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Wednesday, May 7, 2003
Getting down to business
By KAORI SHOJI
It might be a documentary, but it feels more like a period film about an Italian king.
In "Giorgio Armani: A Man For All Seasons," Armani comes off as a figure of royalty perpetually expanding his kingdom, and devoting the rest of his time to inspecting it.
When he can, he retires to one or another of his various castles and takes a break from the routine of conquests. He swims for a bit in his huge pool, looks over the Mediterranean stretched out below his patio and throws off a remark like: "I prefer to swim in a pool while being able to look at the ocean. Going down to the beach takes too much time and preparation . . ."
After his vacation, the king renews his appetite for newer and bigger projects. Surrounded by his trusted cluster of dutiful underlings, he takes off on his white charger (well, private jet), and turns an elegant, disdainful profile to the camera which says more eloquently than words: "Don't bother me now, I'm thinking."
Whew! If you've ever wondered what it's like to be on top of the world, "Giorgio Armani" can offer a brief glimpse. What better film to kick off the opening of the Virgin Cinema theaters in celebrated Roppongi Hills (where, of course, there's an Armani boutique).
Somehow, other designers in other documentaries don't sport the same glamour: Yohji Yamamoto in "Notebook on Cities and Clothes" or Issac Mizrahi in "Unzipped," for example, seem defined by overwork and creative anxiety: always on their knees to stitch up hems or trapped at a desk sifting through hundreds of design sketches, having quiet panic attacks minutes before a runway collection. On the other hand, they each shared a special friendship with the director of their movie profiles (Yamamoto with Wim Wenders, Mizrahi with Douglas Keeve) that enabled a frankness and rapport with the camera which made the viewer feel like a privileged voyeur. Such thrills are completely absent from "Giorgio Armani."
This is the first time a camera got in the confines of the Armani empire, and despite the fact that director Julian Ozanne was allowed to follow Armani around for a whole year, the designer remains aloof and unyielding . . . just like royalty. We never see him doing mundane stuff like eating, sleeping or being with family, nor do we get to see his artistic side -- tortured by self-doubt or having creative slumps or showing real joy at completing his work. No, he just goes around "being Armani" as he likes to put it: barking orders, chatting with celebrity glitterati, getting in and out of limos, giving and attending parties. Scene after scene speaks of Armani's triumphs, the total power he wields over his empire, his seeming invincibility. In such an environment, it feels odd to see him in his trademark outfit of black T-shirt and pants. A fur cape and a diamond-encrusted crown would have been more to the point.
Interestingly, the film never shows Armani actually designing anything. He seems less like a creator than a caricature of the wealthy, icy businessman, looking out at the world with those glacial eyes. We come to understand how much of the design business is, simply put, all about business (one of the opening scenes talks about Armani's yearly income and the growing number of global outlets). Some scenes of real handiwork would have given a warmth and authenticity to a film that's lacking in both. The only human spark comes when Armani is visiting his movie/rock star friends, most notably Sophia Loren and Ricky Martin. He heaps praise on Loren because "she's a professional who is always tough on herself" and loves Martin because "he's always been so beautiful and sexy." Their conversations however, are not intimate and never go beyond the patter of people who admire but don't really know each other. In a rare moment of confidence, Armani admits: "I don't really like this sort of relationship. I prefer something more genuine, more pure." At the same time, he declares that he has no time to forge any lasting bonds. "I'm too busy and too committed to my work." Even when he talks about his mother, it is with a studied, clinical coldness -- he talks briefly of how her death affected him, but the words sound hollow.
In the end, we still have no idea who Giorgio Armani is. But if the film is anything to go by, neither does he.
"I have to be Armani, and I have to do this every day," he says. For the rest of the world, Armani is a brand that we're free to wear or shed; for the designer himself, it's a persona that he must conform to, whether he feels like it or not. Fortunately for him, he feels like it most of the time. The king has become too great and powerful to entertain the possibility of ever spurning the throne. He must continue to enlarge the empire and enhance the legend. In the meantime, if he feels pangs of loneliness, he knows it's a small price to pay. In the movie, he says with a touch of boredom: "There is loneliness sometimes . . . but so what?"