By CHRISTINA PASSARIELLO at WSJ.com Fashion
Giorgio Armani is getting groovy.
The Italian fashion designer best known for the power suits that defined 1980s corporate America took an unusual turn of style this year when he dressed Lady Gaga in a crystal-encrusted silver hoop dress with orbiting rings for the Grammy Awards. The bondage-style black leather costumes in the American performer’s racy “Alejandro” video were also Mr. Armani’s, as was a black rubberized dress with spikes sticking out from the breast the platinum-haired singer donned at the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles. Mr. Armani will soon work on costumes for Lady Gaga’s concert in Italy in December.
This dress with orbiting rings, worn at the Grammys, was the first outfit Giorgio Armani made for Lady Gaga.
Since revolutionizing wardrobes 30 years ago by taking the lining out of blazers—to make them less stiff and more form-fitting—Mr. Armani has expanded his company into a sprawling empire with six separate adult clothing lines spanning from the exclusive haute couture Privé collection to mass-market A/X Armani Exchange fashion.
For years now, however, fashion critics haven’t looked to Mr. Armani for new trends. The daughters of the women who climbed the corporate ladder a generation ago in Armani now gravitate toward younger designers such as Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang. It remains to be seen whether his Emporio Armani women’s fashion show, scheduled for Saturday, will be influenced by Lady Gaga, as his men’s collection was in June.
Mr. Armani pioneered dressing for celebrities 30 years ago when he made the suits for Richard Gere in “American Gigolo,” and he was the first to open a Hollywood office to court the stars. But in recent years, he’s been beaten at his own game as designers such as Marchesa and Elie Saab have dressed bold-faced names on the red carpet. Though Armani is still a staple for tuxedos, when it comes to gowns, the designer has been eclipsed by rivals like Chanel and Dior.
Roberta Armani, Mr. Armani’s niece who, as manager of VIP relations, is shepherding the Lady Gaga partnership, says the performer has helped the company think younger. “A huge company like Giorgio Armani has the duty to always be alert to trends and what appeals to young people,” she said in an interview this week in Armani’s Milan headquarters, where Mr. Armani was putting his final touches to his catwalk shows. “It helped to see how the world is through Lady Gaga, the way she uses Facebook and Twitter.”
How to appeal to emerging generations is one of the biggest challenges of the fashion business. Designer brands, even the most cutting-edge ones, such as Prada, have been late to embrace the Internet and social-networking sites, for example. Designers who are linked with a certain era—as Mr. Armani is with the corporate 80s and minimalist 90s—often have loyal consumers who age with them, but have trouble attracting younger fans. The decline of brands such as Versace, Donna Karan and Escada is in part due to their failure to appeal to new consumers. The recent economic downturn has also weighed on fashion companies; sales at Giorgio Armani SpA dipped 6.3% last year, while net profit fell 31% to €88.8 million.
Armani’s relationship with Lady Gaga began last November when Ms. Armani saw Lady Gaga perform live at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles. Ms. Armani contacted Lady Gaga’s stylist, Nicola Formichetti, to see whether Lady Gaga might wear Armani for the Grammy Awards’ evening, which was two months away. At the time, Mr. Armani was preparing for his January Privé label catwalk, whose theme was the moon. Mr. Armani took time out to sketch three designs for the performer: a cosmic hoop dress with matching platform shoes; a silver minidress and blazer with a hat shaped like a lightning rod; and a scintillating green bodysuit with high shoulders, and green crystal glasses. All of them played off the same celestial theme as the Privé collection—but were more daring.
It is unusual for Mr. Armani to design a dress specifically for one person. His celebrity admirers, such as actresses Cate Blanchett and Michelle Pfeiffer, generally choose existing outfits from the collections.
“It wouldn’t be possible to give Gaga a look from the collection because she wears pieces of art. It’s theatrical,” says Ms. Armani, adding that the designer has created stage costumes for singers such as Tina Turner and Beyoncé.
At the first fitting in New York, several weeks before the Grammys, Lady Gaga decided to wear all of the outfits Mr. Armani had sketched for her. The decision would give Mr. Armani exclusivity of the music world’s biggest star on the music world’s biggest night of the year.
Several days before the event, Ms. Armani flew to Los Angeles with two seamstresses from Milan for the final fitting in between rehearsals. The seamstresses worked through the night tailoring the creations to Lady Gaga’s body.
Weeks later, Lady Gaga reached out to Mr. Armani for the video to her hit single “Alejandro;” the singer wanted tight black military-style leather suits for the male dancers. The description fit the image Mr. Armani was playing with for the upcoming men’s collection of his Emporio Armani line. At Emporio’s June fashion show in Milan, models wore the same black bondage outfits as in the video while the “Alejandro” video played on the wall at the back of the runway. Men’s fashion magazine GQ hailed the collection, describing it as “full-on tough, tough clothes for rough, rough boys.”
Armani’s partnership with Lady Gaga is continuing this year—a coup that is particularly notable because edgier brands constantly woo the performer as well. At the VMAs earlier this month, for example, Lady Gaga wore an Alexander McQueen gown in tribute to the designer who committed suicide in February. (She also wore a dress, shoes, purse and hat made of raw meat.)
Though Mr. Armani has designed an entire wardrobe for Lady Gaga since the January Grammys—including for her appearance on American Idol and her “Monster Ball” concert tour—the two have never met. Still, Ms. Armani says that despite the half century between their ages, the two have lots in common—including Lady Gaga’s Italian heritage (the performer’s real name is Stefani Germanotta). And she adds: “Gaga is so avant-garde and he is so timeless that they meet.”