Giorgio Armani: The show must go on

Giorgio Armani had to sell his beloved VW Beetle to fund his first collection. Thirty years on, it's clear he made the right decision. With London Fashion Week in full swing, he offers advice to the young designers hoping to follow in his footsteps
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The Independent Online

I don't get to go to many shows these days, but the last time I did I was certainly reminded of my own first show experience. It was extremely exciting and incredibly nerve-wracking at the same time. I staged it in a Milanese restaurant, and there was not very much room for the audience or the models. I decided it was best to keep it small and exclusive, but in reality the scale was also to do with the budget - I had very little money in those days. The year was 1975. I don't think the audience had any idea about what they had come to see, but I like to think they were curious. I remember being anxious but focused. Even though I have now put on hundreds of fashion shows, that feeling is still familiar to me every time I go backstage before the models walk out. Luckily my first show was well received, so that gave me the confidence to do more.

I occasionally feel nostalgic for that time. Not so much for the hard work and struggle to get things done, but for the blank canvas with which I was working. These days there is so much expectation about what is and is not an Armani garment or show or event, that at times I feel constrained by my own success and reputation. Sometimes I would like to be able to go back to a time when whatever I did was by definition Armani - if I wanted to do short skirts, it would be Armani, if I wanted to do colour, it would be Armani.

My advice to a young designer starting out would be: always be true to yourself and your vision. It sounds obvious, but really, in my opinion, in the long run it is the designers who stick to their beliefs and aesthetic that become successful. If you bend with the wind, if you slavishly follow trends, then no one will really know what you stand for. And if you have passion, be proud of it - nurture it, never give up.

I don't think you can separate the notions of creativity and commerce. I never have, but that is because my basic philosophy and aim has always been to produce wearable clothes. I don't think you can say that an item of clothing or an accessory is truly fashionable unless it is bought and worn. If things stay folded up on the shelf, then in my opinion, you have failed as a designer. Our job is to persuade people to wear our creations, and to enhance their lives by making them look good. Worse still, as far as I am concerned, is the practice of showing collections or items on the catwalk which you have no intention of selling in the stores. That kind of thing is purely for publicity purposes, and doesn't serve the consumer at all. I suppose my commercial sensibilities have been honed by the fact that I had very little backing when I started - I set the business up with the proceeds of the sale of my VW Beetle - so I have had to make the business financially viable from day one.

I love London because it is a city full of character, where people are able to be themselves and think and dress as individuals. This is because it is a diverse place with a great history of multiculturalism. It is also the home of street style as well as the more formal traditions of Savile Row. This combination of heritage and experimentation in fashion leads to some very interesting youth culture, and as we all know youth culture creates its own dress codes. I think it is because of this tradition of youth culture that London has gained the reputation for being creative rather than commercial. But when I meet young British designers, I am struck by how they want to make a success of their careers. There are some very smart fashion businesses in London - Burberry, Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney among them, plus a host of smaller, more entrepreneurial firms. To me the balance between the creative and the commercial spirit in London is now just right. It is partly for this reason that I am doing my Emporio Armani show in London this month, and have renovated my Emporio Armani store in the Brompton Road and am opening an Armani Casa and Armani Collezioni store adjacent to each other on New Bond Street. If I were to sound one negative note, it would be to say that for London to be considered truly a global fashion capital, it must attract some of its own big names to show at home again.

In Milan the fashion-show audience is more business oriented, and I think that is because in Milan, shows are staged for the fashion industry - for the press and buyers, and also for the manufacturers and textile suppliers, and anyone involved with the brand on the business side.

In London there seems to be more of a tradition of staging shows for the creative element - the press and buyers sure, but also for students. You have some excellent art and design colleges in London, so there is no end of interest in the catwalk shows. I suppose the audience does contribute to the atmosphere, and to the perception of the collection. A clubby young audience will help liven up a show for a street label, but may be less appropriate for a high-end luxury brand. Equally, a more sophisticated and professional audience might look out of place at a show where street fashion is on the runway. To an extent, the collection itself will attract the appropriate audience, and in Milan it may just be that we have more mature, high-end labels than you have showing in London these days. As I said before, maybe it's time for the great British luxury brands to return to showing in London again?

The education system in London helps for sure - you have, as I have said, a great many good fashion, design and art courses in the city. But beyond that, I think there is an attitude of "can do" in London. I always remember the punk ethos of picking up a guitar and forming a band instantly. That was not something that could have sprung from the streets of Milan, where kids are much more conservative in many ways.

The stylish among the English are among the most fashionable people in the world. Perhaps it is true that on a general level, the standard of polish and interest in appearance is higher in Italy than in England, but in the creative urban centres of your country, people are very interested in fashion. The Italians dress well, but often follow each other like sheep. If a famous industrialist wears a certain style of suit and a blue shirt, lets say, then many Italian men will adopt this uniform. They all look good, but the same. In England, the mentality is more individual and I like that. And as for women - many Italian women look chic and groomed, but again, they follow trends. One of the great things about Armani is that I follow my own trends, and so if you wear Armani, you will not be one of the crowd.

Perhaps the difference between English and Italian style comes down to a willingness to experiment. English style is generally bolder and more individual. You have a tradition of eccentrics and certainly in dress, the eccentricity can be there... bright colours, plaids, mixing contrasting colours and patterns. Another difference, though, is that the Italian mentality is one of bella figura - the desire to present your best appearance to the world at all times, even if you have not much money. For example, when I was a child growing up in post-war Italy, we had little money, but my mother always made sure that my brother, sister and I looked immaculate. This attitude can be seen in the ritual passagiata that you see in Italian towns, where people parade on the main drag in their finery in the early evening. In England, I sometimes think that there is an inverse snobbery at work - that the wealthier you are, the less well you dress. The Italians don't really have a cult of cool scruffiness, whereas I think the English possibly do.

I choose not to separate the ideas of fashion and style (like with creativity and commerciality, I think fashion and style are intertwined). For me, fashion and style are one and the same - you cannot be fashionable without having great style, and if you are stylish, you are, by definition, fashionable. If I had to suggest a contrast between British and Italian fashion, I'd say British fashion tends to be more ostentatious than Italian fashion - more about "look at me". This is something of a paradox, as you are supposed to have that famous understatement. But where fashion is concerned, look at Galliano, Westwood, McQueen and Smith and tell me where the understatement is!

I don't really think I'd like to go back to a time when I didn't have such huge commercial considerations. That is the price you pay for success. Sure, I'd like to be able to work without my every creation being scrutinised and written about - I do feel very judged at times, almost as if the press in particular want me to do one thing and one thing only, which can be frustrating - but I don't miss the days of not having the resources to make samples or put on shows or place advertisements or open a store. I am very lucky that, in this age of huge fashion corporations, I still own 100 per cent of the company I founded some thirty-odd years ago, which provides me with the independence to follow my own path. Maybe struggling to do it yourself does pay off after all.