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Armani's Perfect Fit

After 30 Years of Predictable Excellence, the Designer Still Suits to a Tee

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page C01


The final hours before a designer's runway presentation are always about the details: an unraveling seam or a spray of unruly wrinkles, the right shoes or the perfect jewelry. For Giorgio Armani, there would be hell to pay because of a few hats.

In Armani's signature collection for spring, inspired by his recent trip to China and surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli, the models wore an array of jackets -- some of them calmly caressed the body, others enveloped it in a passionate embrace. On the bottom, there were wide-leg trousers with curiously rigid hems or bell-shaped skirts that rustled around the lower legs. Armani also decided that his models should wear hats that vaguely resembled turbans . . . had they been smashed on the side and then molded into a single Himalayan peak.

"I think I give the impression to people that I'm an extremely difficult person and demanding person," says Giorgio Armani, shown at one of his Paris stores. "But I'm demanding foremost with myself."

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Among the editors and retailers in the audience here, the hats were not well received. "Strange" was one carefully calibrated description. That comes as no surprise to Armani. "Sometimes you have to betray your style and surprise people who come to see you," he says two days after the show. "I knew they were going to be talked about and criticized."

He didn't care. He doesn't have to.

Armani's name is so synonymous with pure lines and restrained colors, his reputation so closely linked with the glamour of Hollywood and the savoir-faire of sophisticated power brokers, that no matter what some opinionated so-and-so with a blog, pen or television camera might think, his clothes continue to sell. The Armani brand is fashion's equivalent of a "Star Wars" movie or "Harry Potter" installment. It is critic-proof.

Armani will celebrate his 30th business anniversary next year. In three decades he has painstakingly built a reputation for impeccably good taste. Whether he is designing a business suit that will be worn by a captain of industry or a couture gown for an actress strolling down the red carpet, Armani is reliably, relentlessly, predictably tasteful.

Last month the designer made one of his infrequent visits to New York to accept the Superstar Award from Fashion Group International, a trade association. There were plenty of famous faces in the audience that night: actresses Kate Hudson and Michelle Pfeiffer, director Martin Scorsese, singer Usher, stage and screen legend Julie Andrews. But Armani is used to being surrounded by celebrities. And he can shine just as brightly as any of them. He is comfortable being photographed and he knows his best side. The man who invented nonchalant sophistication and easy Hollywood glamour shows the room exactly how it should be done. He wears a classic black tuxedo with a perfect fit. His snow-white hair is combed off his face. His white formal shirt is crisp. There is a flower in his lapel.

Designer Marc Jacobs, who was also honored that night, shouted out praises for Armani during his own acceptance speech. "I'm happy to be in the same room with you," he said.

Armani was also celebrated by Scorsese and Pfeiffer for his classicism and sense of restraint. Both actors wore Armani designs -- Scorsese a tuxedo and Pfeiffer a slip of a midnight-gray evening gown. "You are an artist and you never get it wrong," Pfeiffer said to Armani. "You let me believe I'm wearing what I want to wear and protect me from my sometimes wayward self."

The designer can cut suits for both men and women that simultaneously speak of authority and sensuality. He can tailor a jacket that just feels good to wear, says John Klekamp, a television journalist who lives in New Jersey and has fond memories of a navy wool crepe Armani sport jacket. "That's how I feel about anything of his I put on. It just feels better."

Armani can craft a drop-dead beaded evening gown that, while setting a woman back $10,000 to $20,000, will make her look rich and sexy but never ostentatious or vulgar. When starlets want to get noticed, they wear Versace. When they want to be respected, they wear Armani.

"Armani is all in the details," says Wendy Buckley, an advertising and marketing executive in Manhattan. "The beauty of Armani is that you can be 20 years old and wear one of his jackets with a sexy camisole and wear it fitted and look hot as hell. And you can be more matronly and look downright incredible and together."

Buckley has worn Armani's designs for almost 20 years, becoming a customer as soon as she was able to afford one of his $3,000 suits. She recalls, with great fondness, a black collarless jacket with a V neck and off-center buttons that she purchased at Bergdorf Goodman and wore with "tight black stretchy pants. Remember when that was -- you know . . ." Chic? Indeed. Late 1980s. She could dress it up or dress it down. She wore it constantly. "The CPW" -- cost per wearing -- "on that jacket was phenomenal."

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