Born in Piacenza, Italy in 1934, Giorgio Armani is one of the most celebrated and influential designers Italy has ever produced. But it was only by chance that he broke into the fashion industry in the Sixties, after brief forays into medicine (having studied at Milan University) and photography.
Following his military service, Armani launched his career as a window dresser at a large Milanese department store, called La Rinascente. He later revealed that he developed his classic style during this time, following frequent trips to the UK. "England was virtually the most important centre for inspiration," he says. "When I was working for Il Rinascente we used to travel to London for the influences, to see the shops, to learn. I remember seeing some yellow cardigans in a small boutique and bringing them to Il Rinascente and everyone thought I was insane. Yellow cardigans were what the Duke of Windsor was about, they were not something for the average man. The entire idea of such clothing was so outr so elitist... very, very English."
In 1964, armed with an in-depth knowledge of fabric and design, he was taken on as a designer for Nino Cerruti's men's clothing company, Hitman. Posts at Ungaro and Zegna were soon to follow. In 1974, Armani introduced his own menswear label, his first womenswear collection coming a year later.
Since 1975, Armani has overseen the launch of Giorgio Armani Junior, Underwear, Swimwear, Accessories and Occhiali. Capitalising on the cachet of his more exclusive label, he opened the first of a series of stores selling his cheaper diffusion lines, Emporio Armani and Armani Jeans, in 1981. In 2000, he added a new make-up range to his output, specially designed by Pat McGrath. Today, the Armani empire comprises some 2,000 emporia world-wide with annual sales of more than $1 billion. His catwalk shows often draw a distinguished crowd when he was forced to show in New York in March 1998, after Paris police closed down his black marquee over Place Saint Sulpice claiming that the set-up was "unsafe", Robert de Niro, Spike Lee, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Scorsese, Sophia Loren and Wyclef Jean of The Fugees all came to watch.
Nonetheless Armani claims to base his vision on the everyday people in the street, believing that clothes should be made to be worn not just seen and drawing on the skills he learned as a menswear designer to produce contemporary clothes for women. The wide-shouldered power suit that was a trademark in the Eighties has been softened into a more supple, practical silhouette and Armani's collections these days are elegant and understated (the designer has often expressed a dislike of "important" clothes).
In 2000, Forbes declared Giorgio Armani to be the world's most successful designer, with personal earnings of $135 million in 1999. In 2001, the magazine put him at No.19 (behind the Bulgari family and ahead of the Pradas) on a list of Fashion's New Aristocrats.