translator): My mother had a great sense of style. Also, because right after the war, unfortunately, there were few ways to dress. There were hardly any clothes. So she had to adapt, inventing new ways to dress her children. With great sobriety and great sense of aesthetics and strictness, which have probably remained in my DNA. Everything that was unnecessary bothered her. Everything that was exaggerated made her feel uncomfortable. And, for me, it's just the same.

GRANT: But still, fashion was not your first choice in life. You started out studying to be a doctor and you were in the army for a while. Tell me about those years. Did you see yourself becoming a doctor? Was that the real ambition of Giorgio Armani?

ARMANI (through translator): Let me say that, in the case of Giorgio Armani, as a medical student and also in the case of Giorgio Armani as the clothes maker, it was still all about the body. At the beginning, I was interested in the body from one point of view, and later from another point of view.

GRANT: So, really even while you were studying to be a doctor, you were thinking, really, about fashion.

ARMANI (through translator): At that moment, I truly believed I could become a doctor. As a doctor in the countryside or such. Not, maybe, the one who's more concerned about making money. A doctor for people in need. I had a romantic image. I think there are only a few people left who actually believe that this can exist.

GRANT: But you never trained as such. So, where did that ability come from? What it an eye for fashion? Was it something inside you that you were able to create such an empire?

ARMANI (through translator): Through a lot of effort, because I didn't even know how to draw. I learned little by little. I learned how to draw. I learned how to tell the difference in the quality of fabrics - the subtle differences. I started with collections for men. So my first collection for women was deeply inspired by male roles. Businesswomen, women in meetings - and it was much easier for me to steal those items from the wardrobe of a man that could easily adapt to a woman.

Then, later on, it became my real work that involved me also in the evolution and in the change. In adapting my style towards a more feminine style and less rigid and masculine. I see the importance to carry on this way.

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LADY GAGA, SINGER-SONGWRITER: Well, Mr. Armani custom made everything for me tonight. And he's truly a fashion legend.

COREN (voiceover): Coming up, Lady Gaga inspires Armani. We see how the pop diva brings out the eccentric in his classic style.

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LADY GAGA: Well, Mr. Armani custom made everything for me tonight. And he's truly a fashion legend and I'm very honored to be wearing it.

ON-SCREEN TEXT: On her current "Born This Way" tour, Lady Gaga is wearing Giorgio Armani's custom made designs.

Armani used PVC, metal slugs and Swarovski crystals to create the outfits.

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GRANT: How do you stay ahead of the trend when you have such a fast moving world, now? So many more competitors. So much more intensity in the industry. Technology has changed so much. We're seeing the likes of Twitter and so on. How has that impacted the way you see the company and the future of your company?

ARMANI (through translator): Well, it's natural. I care a lot about new technologies, because clearly we see new inventions in the media or online and so on. I think there are exceptional tools to work with. We are able to see within a fraction of time how the picture of a model will look. Before, it took us an unimaginable amount of time. All this has made it feasible to speed up the creative process.

But there are limits with the new technologies as well. I believe that the hand of a human being is very different from the key on a computer. I am very loyal to my roots, which is from pure design - a pencil and a sketchbook. But, of course, when necessary, I rely on the latest and most modern technologies.

GRANT: Relationships with people like Lady Gaga - if you're talking about staying ahead of the trend - you're laughing already. What about a relationship with someone like that? How do you dress someone like Lady Gaga?

ARMANI (through translator): Lady Gaga is a laugh.

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ARMANI: Lady Gaga is a laugh. Lady Gaga is someone the younger generation loves very much. It is my strong conviction that no one will ever dress in an outfit of Lady Gaga's. But maybe they will wear a pair of jeans made by the same man who has created a costume for Lady Gaga.

GRANT: I want to ask you, now, about the pivotal relationship in your life. Sergio Galeotti - such a great partner for you. How important was he in your life? Talk about the impact that he had.

ARMANI (through translator): Sergio was a young studio assistant of architecture. It was a chance encounter. We met thanks to mutual friends. He wanted to move to Milan and was searching for job opportunities. And to find a way of life. And he also really wanted to come to Milan to discover how much of myself could be discovered and displayed. He believed that I had abilities that could take me beyond what I was doing at the time.

For example, the collection for women - he's been a boost for me. For my experience, my skills. And this has been very important because, where I was at that time - where I worked, I felt very comfortable. With Cerruti Group, I took care of men's clothes. But I think that the push that Sergio gave me - that courage - inspired me to start a new life. It was pivotal for my success.

GRANT: And, for you, his death - how did that impact on you? I'd imagine it would be like losing another part of yourself.

ARMANI (through translator): Well, personally, I of course had a great affection towards Galeotti and vice-versa. He was a very important friend. Professionally speaking, I struggled and I thought about retiring from the business. But, in the end, I decided to keep going with my work and to remember in my personal and professional life, Sergio Galeotti.

GRANT: Your own health, of course - in 2009, you had your own health problems with hepatitis. Did that give you a sense then of your own mortality? You think all of this you've created, but there's also the question of your own health - your own wellbeing. How did that affect you?

ARMANI (through translator): Well, of course, in the beginning my doctors warned me not to keep the same busy work schedule that I had before the surgery. They told me that I could not work at the same pace that I had before. And, for a while, I accepted this conviction.

Naturally, my will to do, my will to continue to work and to see the people around me smiling and happy to see me recovered - it was decisive to push me to get back to the pace of work that I had before. And that's the reason why I'm here. It's not easy.

GRANT: Armani, of course, is Armani - it's who you are, it's your name, you are so central to the company. What about succession? On the one hand, who will follow you? On the other two, will it always remain a private company?

ARMANI (through translator): That is a difficult question, I dare say. It's always very hard to give a proper answer to such a question. Being here in China, handling this important event and having seen my collections displayed in fashion shows in Paris, in Milan a few months ago, the enthusiasm of all my colleagues - all of this makes me believe that it's very difficult to even fathom giving this up.

Only a catastrophe would make me give it up. But, God willing, I have fully recovered. So, as far as I'm concerned, I'll keep working in my field. And then, after Armani, there will be many Armanis from my company. People who have, maybe, absorbed my history, my thinking, and have been updating it over the years.

GRANT: So, before I let you go, I have to ask one thing. Anyone watching this is going to think the same thing. How do you do it? How do you look this good and have so much energy? Where does that come from?

ARMANI (through translator): Well, first of all, I don't drink alcohol. I don't smoke, and I go to sleep at about ten-thirty each night. I regularly take vacations to one of my homes. And I also believe that an hour-and-a-half work out each morning makes the difference in keeping me fit. Of course, I take pride in keeping myself fit, but fundamentally, a healthy, strong body, also helps the mind.

GRANT: Well, I need to take some advice from you.

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ARMANI (through translator): After, after.

GRANT: Thank you so much for talking to us. Really appreciate it.

ARMANI: Thank you, thank you.

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