The Armani store on Via Manzoni is about as long as a city block and several stories high. Inside one can get everything from a pair of evening shoes to a sushi dinner. The size of the store owes as much to the vastness of the Armani brand as it does to a successful businessman's desire to hoist his own banner higher than anyone else's.
Giorgio Armani's place in fashion history is secure, of course. He created and then defined a style of dress -- the unconstructed business suit, the androgynous woman. His work was a reaction to a standard of constructed, stuffed-shirt formality. He launched his first collection in 1975, and by the mid-'80s Armani's radical departure had become the power-dressing standard. By now, Armani's sensibility has become so ingrained that it is generic. To describe a suit as "very Armani" is to suggest that it has both elegance and informality and that it most likely is in a neutral palette. Armani is one of the world's most successful designers trapped by success. How do you rebel against yourself? How do you alter a successful formula so that your come-on to the customer doesn't look like warmed-up leftovers?
One possible path is here on the top floor of the Armani store, where there is an open space for art exhibitions. The designer doesn't like to think of himself as a patron -- "I don't want to exaggerate, 'patron' is a big word" -- but he likes to use the area to showcase the work of young artists. This month, the gallery is presenting portraits by Rankin, one of those celebrity photographers who might hazily be described as hip, having co-founded, in 1991, the magazine Dazed & Confused. The walls of the exhibition are covered with 43 large-scale pictures of the famous, including Madonna, Hugh Grant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, U2 and Armani himself -- who is also here in the flesh for the fall fashion previews.
While there is pleasure in lending support, the relationship with other artists also helps feed Armani's own creative impulses. "It doesn't necessarily add creativity to what I design, but it keeps me in touch with today," says the 68-year-old Armani. "As a consequence it helps me understand which way society is going.
"My clothes have to work on the street at the end of the day. It helps me be in tune and in touch with what people are thinking."
It may be that Armani's association with someone like Rankin, who moves in a crowd that includes unvarnished singers and actors just rising from beneath the social radar, gives him an ear for pop culture's whispers and groans. But something keeps getting muddled in the interpretation. It is as though great reams of information about popular culture, street style, corporate dress, music icons, starlets and athletes come flooding into the Armani atelier, where they are studied, processed and incorporated into upcoming collections. Yet the collections somehow miss the mark, often reading like a fine rock song that has been re-recorded by a chamber orchestra. In the end, everyone is left unsatisfied.
Perhaps a short dress has too much of a girlish swing to be sexy. Or it is paired with a conservative blazer and the combination sends conflicting signals. Sometimes the problem is simply that no one wants Armani to send micro-minis down his runway because that just is not what the man who reinvented the business suit is supposed to do. In recent seasons, Armani has proven himself to be a man of extraordinarily fine taste who has put some of the most awkward silhouettes on the catwalk. He is a visionary who virtually built the bridges connecting fashion, celebrities and film and yet manages to mount runway shows that lack both energy and surprise.
For many years, the classicism of Armani remained in step with the times. The prevailing wisdom was that an Armani frock was always right. The reality has become more complicated. Rarely is an Armani frock ever dead wrong. Yet just as rarely does Armani present a collection that is blissfully, utterly right now. It has been a long time since he has provided a fashion "moment." While the notion speaks of pretentiousness and a tendency to elevate fashion to unnatural importance, it also captures that sense of serendipity, epiphany or harmony when a perfectly calibrated collection or a single divine frock appears on the runway, triggering both the imagination and the cash register.
Even more important, Armani has not had a recent collection that has spoken eloquently of his stature, his sensibility and his times. And fall 2003 is not the season that will end that staid streak. Last week, in Emporio Armani, the secondary collection that is positioned to appeal to a younger or sportier customer, the designer focused almost entirely on short dresses. Some were done with a nod to grace and refinement. They were often paired with spare jackets that barely skimmed the waist and that covered the torso with the lightness of a veil. But the clothes never established themselves as special. A runway presentation is, in essence, a designer's pickup line to his customers. And this one lacked both passion and conviction.
Similar problems marred the main collection, which was shown this afternoon. Again Armani focused on short hemlines, but he added the midsection as a focal point. He cut his jackets to fit more closely to the waist and indeed there were several evening coats -- one in an inky black that sparkled like a dark lake in the moonlight -- that caused one to sit up a little straighter. It sent a whiff of optimism through the crowded room: Could inspired frocks be hanging backstage? But the moment soon passed and Armani settled back into spangly cocktail dresses with bare backs and tasteful fronts that reminded one of a host of other glittering Armani cocktail dresses in which the small of the back is revealed.
The challenge to Armani is to somehow find a way for his own minimalist sensibility to coexist with a world of high-tech fabrics, industrial references, music iconography and retro style. The first step may simply be to convince observers that he has the will, the right and the need to evolve. Moving forward does not necessarily mean that one has to incorporate the trends of the moment. Miniskirts are not the measure of a designer's modernity. But conviction in one's aesthetic surely is a sign of enduring stature.
Previous reports and photo galleries from the fall fashion shows are available online at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/fashionshows.html