FASHION / Old friends

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MILAN, 30 JUNE: The Armani fashion show is always the crowning moment of the Milan menswear season. During the hour-long build-up, the narrow Via Borgonuovo clogs up with traffic; passers-by stop and stare; a long limousine disgorges Eric Clapton. The most influential menswear designer in the world is showing his new collection, and attendance is compulsory.

You enter the doorway of number 21, produce your ticket, turn left through a forest of plants, descend the stairs, and emerge in a windowless auditorium where every seat is directed towards a glowing catwalk, lit from below, divided into 66 squares. The house darkens, throbbing music wells up, and a man appears at the end of the catwalk bathed in a soft glow of light. He walks forward easily, his hands thrust with nonchalance into the deep pockets of his jacket, as if he has worn it all his life.

On either side of the runway, the journalists and the buyers lean forward in their seats to study the jacket. 'What's Armani done to the shoulder line this season? What featherweight fabrics is he using? Why is the model not wearing a tie?' they ask, aware all the time that the man himself is watching the show - and the audience - through a peephole at the end of the catwalk.

Now here they come, suit after suit, fabrics rippling, flowing. They are the suits for the spring and summer of 1994. These suits, with their supersoft fabrics and gentle shoulder lines, are familiar - 'old friends', says the designer - yet they display slightly different nuances each season.

Other style details are duly noted: fewer ties, lots of collarless shirts, more wide-legged trousers, North African prints, and new variations in the subdued Armani colour palette ranging through 101 shades of beige, cream and grey-blue. But it is the jacket shapes that everyone watches most closely. For the jacket is the core of Armani, what he calls 'my point of departure for everything'. Since launching his first menswear collection in 1975, he has made it his mission to turn the stiff tailored jacket of old into a supple and sensual garment for modern living which he can constantly update.

Armani has brought free-flowing natural form to the jacket, removing many of the paddings and interlinings traditionally used by tailors. Today's perfect Armani shoulder is slightly sloping, the perfect jacket length just touching the hips or draping even lower, depending on the proportions of the wearer.

Menswear was Armani's first love, the core of his business. 'I draw the men's collection with my left hand,' he says. 'It's like a welcome ritual, almost the way a piano player practises scales.'

At first, one jacket can look much like another. It comes alive with the wearing. At core, Armani is a tailor who thrives on the precise calibrations of the tailor's craft: the curve of a shoulder line, the positioning of a button, the extra half- centimetre on a jacket length, the drape of a new fabric from the mills of Como.

Halfway through his show, Armani does something different. He sends out a six-button double-breasted suit, but the jacket has higher armholes, and the body has a curve. This is what Armani calls his 'New Form'. It has a fitted high waist and a way of moulding over the hips that is almost womanly. It is provocative and sensual. And it is quintessential Armani.

It's also a hit. The designer appears at the end of the catwalk, bows deep to acknowledge the applause, and disappears. The audience files out, satiated, the pilgrimage complete.

(Photographs omitted)