11/15/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
Giorgio Armani was honored, of course, to accept the Fashion Group International's annual Superstar Award recently at New York City's Cipriani. But he wanted to make one thing clear. "This...is usually given to people at the end of their careers," he told the star-studded audience, with the help of an Italian translator. "But I don't want this to be the end. Don't believe you'll get rid of me so easily!"
At 70, Armani is quick to remind his peers that he's no less relevant today than he was in the 1980s and '90s. While stars like Julia Roberts
, Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer wouldn't think of walking the red carpet without him then, today a new set of stars favor him for A-list events, including Beyoncé
, Heidi Klum
and Kate Hudson
, who says, "You've got to be an Armani fan! Everything he does is so classic and beautiful."
He may not be getting the same buzz that the new generation of upstart designers may be getting. And Armani fans who want the brand to go on forever wonder if he'll name a successor. But business is booming, and the designer, who showed his 2005 spring collection in New York two days before he received his award, says he's in no mood to slowdown. "My life is my work and my work is my life," he says, sitting in a straight-backed chair in his beige-and-black penthouse apartment in Manhattan. "The day I quit is the day I can no longer have a contemporary vision. But I think it will be very difficult to arrive at that view of myself."
Armani's Milan-based business, which posted $5 billion in sales worldwide last year, is still robust. In addition to the sexy power suits he's known for, he designs home furnishings, and among the products his company licenses are eye-wear, cosmetics and fragrance. Also in the works: 14 luxury-hotel properties that will open over the next 10 years.
"There are the young and hip designers who do $10,000 a year and get all the press, and then there are the true fashion empires," says Patrick McCarthy, chairman of Fairchild Publications, which publishes Women's Wear Daily
. "Giorgio Armani has such an empire."
His competitors acknowledge it too. "I don't think there will ever be another Giorgio Armani," says designer Marc Jacobs. "He's iconic. I've referenced so many Armani things myself—we even have an American Gigolo collection."
It was that 1980 film starring Richard Gere that began turning Armani into a household name. Dropping out of medical school in 1957 to become a merchandiser at an Italian department store, Armani and partner Sergio Galeotti started the label in 1975 after selling Armani's Volkswagen for funding. Galeotti died of cancer in 1985, just as Armani was becoming a runway hit and a red-carpet king. "I knew he would have been so happy to see how it turned out," says Armani, who keeps a photo of Galeotti in his bedroom. "He was a great accomplice."
The designer was raised in the small northern Italian town of Piacenza by his accountant father, Ugo, and home-maker mom, Maria. "I inherited a spirit of reserve from her," says Armani, famous for such minimalist creations as his unstructured jacket. "Not to be too outgoing, too excessive or flashy."
That attitude doesn't preclude enjoying a bit of luxury. He sails a 159-ft. yacht that he keeps in La Spezia, and he travels often from his apartment in Milan to seven other homes, including a villa in Saint-Tropez, France, and an estate on the rugged Sicilian island of Pantelleria. Still, he's as disciplined in his personal life as in his professional: He doesn't smoke, rarely drinks or eats red meat and works out for an hour and a half each day. But he regularly makes the late-night scene in Milan, showing up as the patron di casa at his club Armani Privé in Milan. "I have learned to be more carefree recently," he says. "Everyone thinks I'm a difficult man, a complicated man, one you don't have fun with. The people look at me and say, 'You're really hanging out with us?' "
Jennifer Wulff. Nina Biddle in New York City