It was the front row of dreams: Cate Blanchett and Glenn Close gleaming in their white trouser suits; Leonardo DiCaprio hiding behind his beard; Tina Turner applauding wildly; Hilary Swank crossing her narrow, work-out legs; Lauren Hutton, gap-toothed; and eternal sex pot Sophia Loren, proving that life still sings at 80.
Giorgio Armani, nearly 81, celebrating 40 years of his fashion house, brought Hollywood to Milan to see a reprise of his 10-year-old Armani Privé couture line — and view the Silos building the designer has converted from a old grain factory. It is now transformed as a vibrant four-storey display of those years in fashion from bold androgyny to dreamy elegance.
“I had to come — for him,” said Cate Blanchett, echoing the warmth that surrounded the designer throughout an evening that ended with a prolonged standing ovation.
That was after the 10 different show themes, from echoes of the ethnic to Chinoiserie with the shine of lacquered box, which were digitally projected on to a runway, filling the background with intense pattern and colour.
“I am very emotional,” Armani admitted earlier in the day, as he opened up the Silos building to his guests. “It’s a walk through 40 years, reminding me of all the people who have worked with me.”
Giorgio greeted me outside the spare stone-and-glass building facing his Milan headquarters, looking as we all know him so well: navy sportswear, illuminated at top and bottom by his silver hair and white sneakers.
He then gave me the privilege of a walkthrough of the four floors, showing me with his particular, quiet elegance. It started with the signature beige of his early daywear, in which trouser-clad women broke the sexist glass ceiling, and led on to the glamorous evening gowns worn by Hollywood. Thirteen separate display sections include outfits that are not done by year, but each mixing different pieces from the Italian maestro’s long career.
“I am nearly 81 years old — and I have given my life to this,” the designer said later, when we had crossed over to the original Armani building designed by Tadao Ando, where I have seen so many fashion shows — and where that evening’s elegant extravaganza would take place.
The Silos, which Armani said cost him €50 million to convert into its current brutal elegance, includes the fashion displays, a digital area where clothes can be studied in detail and also extensive offices for his Milanese staff.
“I decided to call it Silos because this building used to store food, which is, of course, essential to life,” said Armani. “For me, just as much as food, clothes are a part of life.”
Timed to open on the eve of Expo, an event focusing on food which will remain in the Milan until October, the Silos is designed to become a Milan landmark. A coffee bar and a shop make this a new local and tourist landmark. And the arrangement with the city is that the building — or a part of it — will be used for cultural and art exhibitions, as some of the Armani pieces are temporarily removed.
“Milan has a new space it did not have, with easy access,” Armani said. “Anyone can come in. It’s a gift to the public — but the clothes are mine!”
The designer seems to have planned for his heritage from early on, although there is not so much from the Eighties on display here. One of the earliest pieces is a jacket and trousers from spring 1980 worn by Richard Gere in American Gigolo, the movie which implanted Armani in Hollywood legend. Even in 1978, Diane Keaton received an Oscar for her role in Annie Hall, wearing an Armani jacket. And the show includes a sharply tailored floor-sweeping dress, as worn by Sharon Stone to the Oscars in 1996 as she was nominated for the film Casino.
Huge wall screens show the stars coming, larger than life, before the viewer, so that the appearance of the front-row line-up later at the show just seemed like a little more enhanced reality.
I would have liked to see a bit more context, as I remember the battles of words and styles as Armani faced off first the bravura of Gianni Versace, then the sexiness of Tom Ford’s Gucci and Miuccia Prada’s deliberately ugly aesthetic.
But I respect Armani’s wish to do things his way and to emphasise not just the style but the substance in the craftsmanship.
“Made in China is something — made in Italy is something else,” the designer said, as he showed the intense craftsmanship in shimmering dresses on the third floor.
Ask the designer about any single piece in this show of 600 outfits and he tells its story, recalling a photo shoot with the model Amber Valletta “shot by Peter Lindbergh in Cyprus in tones of sand and grey” held in the digital archive area in the Armani Silos. Reminiscences about Jodie Foster at the start of her career and Lauren Hutton followed.
“Only for those who are no longer with me,” said Armani, referring obliquely to his dear mother, with whom he dined every night; and to Sergio Galeotti, his late partner in business and in life.
In September, there will be a book: a biography orchestrated by Armani of his life - and not just in fashion.
Meanwhile, was he looking forward to this sumptuous night of stars?
“I really like being at home having dinner with my cat, Angel,” said the maestro of Milano and world-famous fashion icon.