The Talented Mr. Armani

Jennifer Livingston

Fashion’s longtime master of ready-to-wear dared to take on the competitive world of couture. Just two years later, he’s earned its most prestigious prize: Success.

Only a handful of fashion houses (among them Chanel, Christian Dior, and Givenchy) and a few hundred active clients remain in the couture game. Pessimism swirls even during the two times each year that fashion’s deacons descend upon the City of Lights for the fanciful-beyond-parallel haute couture shows. Yves Saint Laurent closed its 40-year-old couture house following January 2002’s fashion week, Torrente shuttered its atelier in 2005 after more than three decades, and this summer Emanuel Ungaro failed to show for the fourth straight season. So it seems an odd, if not wholly insane, time to enter the business—especially for a man whose résumé already includes 31 years of designing his own soaring success of a line, not to mention an empire that includes several less expensive diffusion labels, sunglasses, makeup, perfume, denim, and a chain of in-store cafés. And yet, at the age of 72, that’s exactly what Giorgio Armani did. Only four seasons old, Armani’s Privé line, the newest name on the couture calendar, has transformed the most famous and established man in modern fashion into a neophyte suddenly navigating treacherous waters.

Mr. Armani tells me that he entered the world of couture in response to his ready-to-wear clients who had become bored with what he calls "a homogenization of fashion." He knows success is not guaranteed. "It was a moment when others were closing," the elegant Italian admits. "But I sensed this resurgence in the desire to have unique, personalized items."

It’s an exciting development indeed, and last summer in Paris I found myself heading to my first Privé show, albeit with a touch of trepidation. I’ve worked in the world of vintage haute couture for nearly a decade, as owner of the (coincidentally named) Decades boutique in Los Angeles, and I’ve been spoiled by Vionnet’s genius bias gowns, Dior’s New Look silhouettes, and Madame Grès’s evening dresses. I have come to view couture as, above all, a laboratory for experimentation, and Giorgio Armani is hardly an enfant terrible. Could his work live up to the standard of drama that the other couturiers provide? On the other hand, I reasoned, the androgynous draped suiting that made Armani a household name was no doubt revolutionary; perhaps I was underestimating the man. I headed to 34–36 Rue Lauriston, an intimate gray rectangle of a room where the show was to take place.

There are two types of couture show attendees: those who borrow (celebrities) and those who buy (fashionistas, society doyennes). Both were seated on the two rows of steel folding chairs that lined the runway, chicly dressed primarily in beige or navy. Fashion legend and Beverly Hills philanthropist Susan Casden, who always has a full schedule during couture week, told me that she decided to make time for the Armani show because she believes he is truly dedicated to couture. I knew she was right as soon as the models began appearing from backstage. A brown velvet trench with a whorl python collar and python cuffs was restrained yet voluptuous. A soft tiered silk bustier top and draped skirt in cream was evening elegance defined. A black sheared mink with organdy insets was destined to become a best seller. Meanwhile, in the chairs, Jacqueline de Ribes, Marjorie Gubelmann Raein, and Lady Helen Taylor could all be seen elatedly marking down their favorite pieces. Casden later confessed to falling in love with the first look that was sent down the runway: a black-and-white zigzag-effect cashmere wrap coat with a dramatically high whorl collar that pulsed with classic Armani DNA. She ordered it immediately.

There were fewer incarnations of Armani’s signature pantsuit than I had hoped for, but otherwise the designer succeeded in staying true to the foundations of his house while simultaneously bringing the clothing to a decidedly haute level. The first designer to realize the value of dressing celebrities for awards shows and other press-heavy events, Armani littered the catwalk with the sorts of dresses that will bring his A-list clients—among them actress Cate Blanchett, songstress Alicia Keys, and Bollywood megastar Aishwarya Rai—glowing approval from those fearsome red-carpet commenta-tors; subtly luxurious embellished gowns and pleated confections were met with applause that seemed to come from an audience of hundreds rather than this tiny exclusive group. I nearly lost my breath when a classic bias silk-satin dress in pale champagne—with a décolleté neckline, tumbling silk-organdy ruffles, floral spirals in tulle and elabo- rate organdy, and a cascade of pearls—materialized from backstage. A beautiful strapless gray silk-organdy dress with an intricate bodice and a large floral coil that looked like origami gone gloriously mad made my fears of the show being too staid seem a distant folly.

But if there is one thing more triumphant than the artistry of these clothes, it is the fact that in a world where cou-ture is allegedly gasping its last, weak-ened breath, Privé is already in the black. For weeks after July’s humidity-soaked couture week ended, after the frantic between-show pilgrimages to Hermès and the dainty lunches at Caviar Kaspia and L’Avenue had finally petered out, a steady stream of clients arrived at the showroom to view the collection—which ranges from $25,000 to $125,000—and place their orders (not surprisingly, many of them maintain rail-thin figures; ateliers often sell their child-size samples at 30 to 50 percent less than a custom piece). When Robert Triefus, Armani’s executive vice president of worldwide communications, tells me the line made a small profit in its first year and is on track to earn a significantly larger one in its second year from a quickly expanding clientele, I am shocked, albeit pleasantly so. He is not. "The Privé atelier was made to be a profit center," he tells me, "not simply another branding vehicle."

Nor is it a vanity act. Mr. Armani has been so devoted to Privé that insiders speculate he is shifting the majority of his focus from his ready-to-wear line to couture. He recently poached Beatrice Ifrah from Chanel Haute Couture—where she assembled what was perhaps the most influential client list in the world—and made her Privé’s sales director. This season he opened a salon on Avenue Montaigne in Paris to supplement his workshop in Milan. "What is especially gratifying to me about this line," Armani says, "is that my clients are not just historical buyers of couture but also people who are new to this, who might have never before pursued this level of fashion."

This January Privé will show its fourth season in a new venue large enough to accommodate the growing client roster. It is a triumph for Mr. Armani who, for the last decade, has reigned as fashion’s most underappreciated living legend. Entering the dicey atmosphere of couture, in which each individual garment requires more blood and sweat than do some of his more massive ventures, was a huge risk for a man who could live forever on the profits from his perfumes. But it’s one he seems genuinely delighted to take on. "The Privé atelier is on the ground floor of our headquarters. I walk through it each morning to get to my office," he says. "I get this particular thrill watching the seamstresses at work." It seems as if Privé is paying off, too—and not just financially. It may be the very thing to launch one of the 20th century’s great designers into 21st-century glory.

While obtaining a ticket to the Privé show is a difficult task, the collection travels around the world each season. To inquire about ordering or to get information on where you can view sketches or, upon request, the entire collection, contact Privé’s U.S. headquarters at 212-209-3640.

At the Collections: Front Row and Center

CHRISTIAN DIOR
By John Galliano

Every year after I emerge perspiring from a Dior show, I tell myself, Never again. Always set on the outskirts of Paris in a dark, hard-to-locate tent devoid of air-conditioning, these shows feature outlandish clothing that’s more likely to end up in a John Galliano museum retrospective than in anyone’s closet. But Galliano’s theater of the absurd somehow remains alluring. This year his inspiration was medieval uniform crossed with a punk-rock aesthetic: hence, metallic gowns embellished with body armor and Mohawk-topped models in red eelskin capes and Blade Runner makeup. Galliano himself took a bow in an astronaut suit, and Cher was overheard saying that she plans to wear everything from the collection.

VALENTINO

This hot ticket was quite difficult to get my paws on. The ordeal involved dozens of phone calls to publicists, never-ending e-mail exchanges, and two messengers—and resulted in a last-row seat in the catacomblike Théâtre National de Chaillot (did I mention that the weather was a tad warm?), making viewing a challenge. But this much was clear: Valentino’s clothes remained as ladylike as ever, with lace and bows adorning demure jackets. The trouble is that his couture line is just the opposite of Galliano’s: wearable, almost to a fault. But the Russian-inspired collection included some gorgeous embroidery that brought to mind Fabergé eggs, and the clothing was—as always—ideal for the woman who places grooming and appropriateness above all else.

CHANEL

I am not alone in considering the Chanel show the most exciting event of every couture week. The collec-tion never fails to be stunning and the crowd is enthusiastic—many buyers feel that Chanel is a couture devotee’s wisest investment. I sidestepped Elton John to take my seat next to the ubiquitous Hollywood stylist Rachel Zoe on an outdoor tiered dais that sat under a canopy of white billowing sails. This year the theme was medieval mod: tunics with molded shoulders worn with thigh-high boots, which could be worn by women of all ages. Bouclé suits were refreshed with splatters of Lesage embroidery. In a dramatic fi-nale, the dais began to rotate like a merry-go-round, revealing the entire posse of models posed elegantly along the edge of the stage.

CHRISTIAN LACROIX

Detailed, dramatic, larger than life…and yet, somehow, wearable. This is what couture is meant to look like, which explains why the Lacroix show is a favorite among fashion aficionados. Shown at the historical Beaux- Arts on the Left Bank (where the staff cleverly placed lifesaving hand fans on each seat), the collection managed to blend the commercial and the inspired into twenties-era flapper dresses, swooping taffeta party coats, and deliciously gem-hued draped Empire-waist gowns, all of which the models paired with tights in electric blue and flame orange. No doubt, the Lacroix couture runway is the place where creativity runs free.

GIVENCHY

Upon arriving, I was stopped by a representative who questioned my ticket. The encounter, it turned out, was an appropriate foreshadowing of the dark and combative presentation to come. It was held in what amounted to a sunless box in a questionable neighborhood in the 17th Arrondissement. The clothing was a gothic sea of black, chocolate vinyl, and clove crochet inspired by tribes like the Maori as well as ethnic groups from such currently newsmaking regions as Bosnia and Indonesia. Givenchy’s 32-year-old creative director, Riccardo Tisci, is new to this game, and his gritty style is compelling but perhaps bet- ter suited to ready-to-wear. Still, his wedding gowns were the season’s best—a testament to the house’s famed workrooms.

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER

I always look forward to the crea-tions of Gaultier, despite the fact that his European team is notoriously difficult. My first show required a call from Catherine Deneuve on my behalf to get a ticket; four years later I can procure my own admission, but I’m still seated in the last row. Consolation comes in two forms: the magnificent space Gaultier acquired a few years ago in the Marais and the line’s transition from controversial and outrageous to wholly wearable and yet still delightfully surreal. The jean-wearing crowd will favor this year’s pieced crocodile bomber jacket (though the roadkill details of a fox pelt sewn into a velvet gown is surely PETA’s worst nightmare). No one tailors a pantsuit better than Gaultier and the standout example this time was in gray with a lining of black paillettes. It was, however, the bold blue pleated and draped chiffon goddess showstopper that reinforced his status as a true master of couture.

ELIE SAAB

This may be Paris’s most successful couture house. Rumored to sell more than 400 wedding gowns a year, it’s a collection for every woman’s inner Vegas-loving glamour-puss. But after several very heavy-handedly embellished collections, Saab lightened his touch and offered more cocktail options and fewer navel-baring gowns.

CARVEN

Designer Pascal Millet has always had a couture business but has only recently begun staging presentations of his Parisian chic clothes. In an era where ready-to-wear is becoming more elaborate, the subtle nature of the Carven collection may not satiate those aiming for a notice-me look. But the tulip skirts and dramatic ombré-metallic black-to-white lace gown were refreshing choices.