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The Last Designer

If Armani is looking to the end of his life, it might be because his success has been intricately tied up with death. It was eleven years ago that Sergio Galeotti, his former partner and the man he describes as his "intimate friend," died at the age of 40, the cause variously described in press reports as heart failure after a long illness, and cancer. Galeotti was eleven years Armani's junior and an architecture student; they had met in 1966. Armani, who had grown up in the provincial Northern Italian town of Piacenza, where his father was a shipping manager, had drifted into fashion, first becoming a buyer for a department store, then going to work as a designer for Nino Cerruti; in 1975, Galeotti urged Armani to go out on his own. Galeotti died just as the Giorgio Armani label was on the threshold of becoming an international phenomenon. In speaking of Galeotti, Armani becomes his most animated, vividly affectionate, urging his translator to do a good job.

"It was a relationship of great complicity," he says. "A strong understanding. Without many words, we understood each other on everything: what we loved, what we didn't love. And then there was a lot of courage on his part, which I was lacking, being more adult and therefore more cautious. He had a great deal of strength, and maybe even some form of irresponsibility. And I operated with a dose of realism, and maybe even a little genius that has been very useful to me in my life." By the end of his life, Galeotti had tired of the business and talked of retiring. "We lived without even saying a word about his illness, without even letting it weigh," Armani says. "He never saw me cry. He himself never said anything. In a whole year, he said once, 'Giorgio, look how thin I have become'—that's all."

While talking of Galeotti, Armani notices that he is missing a ring he usually wears, one of two gold bands he wears with a triple-banded Russian wedding ring on the third finger of his left hand. When it is retrieved, he is asked what the rings signify.

He indicates the first gold band: "This band is one that Sergio had bought while by himself one day in the car. He stopped in a jewelry store and bought it for himself. It belonged to Sergio. But it was not given by me. He bought it for himself." He moves to the next ring. "This is from somebody else"—he pauses—"who wanted to imitate Sergio." He laughs. "And this"—the last ring—"is a present from a person very loved by me." It's as revelatory as Armani gets: the form of a confidence without the content.

"I don't much like rings on a man," he continues, "but this reassures me quite a lot. I am often moving my hands, like a good Italian. This allows me to move my hands."

Armani's representatives like to encourage a sense of the lone genius hovering over every aspect of the business, running it almost unaided; and though it is certainly an exaggeration, there is much truth to the image. After Galeotti died, Gabriella Forte became the formidable guardian of the Armani fortress, working as his head of international sales and handling his press. Her defection to Calvin Klein shocked the industry. About Forte Armani is polite, but still a little stung.

"In the end, I think, Gabriella wanted power," he says. "I think she is doing a great job: Everyone is talking about Calvin; people are talking about her and what she has done for Calvin. What has been emotionally a little bit hard for me is that she has taken, or tried to take, quite a lot of my personnel to go and work for her at Calvin, which I think in America is quite normal but in Italy is not." (Forte, who speaks feelingly of her personal indebtedness to Armani, says she can think of only two people who have followed her to Calvin Klein.) Armani asks for discretion on the subject of Forte, saying, "Gabriella has been very successful. I hope she will be happy with Calvin Klein. I have been shown to have survived without her." Then he pauses, unable to resist a further comment. "May I add something? Maybe I am much more serene since she is not here. Very relaxed."

Armani, though, is tart on the subject of Forte's new boss, his new neighbor on Madison Avenue. "Calvin Klein, as [journalists] have said, not me, has moved from doing an Armani style to doing a Prada style," he says. "He still has to find a more definite route. I think that it is a little more difficult for somebody who started off by designing underwear to move up to another product, as opposed to someone like me, who started doing an almost-couture line and then worked down to also doing underwear."