Interviewing Giorgio Armani is a curious experience: not like having a conversation, more like being taken in hand by a team of expert surgeons and subjected to a routine but rather delicate operation.
At precisely the appointed time, people suddenly mutter, "He's here," and everyone tenses and stiffens and bustles to do what is required of them. Mr Armani materialises in the design studio wearing his familiar short-sleeved navy T-shirt, short and wiry and looking a good decade or two younger than his 73 years, with the famous snub nose and somewhat chilly blue eyes.
His PA plants himself silently at my side, his PR chief and media manager move into my line of sight on the far side of the room, the cameraman and several assistants are setting up their shot. His way of being interviewed is not unkindly but brisk and impersonal, as if I was not one journalist but a whole press conference. He launches into machine gun-like answers before the questions are fully out of my mouth.
We are in the bland spaces of Giorgio Armani headquarters in Via Borgnuovo, Milan, the engine room of the empire, to see what the world-famous fashion designer has cooked up for this year's Milan furniture fair.
In the photographs of his new home collection, the desks, tables, sofas and beds are posed in settings reminiscent of Thirties movie sets, as if Greta Garbo and Humphrey Bogart had only seconds ago vanished, wreathed in cigarette smoke, taking crew, cameras, cables and clutter with them.
What remain, moodily lit like Edward Hopper paintings, set on broad drums before faintly oriental screens or oversize portholes, or at the far end of great vacant spaces with white curtains soaring behind them, are the new furniture pieces: richly finished, perfectly elegant, but so bland, despite their prominence, that they are barely there.
Armani has always been identified with minimalism, but it is minimalism with a very particular pedigree, and in his furniture he is drawing ever closer to evoking its roots: in the surface sensuality and formal inflections of Japanese and Chinese design, and in the myriad ideas and obsessions and atmospheres and materials that we identify by the word "deco". It is the world as revealed to a First Class passenger on board the Queen Mary: proto-modernism as nostalgia, as the discovery of a world of space, luxury, sensuality, discretion, subdued light, with almost no people in it.
It's as if Armani's inspiration today is nothing his contemporaries may be doing but memories of early childhood: he was born in 1934. "The years from 1930 to 1940 were years of great invention and creativity," he concurs. "I have always referred to them, both in my fashion and my furniture."
His initial urge to do more with less, however, had a British inspiration. Long before becoming a designer, Armani was a buyer for La Rinascente, an old and venerable Italian department store, and when London suddenly became trendy in the mid-Sixties he was sent over to find out what all the fuss was about.
"They sent me there for a week to see what was going on," he tells me. "My interest in minimalism was a reaction to this excess of ideas, Carnaby Street, the magical moment of fashion in England – a personal rejection of what I thought was ridiculous. I said to myself, why must people look like that? I understood the innovation, the idea of breaking the rules, but there are ways and ways of breaking the rules."
Badgered into launching his own collection by his companion Sergio Galleotti in 1970, Armani had within a decade established himself as one of the finest tailors of his generation, and one of the handful of top designers in the world.
Then 20 years later, in 2000, still at the top of the heap in fashion, he created Armani/Casa and abruptly re-branded himself as an interior designer as well. Today his fashion empire covers the entire gamut, from teenage jeans to gowns for Hollywood stars, and Armani is said to be worth more than £2bn, making him the richest fashion designer on earth. But his furniture and interiors business is expanding just as fast, with shops, such as the recently opened one on London's New Bond Street, and hotels and residences in places like Dubai, for which he is providing what his people call "the Armani lifestyle".
How to explain, I want to know, his move into interior and furniture design? Didn't he have enough on his plate already?
"I waited a long time before taking this initiative because I wanted to be sure it would work," he says. "I wanted to be sure that once started it would be followed, because at my age and with my reputation I can't afford to get it wrong. I waited a long time for the right moment."
He pauses. "That's the official reason. The other reason is that I wanted to remove myself somewhat from fashion, to experiment a bit with my abilities beyond the practice of fashion." He goes on, "I didn't claim to be a great inventor but rather a researcher, someone who lives in a home with love, who does not treat it merely as a place where one goes to eat, sleep, then run away. But actually living in the home, taking pleasure in it."
If people criticise Armani's furniture as safe, tame or derivative it doesn't bother him at all. "As I said, I don't claim to be a great inventor. I'm not interested in being someone who creates, say, an armchair with three legs or a sofa that floats in the air. I've given up the idea of being thought of as a great creator because that's not what I am, and it's not what I want to be: I want to sell. I want to come up with a product that is comprehensible to 99 per cent of the people. Being avant garde sometimes means losing your underpants. You can also lose plenty of money. I renounced the idea of doing this from the outset. Instead of being inventive in that way, what I look for is atmosphere, co-ordination."
He has had to take account of the very different ways in which people buy fashion and furniture; for while they may buy a new frock twice a year, "people don't buy a sofa every season; at most they buy two in a lifetime." So the secret of his interior work is co-ordination: producing new tables, chairs, sofas, lamps and so on that will be distinctively new, but that will also work with earlier Armani pieces in which they have already invested.
But with the Armani name attached to everything he produces, how close is the match between the furniture and accessories sold by Armani/Casa and le case di Armani – the places he calls home?
"This is a real problem," he answers, "because if I make something, I naturally want to have it in my own home. But to do that I would have to throw everything away every season, which would be both costly and tiring.
"I created my home in Milan 20 years ago and it remains what it is. I don't like unfaithfulness; I am faithful by nature, but even so I change things once in a while on the basis of what I dream up for my collection.
"But it's true that I have many homes and for every home there is a particular inspiration. I have a country villa, a late-19th-century house with very comfortable sofas and a rather romantic atmosphere, a house set in a beautiful park with lots of animals – it's got an atmosphere that doesn't belong to me because I am a moderno but it is a dream, a type of comedy that I live the two days of a week that I am there. Then there is my house in the island of Pantelleria which is inspired by the Mediterranean world and Africa."
As he will turn 74 in July, the unavoidable question is, how long does he plan to keep all these balls in the air?
"That's a terrible question!" he counters. "The fact is that I still get a big kick out of designing: I've just finished doing my house in the mountains which I did by myself, I've just finished my yacht which I did by myself ... I hope I'll carry on for another 25 years."
That would make him 98. Does he jest? Perhaps not. He seems in excellent health. And he clearly has nothing else to do with his time. "If I'm not concentrating on something I feel lost," he confesses. "At the weekends I am desperate because I have nothing to do. It's activity that keeps me alive and energetic."
A hint about his true intentions is concealed in the new Armani/Casa Collection. All the items begin with the letter "B": from Bon Ton and Blush to Boccherini and Basquiat, by way of Barthes and Borromini. Last year the initial letter was "A".
You would hardly start out on the alphabet without intending to get to the end of it. Does that give a true idea of his plans? He confirms it: "I'm aiming for the letter 'Z'," he says.Reuse content