The new Armani.com website

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A long-overdue upgrade to the Armani.com website was just released in the last day or so, and it’s a good overhaul. The old site was long-in-the-tooth and quite tedious to navigate, but this one is fresh and contains a lot more interesting and easily accessible content; it looks like somebody at Armani has begun to sit up and take much more serious notice of the power of the internet to drive business. There are a lot of new features integrated, including the usual handful of social media links, very much more accessible catalogue and video content, and most important for me, a much improved store locator. The online store is more tightly integrated, again with more sophisticated graphics and video, but as usual the black label Giorgio Armani lines are not available on the internet. A very welcome change.

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Giorgio Armani, Shanghai : The Bund

Despite a pretty tight work schedule in Shanghai last week, I had a couple of hours (and a central location) that gave me the opportunity to check out not just one, but two Giorgio Armani boutiques: the original flagship store situated directly on Shanghai’s famous Bund, and the one located within the very upmarket Plaza 66 skyscraper on Nanjing Road. In this post I will explore the 3 on the Bund location.

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Giorgio Armani opened this store back in 2004 (you can still find the press release online), as a way to shine the spotlight on the GA brand in China. The Bund was – and still is – one of the most highly trafficked tourist areas in Shanghai, both for Chinese and foreign tourists, and it seems that the position was selected mainly to ensure the Giorgio Armani name was suitably prominent. Many other luxury brands such as Cartier followed suit.

The Bund, however, was never considered a prime retail location; rather more of a branding exercise, with large crowds browsing but rarely buying. Piaget’s chief executive Philippe Leopold-Metzger summed it up nicely: “Locals don’t go to the Bund to buy luxury goods, and those that go to the Bund don’t buy luxury products.” If you walk around that area in the evening, you can see the truth in that statement. There’s an amazing and atmospheric view of the Pudong skyline across the river, but the Bund is more about tourist sight-seeing than high-end shopping.

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That dynamic has had a natural impact on the Bund, as other areas of Shanghai such as Jing’an have become more important as serious, affluent retail locations. The staggeringly huge and opulent Plaza 66, which I will cover tomorrow, is in the centre of Jing’an on the Nanjing Road, and you can see why those who shop for Gucci, Prada, Vuitton, Armani and Versace would prefer to spend time and money at such exclusive and elegant locations.

The result is a migration of premium brands away from the Bund in recent years. Like many things on the Bund, such as the slightly down-at-heel Waldorf Astoria just next door, this area has lost some of its sheen, and the luxury brands have moved on to more fashionable addresses. The GA Bund store actually closed it’s doors earlier this year, and the ground floor of it’s former address, 3 on the Bund, is now just an empty shell.

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There are still signs that this was once a Giorgio Armani flagship store; on the windows you can see the shadows of the branding manifestations, the name plate inside the building lift features “Giorgio Armani”, and inside the store you can still see the remains of the decor – the mirrors, spotlights and rolled white linear wall coverings that pre-date the current warm beige stone.

By pure fluke, I managed to be the last person to see the GA name plate within the building; I visited the store one rainy evening last week, taking a few snapshots, and by the very next day most of the branding was gone, because the old GA store had been turned onto a new Shanghai bar literally overnight. I personally watched the workmen moving the equipment in on Wednesday (you can see some of them inside the old store in the internal photo above), and by Thursday evening the bar was up and running in full swing. Inside there was still the old decor, even the changing rooms, hidden behind scaffolds of spotlights and a complete bar constructed in under 24 hours.

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It’s slightly sad to see what was once deemed to be the epicentre of Shanghai style turned into a hastily assembled cocktail bar, but on the other hand you can sense that this area no longer fits the brand. Tomorrow we’ll visit the impressive Plaza 66 skyscraper, and see where the Shanghainese shop for Armani nowadays.

Luxury, Munich and the Global Recession

It is often said that the luxury industry is immune from recession; the wealthy will keep shopping no matter what the macroeconomic environment.

And there is some truth to that – not complete, but a strong element. Recent newspaper reports are rife with big upticks for the major brands, despite continuing global economic woe.

As witness I present to you a couple of recent developments in downtown Munich.

It’s well understood locally that Munich itself is almost recession-proof; economic downturns seem to skirt past this city, which is fundamentally very wealthy and enjoys a tax-base supported by successful local family-run businesses – like BMW.

Firing the starting gun for expansion is Louis Vuitton, moving from a smaller store on Maximilianstrasse to a massive new “maison” nearby, the Residenzpost, in the heart of historic Munich.

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This location used to be just slightly more utilitarian – it was a Deutsche Post office until a couple of years ago, before the entire block underwent a very expensive renovation/gentrification.

This store is now a world-class LVMH expansion, with three enormous floors featuring pretty much every LV product known to mankind. There is even an LV promo video for the new store. And even at 10:05 AM on a Monday morning there were quite a few people shopping.

This move changes the dynamic of the nearby shopping district immensely. Perhaps not by coincidence, Prada, situated literally just across the street, has decided the time to expand is exactly now, and I would not be surprised to see a few other expansions, refurbishments or relocations in the near future. Belstaff (which is, in my opinion, one of the most unlikely luxury brands ever; when I was young Belstaff was what bikers bought when they couldn’t afford leathers) already opened a brand new store nearby.

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But beyond the local environment, this is a telltale of the continuing global success of luxury brands, even the smaller ones in the PPR Group (now called Kering) like Stella McCartney and newly acquired Christopher Kane, about whom I will write a dedicated story later, and Giorgio Armani is no exception.

Globally the tide is lifting all luxury brands. When will it end?

The Runway vs. Real Life

Earlier today I was reviewing some runway shots from the Armani SS13 Privé collection and it struck me that this is the second time I have seen runway models making Giorgio Armani collections look a bit frumpy. Take a look at the faces of the models in the Paris haute couture show earlier this year to see what I mean (thanks to Vogue Italia for the pictures).

Now I freely admit that not all Giorgio Armani clothing looks great – maybe that is unexpected from someone like me, but even I don’t like every single thing I see on the racks or in the collections, especially some of the more patterned and obvious clothing. But some of those Privé dresses are stunning; just block out the faces of the models and see what I mean.

I noticed this also in the January FW 2013/14 Men’s show photos. And in that case it struck me that the models are too young to be wearing those clothes. The black label Giorgio Armani lines are designed for buyers in the 35-55 range, and yet the models all seem to be about 18-25 – callow youths, to borrow a phrase. I would prefer to see some of those looks, like the one below, being worn by a more solid, mid-30’s model – and I own that jacket, by the way, or maybe one very like it.

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Now in that men’s collection Armani went very sporty, with tightly tailored pants and all kinds of interesting fabrics, textures and closures. But does that mean only the younger models can wear those styles? No. I don’t think some of the younger models can wear these clothes and move in a way that makes them come alive. They don’t have the physical and emotional presence to catapault those outfits into the real world. They look good, but not great.

In contrast, I saw some amazing women’s outfits in the February FW 2013/14 Women’s RTW collection, and in the SS13 RTW line , and in both those cases the models and clothes worked – the styling and line of the models blended with the nature and texture of the clothes. Look back at older shots of Armani models from the 1980’s – again they worked brilliantly, stunningly well.

My – perhaps obvious – view is that there needs to be a marriage of the clothes and the selection and styling of models wearing them, to give the garments the chance to glow and sparkle. I can imagine it is not always easy to get all the elements just right, even if you are a highly detail-oriented designer like Giorgio Armani.

But when it is right, and you see how these clothes were meant to work, they just explode off the page, and you want to have them in the real world, where they can, hopefully, work that incredible, subtle magic on your tired, lumpy, old, broken frame…

The First Giorgio Armani Design Office

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Corso Venezia 37, Milan. Situated just off the edge of the quadrilatero della moda, this was the location of Giorgio Armani’s first “official” design office, setup in two rooms in this building in 1973 when Armani was already 39 years old, and partially financed by selling a second-hand VW. While at this point there was no corporation – it was founded two years later – Giorgio Armani established this office and ultimately the company with his companion and business partner Sergio Galeotti. Galeotti ran the business end of the company during the early years of high growth and rapid success, until his untimely death in 1985. Most of the work carried out here was design consulting business for labels like Cerutti & Zegna, including runway styling, during which period Armani formed what was to become a recognizable house style. I find it interesting to see how such huge companies start out in life – the means and mechanisms applied to achieve success are often lessons that can be learned and re-applied in other circumstances.

The economics of the fashion collection and the runway

As I get ready for the trip to Men’s Fashion Week in Milan, I start to consider the purpose and economics of runways and collections.

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Giorgio Armani is relatively dismissive of the way some of his colleagues in the industry use the runway to attract attention through fads and gimmicks, rather than to display real product that real people will be able to buy and wear.

Armani rejects the fashion milieu, preferring to make and present wearable, stylish, and to some degree timeless clothing for people who see his prices as an investment. He has said that he is proud that 99% of his runway designs are available in his stores, compared to just 20% for other designers:-

I never sacrifice individuality for trend. I don’t ignore trends, but my point is to design clothes for people to buy in shops, not just for shows and photo shoots. Eighty percent of designer collections aren’t even produced.” — Giorgio Armani, quoted in Marie Claire

Those figures are interesting on a number of levels. I’ve noted once before that the vast majority of guests at a runway show are the buyers. What was not obvious to me before was that for a designer who relies on third-party distribution, those buyers in effect decide which pieces from a collection will make it into production and finally into the hands of the public, and which will not.

Giorgio Armani, who owns his own retail distribution channels, can sidestep the “editing” of his collection by retail buyers, and concentrate instead on producing and displaying what his customers have demonstrated they prefer, rather than the flights of fantasy some designers create to generate buzz.

Given the huge cost of a runway show – and based on my own experience with simple trade shows, I imagine $1-$2 million is a fairly easy amount to spend on developing a 10 minute production featuring dozens of prototype outfits, supported by numerous models, dressers, sets, lights, sound, photography, video, PR flacks, transport, hotels, and side events – this means Armani is not doing his shows for the same reasons, for the same benefits or with the same high risk as other, smaller producers.

Even if they do not spend those sums on each show, a small, pure-play fashion house, like say Vivienne Westwood (who has a runway at 3PM today in Milan), turning over $25-$50 million, is to some degree rolling the dice through these shows. Over a whole year of shows a company of that size is betting a fair chunk of the company’s annual profits that somebody will like 1/5th of what they show; but largely unsure – excluding the obviously deranged outfits designed to grab headlines – which 1/5th it will be.

For a small label, the bi-annual runway-fest is a huge expense, a high risk gamble on tastes and fashion, and they need to ensure the label gets some moments in the sun, usually through the outrageous or bizarre. For Giorgio Armani it is a relatively low-cost PR event that reminds his loyal customer base that he makes great clothes that sit above fashion, and that there is something new to buy in his stores.

Armani is sometimes derided by his peers as being uncreative or uninspiring because he does not produce those silly, shouty outfits that build a reputation for “artistry” or “creativity”. I disagree with that aesthetic assessment, and wonder if those commentators fully understand the fundamental difference between these business models.

I suspect they do not.

[Photo credit: Getty]

Stay tuned for lots of new BAM updates

I have a large backlog of stories I’ve been working on recently, and the next couple of weeks will see new entries on a wide range of subjects:

  • Giorgio Armani and the whole gay thing
  • An excellent visit to Giorgio Armani Florence, both alone and with my sister-in-law
  • Reportage from Milan Men’s Fashion Week, including the Giorgio Armani FW2013 show
  • Details on how to maximize your budget by accessing 40%+ discounts at Giorgio Armani
  • Giorgio Armani’s annual sales & marketing cycle
  • Discussion about fashion seasons shifting as markets in Asia and the Southern hemisphere open up
  • A close-up look at some of the major Armani corporate properties in Milan
  • Shots of various pieces in my personal wardrobe, showing how they work together.

Finally this journal will be moving later this week to an all-new, re-designed, hosted platform, with additional features and faster access.

Lots more to come from Armani Man – stay tuned.