His Fashions Are Loose and Flowing, and So Are Profits for Designer Giorgio Armani

updated 07/30/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/30/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

'Being sexy isn't showing off your sex, it's how you move'

"There are not that many things you can do to change men's fashion," claims Giorgio Armani. "No man looks good dressed frivolously the way some women do, wrapped in rainbow outfits or metallic jumpsuits. Men will always return to typical garments like the jacket and tie."

Threadbare as that diagnosis sounds, the 45-year-old Italian designer has built an international reputation—not to mention a $20 million-a-year empire—on his interpretation of the "typical" jacket and tie. Not exactly the sort of thing that made Brooks Brothers famous, Armani's unstructured look makes even his English wool suits feel as comfortable as silk pajamas. "He has changed the whole concept of menswear in the '70s," says designer Bill Blass, while Pierre Cardin credits Armani with "worldwide impact."

Classically linear with wide shoulders and tapered waists, Armani's blazers have complemented such diversely stellar bodies as John Travolta, Donna Summer and Mick Jagger. In May, Armani's designs earned him the prestigious Neiman-Marcus Award, and starting this month a Manhattan showroom will carry a new collection of American-targeted Armanis, sporting lighter textures and colors than usual. The gray linen and beige gabardine suits will cost $325—half the price Armani suits have sold for here in the past. "Now that so many U.S. retailers are cheaply copying the Armani style," explains Armani sales director Andriano Gianelli, "we wanted to make them have to compete with the original."

Milan-based Armani insists he does not "take men's fashion too seriously," but the disclaimer is foolish to those who know him. "Giorgio is such a persnickety worker," says press agent Franco Savorelli. "He never leaves details to anyone besides himself." Working a 12-hour day, Armani spends as much time fussing over fabrics—from flannels and wool crepe to linen and poplin—as he does over his drooping lapels and diagonal sleeves.

Such passion for detail also marked his decade-long association with Nino Cerruti, one of Italy's leading designers of men's clothing. Armani's middle-class family (his father was a transport executive, his mother a housewife) expected him to become a doctor. Giorgio wanted to be a photographer. Instead, he wound up an assistant buyer at La Rinascente (the Italian Sears). A friend recommended him to Cerruti when the noted clothier wanted a stylist for a new men's line.

While working for Cerruti, Armani conceived his unstructured look, and in 1974 the first unlined blazer appeared under his own name. "Men's fashion had been interpreted so badly before then," he says. "A man's outfit was either like a suit of armor or he wore tight pants that showed off his sex in front and rear. Being sexy isn't showing off your sex, it's how you move."

Since then Armani has also successfully adapted his loosely draped men's designs for women, but he is adamantly against unisex clothing. "The idea of a man and woman sharing the same clothes insults the beauty distinct in their bodies," he objects. The lifelong bachelor speaks from experience: Armani admits he is bisexual, regretting only that he wasn't born 10 years later "so that I could have been more casual in my sex life."

The key to Armani's success is close-knit collaboration. Many of his business associates are intimates, and they not only work together, they vacation together at Armani's villa on the island of Pantelleria south of Sicily. Armani also has a house at Santa Margherita Ligure on Italy's west coast and until recently he shared his Milan apartment with partner Sergio Galleotti. Armani's widowed 75-year-old mother lives one floor below.

In a profession where moods drop faster than hemlines, Giorgio Armani is anything but overconfident. "I don't feel I'm on top," insists Armani, "and I don't mind admitting that I am terrified every time I start a new collection. I can only create if I do one thing: forget I am Giorgio Armani."

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