Seduction by understatement: That might be the subtitle of Giorgio Armani at the Guggenheim Museum, where spectators traveling Frank Lloyd Wright's hypnotic spiral path find it lined with willowy, headless mannequins -- some 400 of them -- clad in 25 years' worth of Armani costumes that epitomize subdued luxury. Robert Wilson, master of postmodern theatrical settings, realizes the world Armani's clothes imply with the from-here-to-eternity layout, the discreet-chic son et lumière, and, most evocatively, the screening of the spiral in white gauze, making all the figures on parade -- human and inanimate -- seem fluid and ephemeral, gazing at one another through luminous clouds.
A son of the Milan fashion hub, Armani emerged, essentially self-trained, as an independent designer in the mid-seventies. His prime time -- the period in which his innovations had their greatest impact -- was the eighties. That potent decade in his career was inaugurated by the film American Gigolo, for which he provided a sleek, debonair wardrobe for the anti-hero played by Richard Gere. Armani had made his mark on fashion by de-structuring traditional garments, beginning with the man's suit jacket, which he went on to reinvent, brilliantly, with keen observations on androgyny, for women. Working in this vein, he arrived at a concept of clothing in which the garment surrounds the body like an aura, the fabric loosely embracing, even caressing the flesh, enhancing it by means only slightly more substantial than those of a perfume. Not surprisingly, his creations are most interesting in motion, which reveals, both to wearer and to viewer, the tactile element of cloth played against the armature of bones and flesh.
On the purely visual side, Armani's clothes are not remarkable for their cut or shape -- as opposed, say, to the gowns of Balenciaga or Charles James, which are so magnificent and imposing as static sculpture that they hardly require a body. Armani's greatest gifts lie in the realms of color and texture. As might be expected from a temperament inclined to elegant restraint, Armani favors no-color colors such as the anonymous gray-beige of stones, on which he rings infinite subtle changes, and of course black and white. His specialty, though, is creating the kind of quietly mercurial color found in nature by making several muted hues sing in close harmony.
His investigations of texture range from the simple pairings of opposites -- velvet and silk, a quivering spray of feathers against coarse wool -- to the use of a knit so spidery you can read the proverbial love letter through it, and wittily layered transparencies that mock the merely opaque. Close beading resembles woven patterns, and lichenlike incrustations of sequins masquerade as fabric with an exotic nub. The obsessive craftsmanship in such painstaking detail, which consistently avoids the vulgarity of the merely ornamental, draws the viewer into examining the clothes ever more closely, until their most astonishing quality seems to be their intelligence. This is a surprising and not unwelcome conclusion to what promised to be a sheerly sybaritic excursion.
Needless to say, the commercial aspect of the Guggenheim exhibition is central to a full understanding of it. The exquisite objects on display constitute a minuscule, rarefied part of the Armani empire, a hydra-headed business that produces outerwear for a range of budgets as well as underwear, perfume, spectacles, even furniture -- an entire brand-name lifestyle. It would be naïve to think the decision to mount this show wasn't influenced by the fact that Armani is a megadonor to the Guggenheim; a pledge of $15 million is reported. Nor is it likely to have happened if fashion (like motorcycles, a previous Guggenheim hit) weren't drawing crowds immune to Kandinsky and Klee. With this undeniably pleasurable show, the separation of the church of art and the state of commerce is literally reduced to a gauzy blur. That is a pity, but in today's culture it's also the rule, not the exception.
Obsessed by Dress, Tobi Tobias's compendium of notable quotations about fashion through the ages, has just been published by Beacon Press.