Before Giorgio Armani, the phrase men’s fashion was an oxymoron. Or rather, with all due respect for Regency dandies and fin de siècle fops, it had been one for about a hundred years. Before 1980, the chances of a heterosexual male knowing a fashion designer’s name, much less the name of the man who had designed the clothes on his own back, were similar to his odds of winning the lottery or getting a date with Michelle Pfeiffer. Like many middle-class Wonder Bread eaters of my generation, I grew up believing that Brooks Brothers and L.L. Bean represented the eternal verities of male dress, although I admit to a brief infatuation with double knit polyester and bell bottoms in the mid-’70s, which in retrospect seems to prove that it was a mistake for men to have anything whatsoever to do with fashion. Clearly, we couldn’t handle it. Better to observe the sumptuary laws and stick with the basics.
In 1975, in the very depths of that sartorially anarchic period known as the ’70s, Armani started his own label in Milan and released a line of men’s clothing based on an unconstructed blazer, which seemed to represent a kind of Platonic ideal between dressy and informal, between stylish and understated. It was far more relaxed than the British Savile Row cut and more flattering than the Brooks Brothers sack suit. But it wasn’t until 1980 that the news reached most of us, via Richard Gere in American Gigolo. The scene in which Gere selects an outfit from his incredible, Armani-stocked closet is a fashion-porn classic. Gere might have been a gigolo, but he was an American gigolo, and if it was OK for him to fuss over his wardrobe (if indeed Richard Gere believed that dressing well gave him an extra degree of sex appeal), then it must be OK for us, too.
A few months after releasing his first menswear collection, Armani unveiled a similar silhouette for women, a soft but tailored suit with a line of clothing built around it. The women’s collection was well-timed, arriving more or less at the moment that feminism went mainstream, just as women were beginning to infiltrate those corners of the workplace that previously had been the province of suit-wearing males. Armani’s women’s wear was eminently practical, beautifully tailored, and just sexy enough to prevent gender confusion in the office and then make the transition to cocktails in the evening. The French designers who had preceded him were largely focused on the high-end couture market, catering to a tiny coterie of wealthy clients. Armani seems to have been more attuned to the less formal tastes of American women. More than anyone else, he was responsible for bringing fashion for both sexes to Main Street and to whatever street I lived on at the time.
I bought my first Armani jacket—actually it was Mani, the budget men’s line back in 1983—at a department store in Syracuse, N.Y., and I still remember the confidence I felt wearing it. As late as 1984, though, I was still wearing a Harris Tweed jacket to Area, the then-hippest nightclub in New York, on the occasion of the publication party for my first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, which was supposed to epitomize up-to-the-minute, Reagan-era Manhattan. I was being lauded as some kind of spokesman for my generation, and I didn’t have a clue about how to dress the part. Someone at Armani must have seen the photographs and taken pity on me, because when I arrived in Milan for my book tour later that year, I received an invitation to the showroom and was invited to select a wardrobe for the trip. I also was asked to tea with the great man himself in the house that adjoined his atelier. I was overwhelmed by the understatement of the place, all beiges and grays and browns, all soft contours. The minimalism extended to Armani’s wardrobe, as he padded into the living room: He was tall, svelte, and serene in a navy blue turtleneck and gray trousers. “I work all day long with color and patterns. When I come home I need to rest my eyes,” he said, then dismissed the subject as if it were not worth discussing. Instead, we talked about books, about Alberto Moravia and Gore Vidal. His modesty seemed yet another manifestation of his extraordinary good taste. I wore the clothes that he had lent me for the rest of the week, feeling like the most stylishly attired guy in all of Milan, and when I checked out of my hotel, where I had arranged to leave all the clothes to be picked up, there was a note saying, “Please keep the clothes with my compliments. G.A.”
For the next five years, I wore Armani almost exclusively, and I was thoroughly confident about my wardrobe for the first time in my life. As someone who was supposed to be a walking poster boy for the ’80s, a sort of zeitgeist spokesman, I couldn’t have done better than to deck myself out in Armani. A former preppy, I was too conservative for Versace. Armani seemed just right: both stylish and tasteful. I’m not sure how the early female customers felt about wearing Armani, but in my case, I felt an amazing sense of exhilaration and confidence; suddenly it seemed possible to be both hip and correct at the same time, to go from your office (if you had one) to a downtown restaurant or even a nightclub without worrying if you were appropriately dressed. And the suits were so comfortable that you almost felt you could have sex without even removing them, as some of us did in those years.
Armani was the uniform of CAA agents, those archetypal figures of the era, and when their clients dressed for the Oscars, they increasingly turned to Armani. If his rival Versace represented the glitz and flash of the ’80s, it was Giorgio Armani who ultimately came to define the look of the time. Which is not to say that his vision was utterly timeless. Looking back on some of the photographs of myself from the ’80s, I admit that what seemed classic then now seems dated: The shoulders of my suits are just too big, the lapels a little too long….
By the ’90s, Armani had hundreds of stores circling the globe, although some of his earlier patrons had moved along, in part out of a fear of resembling the masses, and in part because he was replaced on the cutting edge by Helmut Lang, Marc Jacobs, and Prada. By remaining true to his own vision, he seemed, for a time, to lose his freshness. But just when we thought it was safe to ignore him, his spring collection in Milan this past year got rapturous reviews in the fashion press, and I’m thinking that, for the first time in years, I just might check out the Armani store up on Madison Avenue.
Jay McInerney’s new novel, The Good Life, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in January.