"I was attracted to her as a whole," says Armani, the trailblazer of red carpet dressing, who has been working with actresses from Jodie Foster to Beyoncé for the past 17 years. "Her seemingly fragile body accompanied by such a strong personality and a great will to tackle challenges."
Challenge No. 1: After finding two dresses she liked at the Armani Privé fall 2006 show in Milan on Feb. 20 and traveling for multiple fittings, the actress waited until the day before the Oscars to choose which to wear. "At one point I was joking, and I said, 'Maybe we should flip a coin to decide!' They're both so beautiful," says Zhang, "I am very lucky to have a choice like this."
Few alterations were made to the dress, save cutting it down to fit her small frame, and the working relationship was just as simple, aided by an interpreter who translated her Mandarin and his native Italian. "We don't have an awards show strategy," explains the designer. "We get together and in the same natural and easygoing manner, we discuss each dress and event separately."
As for accessories and makeup, "Ziyi is stunning with her hair down or up in complicated dos. I have never seen her looking out of place or out of sync. I guess it's all part of her character and the fact that she knows what she wants."
Right now, it's Armani. "Designers are very nice to me," admits Zhang. "Maybe next time if I have a chance I will work with them. But this year, [Giorgio and I] get along fabulously. He is so elegant and you can find something suitable for all occasions."
All eyes were on the Oscars except for Armani's—he is already at work on his next big collaboration. "I am a very busy man," he says. "I regret not being able to spend time at these events and see the result of my work. These are the things that give you satisfaction—seeing all our hard work worn by some of the most beautiful women on earth."
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THE GOLDEN GLOBES
"This dress was made especially for her. She liked it despite the fact my dressmakers and I warned her it was a difficult color to wear. To see this chartreuse worn by a beautiful woman who suits it makes me proud."
"This dress needed a certain body type: petite with structured shoulders and a slim build. She had all these characteristics but topped it off with a strong personality. The mix was fantastic."
Accessories-wise, "there is little to advise Ziyi about. I like the way she moves and wears my clothes. They seem as though they've been hers all along."
FRONT ROW FAN
You don't window-shop for an Oscar dress—you runway-shop. Ziyi Zhang, shown here at Armani's fall 2006 show in Milan, brought a digital camera and then "downloaded pictures of two dresses from the catwalk show onto my computer," says the designer. "Those were the ones we worked on and fitted to her tiny size."
At an event where actresses sometimes forget to thank their husbands, few—if any—fail to recall who designed their Oscar dress. It's a unique relationship. "Immediately, I liked him," says Ziyi Zhang about her first encounter with Giorgio Armani in 2004. "Now I love him, and I think he likes me too." Yes, he likes her. He really, really likes her.