The wisdom of King Giorgio

She's the bright young star breaking all the rules. He's the grand master whose influence on the way we dress is felt around the world. In a rare interview, STELLA McCARTNEY asks Giorgio Armani about fur, fashion and film - and why RED is his new favourite colour
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The Independent Online

What is your earliest fashion memory?

My mother dressed in her best clothes, which were always simple but so elegant and sophisticated.

How did you mother and father influence your style?

My mother was the main reason I developed an interest in fashion. Though we grew up in post-war Italy and were very poor, she always ensured that my brother, sister and myself were immaculately dressed. She was herself an innately elegant woman. In memory of her I named my yacht Mariu, which is the southern Italian dialect for Maria.

Was there a moment when you realised that you wanted to be a designer?

There was not really a moment, but a gradual realisation. I studied medicine, which I soon realised I wasn't cut out for, and while doing so dabbled in photography. I went for a meeting with a woman at Milan's premium department store, La Rinascente, with some pictures I'd taken of my sister, to try to sell the images. She bought some and offered me a job as a window dresser. I dropped my studies to take it up. I suppose that was when I first started to think about fashion design.

The fashion industry is a symbol of capitalism. Is it possible for fashion to be politically correct?

It is a fact that, in the West, we live in a capitalist society, but that does not mean that we cannot be guided by the idea of a social conscience in our work. Yes, fashion design requires consumers to consume, but we can do our bit for society by running our companies in a socially responsible way, and by creating products that promote respect for social and environmental issues. There is also the possibility for power and influence to be a force for change.

Why did you make a commitment to RED/The Global Fund in particular?

I've been a long-time admirer of both Bono and Bobby Shriver's passion and energy when it comes to campaigning on social issues. So when they first described the potent yet simple idea behind RED, I was immediately won over. It is unquestionably a pioneering initiative. Unifying global brands for goodwill is both powerful and humbling, and requires the conviction of individuals like Bono and Bobby to make it happen.

The Pope is said to be reconsidering the Catholic Church's stance on condom use. Would this be a good thing?

Anything that helps to prevent the spread of HIV in Africa must be encouraged. The infection rate there is one of the fastest in the world, and it needs to be tackled in every way possible.

People are increasingly aware of the food they eat and the cars they drive. Do you think it's our responsibility to make people more environmentally aware when it comes to fashion?

I think that the most profound changes in society start with individual choices. If people want to change, they will. If they don't want to, it's hard to make them do so. The current interest in the environment is a good thing. The best way to make a contribution in fashion is to promote the idea that a fundamental interest in preserving the environment is itself fashionable. Beyond that, yes, of course we can work in ways that are more environmentally friendly, and create garments and products that promote the idea of environmental awareness. Recently, Armani Jeans was awarded the Eco Tex certification at Ecomoda, the Ecological Trade Fair, for the use of recycled polyester from bottles, and certified organic cotton from Peru (where we have been buying organic cotton from communities that once were dependent on the opium crop).

I refuse to work with leather or fur. What are your views on this?

I admire your commitment to this issue. As you're aware, I do use a limited amount of fur in my collections, but I try to do so conscientiously.

By producing collections every six months, are we encouraging people to consume more than they need to?

It's of course a problem; we need to renew our collections to evolve. I suppose that because my aesthetic tends towards the understated, and because I do not follow faddish trends, my clothes and accessories can be worn for several seasons.

In Britain, there appears to be a culture that embraces cheap clothes. Surely the more expensive the fashion, the more likely it is to come from ethical sources?

It would be a logical assumption that a higher price would equal a more ethical source - clothes made from more natural materials, by workers paid properly, in a decent environment. However, the culture embracing cheaper clothing that is evident in the UK is in my view more to do with the growth of "fast fashion", which has captured the attention of consumers in much the same way as "fast food" did.

You've been working for many years. How do your inspirations differ now from when you started?

My sources of inspiration are the same - travel, film, books, music and art; essentially the culture that surrounds me. However, as I have grown older, I've realised the extent to which I find people fascinating and inspiring. I love to watch people (those I know, and those I don't), and study mannerisms, expressions, the way they walk and hold themselves. People's characters are central to how I imagine dressing them. I believe that clothing should always celebrate the personality of the wearer, and not overwhelm it.

If you had to cite a single inspiration, what would it be? My father said his was hearing Elvis "for the first time".

Probably seeing films as a kid. It was like being transported from the harsh reality of life in post-war Italy to this magical place. The stars were so glamorous and larger than life that I wanted somehow to share in that. I think, at some level, when fashion opened up to me I saw how this might be possible and how I could create a glamorous, elegant world of my own.

You were the first person to base a press office in Hollywood. Do you think you started our obsession with celebrity?

People have always been fascinated by famous people and by Hollywood stars in particular, so I really couldn't take credit for such a thing. I established an office in Los Angeles to provide an additional service to our film industry friends because I've always been passionate about film. As a child, I used to go to Milan to the movies from the small town of Piacenza, where I grew up. At the beginning I loved westerns and Italian comedies, but later I fell in love with the neorealist films that inspired my good friend Martin Scorsese.

Today, the cult of celebrity has reached the point where the people wearing the clothes are often more important than the clothes themselves.

That's absolutely correct, and very disappointing. Unfortunately, this is tied to today's reality-show culture, which has created the phenomenon of the overnight celebrity, who, more often than not, has no more claim to fame than the 15 minutes of recognition they've already received. The growth of entertainment television and celebrity gossip magazines has also fuelled this trend. Unfortunately, there's little chance of this changing.

Are you excited about dressing the England World Cup football team?

I've enjoyed dressing soccer stars for many years. In many ways, they are the modern-day gladiators. Both on and off the field they have become icons. As a designer, it's always good to stretch yourself, and the challenge of dressing people whose bodies are fine-tuned and developed is one that I particularly enjoy.

You are rare in that you entirely control your own company. How important is independence to you?

It gives me the freedom to pursue projects and initiatives that I feel passionate about, even if in the short term they may not deliver a financial return.

Do you sympathise with young designers now that it's so difficult for them to establish themselves without a conglomerate behind them?

Yes, I certainly do. When I started with my business partner Sergio Galeotti, there was so much less competition. We were able to open a small office and pretend we were a professional organisation, when we really didn't know what we were doing. The company was funded by the sale of my VW Beetle - and you know what? We got away with it. Today, that kind of story would be unheard of.

What would be your advice to a designer starting out?

Remain true to yourself and your philosophy. Changing in the face of adversity will in fact diminish your credibility with your customers. Remember that, in the end, the customer doesn't know, or care, if you are small or large as an organisation - she or he only focuses on the garment hanging on the rail in the store.

I get the impression we share a common philosophy to give confidence but not define the personality. Do you see other similarities between our philosophies?

I think we share a desire to help people express themselves through their dress. This is different to the desire to mould the wearer to a particular look. The person should always come first, and the clothes should be a way of showcasing the personality. In my case, I try to do this through understatement and discreet glamour and elegance - and perhaps one could class this as a European approach. You have a more English, more idiosyncratic and perhaps eclectic aesthetic, but you still value the people you dress as individuals.

Does fame make you happy? And how do you guard your privacy?

I am in fact a rather private person, so the role that I sometimes have to play, attending fashion events and parties and giving interviews, does not always make me feel comfortable. But it goes with the job, and who am I to complain? I do a job I love to do, and if being recognised is the price I have to pay, so be it. I wouldn't say that I "guard" my privacy, I just try to live my life as normally as possible.

Yves Saint Laurent once said he wished he had invented jeans. Is there an item of clothing you wish you'd invented?

I suppose it would have been great to invent something as classic and enduring as the tuxedo. But if I was collecting royalties, I wish I'd invented the corkscrew.

What are you most proud of?

I suppose the fact that I pioneered a way of dressing that emphasised comfort, at a time when clothes were still being made in an old-fashioned and rigid way.

Does fashion ever bore you?

Only when it's bad!

Emporio Armani RED sunglasses are available now at Emporio Armani stores and selected stockists; Emporio Armani RED watch will be available this autumn