Armani's 'iron lady' in defection to Klein: Marion Hume reports on designer switch by the 'terrible terrier' that signals eclipse of Milan's fashion status by New York

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The Independent Online
THE WOMAN dubbed fashion's 'terrible terrier' has transferred her ferocious devotion from one fashion titan to another. In a coup that has astonished insiders, Milanese fashion's key mandarin, Gabriella Forte, has defected from Italy's Armani to his arch rival, America's Calvin Klein.

No one is more surprised than Armani himself, who employed the diminutive and fierce Mrs Forte for a 15-year span which ended with her swift departure on Tuesday. And no one is more delighted than Calvin Klein, recently emerged as Armani's main rival at the pinnacle of fashion's global business.

Mrs Forte, who was vice-president of Giorgio Armani, responsible for his US operations, his image, his press, his marketing and events held in his name, will become president of the Calvin Klein company. Klein is calling it a 'mega-deal'.

But there is more to it than a highly-regarded player changing teams. To fashion folk, Giorgio Armani is Milanese fashion and Calvin Klein is New York. Mrs Forte's defection is a further sign that New York will eclipse Milan as fashion's second international city after Paris.

It follows months of rumouring that next season the other big Italian names, Gianni Versace and Dolce & Gabbana, will stage their shows in New York. It also cements fashionable opinion that Calvin Klein - long viewed as an imitator of Armani's minimalist style - has eclipsed the designer who brought the world beige by offering equally simple but far sexier seasonal styles.

Famed as a tough businesswoman, Mrs Forte has presided over Armani's worldwide business explosion. Now she will preside over Klein's as his huge American business, most famous for fragrance, jeans and underwear, turns into a global empire. He is currently engaged in a worldwide expansion.

Publicly, Mrs Forte's departure comes at a bad time for the Armani business. Giorgio Armani's youthful jeans and T-shirt line A/X Exchange is part of Simint SpA in the US and last month reported a dollars 116m loss. Privately, behind the high stone walls of the palazzo that is Giorgio Armani's home and his headquarters, the Milanese maestro is whispered to be shaken.

For Mrs Forte was his protector. She joined the company before the death of Armani's best friend and business partner, Sergio Galeotti, and then steered a straight course for the company when grief-striken Armani left it otherwise rudderless. Along with Armani's sister, Rosanna, Mrs Forte was the designer's buffer against the world.

One of few people to call him Giorgio, she made sure everyone else whispered Mr Armani like an incantation. She ensured that the atmosphere at HQ was similar to high church, and that anyone who did not worship at the altar of Armani did not stay.

Her ability to reduce even the strongest footsoldiers in Armani's army to tears is a fashion legend. No suprise then that in New York, staff are said to be quaking in their Calvins.

Legendary too is the toughness that earned her terrier nickname. When the design duo, Dolce & Gabbana, invited Madonna and a few hundred journalists to a party that happened to clash with the showing of Giorgio Armani's second line, Emporio, Mrs Forte famously went into overdrive.

Those who chose Madonna, including Roger Tredre, the Independent's fashion correspondent at the time, received stern letters, copied to their editors. And when Tredre turned up for the show of the Giorgio Armani collection, later in the same week, he was informed by Mrs Forte that his front row seat had been re-allocated. He was then frogmarched by Mrs Forte to a seat near the back of the auditorium.

Mrs Forte once took Iain R Webb, the fashion editor of the Times and myself to supper. As I struggled with a frightening heap of spaghetti and crustacea (which she had ordered for me, requesting a salad for herself), she quizzed us on our favourite designers, and then demonstrated an awesome ability to turn our opinions into praise of the greater talent of Giorgio Armani.

At Calvin Klein, her skill at damage limitation will also come in useful, particularly in the wake of the recent no-holds-barred, unauthorised biography, Obsession, the Lives and Times of Calvin Klein.

Also valuable will be her skill in winning over Hollywood. In the past, Academy Award dressing was almost unanimously stamped Armani. But last March saw the beginnings of the tide turning as Calvin Klein made an onslaught on the awards. Mrs Forte is likely to work hard to ensure that next year's winners hold their Oscars up to the cameras wearing Calvin Klein.

(Photographs omitted)