With New Store, Armani Takes on the Recession

Fashion mogul goes against the grain with his new store's giant price tag.

February 20, 2009, 11:00 AM

Feb. 20, 2009— -- The rest of the world may be filled with gloom and doom about the economy, but in the world of Giorgio Armani, there are no dark clouds.

In the midst the the worst economic crisis in recent history, Armani opened a new flagship store on New York's Fifth Avenue this week, saying that he has no worries about whether he can actually sell the $10,000 dresses the store displays.

"What else will they spend their money on?" he said, referring to the super rich.

The stars turned out earlier this week to welcome Armani to his new den, a glass box on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street complete with a massive staircase and an Italian restaurant nestled at the top.

"I think when the entire world thinks of fashion, Armani, of course, comes to to mind," stylist Rachel Zoe said. "I think he's the universal language. Honestly, there isn't a person in the world [who] hasn't heard of Giorgio Armani."

Such hyperbole ruled the opening-night party, where hundreds of the fashion elite -- dressed exclusively in black -- raved about the new space and the concept for the store, which places all Armani's brands under one roof.

Known for his muted palette and his deconstruction of the jacket, Armani gained traction as he began styling the Hollywood elite in the 1980s. Before long, he turned the red carpet into an Armani carpet.

Some people credit him with making black the chic color to wear, and most of the stars at the store's opening followed that rule.

"I didn't invent black," he said, adding that "it is certainly the most elegant color that one can have on. That's the rule in fashion."

He has dressed famous stars, including Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchett, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. His niece Roberta Armani works as his ambassador, handling his celebrity clientele.

"The red carpet has a major, a major impact," said Roberta Armani. "Major. We just dressed Angelina Jolie at the BAFTA's [British Academy of Film and Television Arts] in London, and she [wore] an Armani Prive gown. And after that, all the clients from Paris called. They wanted the same gown."

And how much would a dress like that sell for? It is "a haute couture dress, so I think it would sell for around $40,000, maybe $50,000," she said.

If celebrities sell clothes, then Armani's underwear sales may soon be up as well. Victoria and David Beckham can be seen posing in Armani's newest ads wearing, well, very little Armani. Victoria Beckham was at opening night wearing sparkling Armani down the outdoor red carpet. She pointed out her 4-inch high Armani heels. Asked by a reporter if they were comfortable, she said, "Nothing this beautiful is comfortable."

Not 'All Gloom and Doom'

Armani acknowledges it is "very dangerous" to open a new retail store in the current economic climate but said he decided to go forward anyway. As the sole owner of the Armani empire, which last year reported sales of $2.1 billion, he said he believes his investment now will pay off later. But how much did his new store cost him?

"I don't have a precise idea, but I do know that it's expensive," he said.

Very expensive. A similarly sized Armani store in Tokyo cost nearly $38 million, according to the company's annual report.

Among those who turned out to welcome Armani to town was Caroline Kennedy, who helped cut the ribbon at Tuesday night's ceremony.

"Mr. Armani has been very interested in supporting our schools here in New York City," she said. Armani donated $1 million to support art in public schools in the Bronx. School's Chancellor Joel Klein said that thousands of New York City's schoolchildren would benefit from the Armani gift.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was on hand to lend his support too. Asked if he thought people would be buying the $10,000 dresses, Bloomberg laughed and said he wouldn't be buying any, but that he deeply appreciated Armani's confidence in the city.

"We shouldn't be all gloom and doom," said the mayor. "This is still the fashion capital of the world. ... You want to do things at the bottom, not at the top. And I think this timing is going to turn out to be spectacular."

Spectacular maybe, gutsy for sure. Boutiques up and down Madison Avenue have shuttered in the past few months. Even the venerable Saks Fifth Avenue, a few blocks down from Armani's new store, cut prices by 70 percent before Christmas to try to stay afloat, a move Armani said he disapproved of.

"[Quite] frankly, if you think of the client who two days before bought that same piece at full price, that is damaging," he said. Armani said don't expect to see him cutting prices in such dramatic ways.

Nor does he expect to lay off any of his 5,000 employees, who span his vast empire of 500 company-owned stores and 13 factories.

Some luxury brands have moved away from name-brand shopping bags because clients don't want to be seen spending lavishly during a recession. Armani said that's a positive trend, "because this means people appreciate that bag or that object for the quality, not for the logo that is on there."

At 75, he said he has no plans to retire and has not selected a successor, saying he can't keep his mind on the matter long enough to bring it to a resolution. He admitted that work is his life and acknowledged he is a control freak and a passionate perfectionist, all of which his niece readily confirmed.

"To be the niece of Armani means that I have a last name that I have to live up to every day and every night," said Roberta Armani. "He is very demanding."

Living With 'A Lot of Pressure'

"He's very tough," she continued, "definitely with the family than anybody else. He never says 'bravo,' he never gives you compliments but by being like this he has taught me never to take anything for granted. ... But when I am with him, he never says he is tired, so I can never say I am tired."

He seems aware of the effect he creates. People around him jump to try and please him, striving to live up to his expectations and demands. He knows precisely how he wants to be photographed, exactly how he wants the merchandise displayed. Woe to the waiter who places a glass on one of his display cabinets. On a walk through his new store he grumbled when he saw a bright red button on one of his women's jackets. The button was not likely to be there the next day.

When it comes to the journalists who cover the fashion industry, Armani said his focus is always on the client, not the fashion editor in the front row, including iconic Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour.

"I have a problem [with a person] wearing dark glasses during a fashion show. It hides your emotions," he said.

He is a man who does not often discuss his feelings with journalists. He is notoriously bad tempered about the fashion press, which he believes has too much power. But on the day after his store opened he admitted to feeling isolated.

"Because everyone has a lot of expectations," he said, "they look at everything I do, from what I say, how I dress, what I eat, what mood I am in. I feel kind of like a prisoner who's got those bracelets on that you cannot escape from. I am actually learning to live with it though."

"Last night I was out in a club until 3:30 in the morning, and I was dancing like everyone else who was there, but then I also realized that those who were dancing in front of me were actually dancing for me. This is a beautiful satisfaction. Yes. A lot of pressure."

While Armani would never be caught wearing rose-colored glasses, we asked the editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar, Glenda Bailey, whether optimism was perhaps clouding Armani's vision in opening his Fifth Avenue store right now.

"I think Giorgio Armani is a genius and the reason that I think that is because he understands that fashion reflects what is going on in our culture. He has always been one step ahead," said Bailey.

Patrick McCarthy, editor of Woman's Wear Daily, agreed.

"I think this moment in the fashion world is the worst moment I've ever experienced, and I think it's probably the worst moment anyone's experienced," said McCarthy.

But according to McCarthy, this is a moment Giorgio Armani may be uniquely able to weather.

"He's the sole shareholder, and so he doesn't have stockholders looking over his shoulder," said McCarthy. "I mean, the fashion companies that have gone public have always regretted it because Wall Street is the trendiest business in the world. They want to know what the sales were last week.

'Fashion Helps You to Live'

"And when you are private you can do what you want, you can make those kinds of commitments whether it's opening a new store, whether it's advertising, whether it's expanding in India and China when you want to do it and how you want to do it. And that's why Giorgio Armani can do it in this economy."

Bailey said it's not just that Armani opened this store in the middle of a terrible economic time, it's how he opened it putting all his labels -- high and low -- in one place. A $20 T-shirt is found a few floors away from a $1,000 dragonfly pin.

"He created this whole shop that it wasn't going to be for someone who dressed head to toe in one particular way," said Bailey. "He wanted to show all his collections. He is just as happy showing his jeans and his T-shirts right next door to his Prive line, which, of course, is couture. He shows all this together so that you can spend, depending on your budget. I think that is kind of revolutionary."

"I think that in these troubled times we have to be positive. We have to try to think about how to get out of this very tough economy. ... If you are fortunate enough to be in a position to shop, then please do so and create jobs for our industry," Bailey said.

"These are hard times," Armani said. "People will decide whether or not to buy a new washing machine -- not buy a dress." Still, he remains optimistic that this represents "a passing moment," and at the end of the day, believes that "fashion helps you to live."

"[It] helps you to feel better," he said. "When you get up in the morning and you look at the mirror ... you want to look appealing, you want to feel confident going out. This is what fashion does; this is what fashion gives to the world."

When asked what he hopes his contribution to fashion would be, he said, "That I have tried to help people to look good not because something looks good, not because it looks good but because it suits them and therefore they look good in it."

By and large, Armani said he'll judge his success by one simple metric. "How many shopping bags leave the building."

He laughed. He paused. And he laughed again.

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