In an old granary on the southern edge of central Milan sits a marvel of fashion history, Armani/Silos—a museum that contains the life’s work of Giorgio Armani. Four decades’ worth of culture-shifting fashion is housed there, on display for the public to take in. You can wander the halls and study the fits, but what you can’t do is touch anything or try them on. Not unless you’re Ghali—seen here in a selection of looks, chosen and styled by GQ, from the Armani archive—the barrier-breaking Italian Tunisian trap star. The collision of Italy’s illustrious past with its red-hot future highlights the designer’s unique ability to withstand time and trends.
Standing in a cool and hushed greige concrete gallery in Milan, I am about six inches from what I reckon to be the most important piece of menswear in the world. It is a suit jacket, worn by a headless mannequin. Unlike in the room across town that houses one of the city’s greatest works of art, Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, there are no security barriers or high-strung guards here. In fact, it would be so very easy for me to lean just a little closer and do what I usually do when checking out clothes: reach out and touch. That, though, would be sacrilege.
The jacket in question—handpicked by Richard Gere on a scouting trip to Armani’s Milan atelier—is one of the oldest pieces on display here, dating from a time when Armani was still a scrappy up-and-comer, a medical student turned window dresser turned fashion designer who was emerging, in his 40s, from a life of obscure normalcy into an extraordinary life of fame.
Of course, it was this pale-gray-meets-cream jacket that triggered the big-bang moment when it was chosen by Gere to wear in his role as Julian Kay in American Gigolo. It was this jacket that went on to pretty much change the silhouette of menswear forever and transform the fortunes of Mr. Armani. Suddenly, menswear—tailoring, in particular—became easier, seductively comfortable, and, for the first time, cool. Only a few years before this jacket, Armani had sold his beloved VW Beetle to fund his fashion start-up. He was just beginning to make waves in the U.S., with an exclusive Barneys account—but he was by no means a big deal. Within two years of the movie’s release, Armani was on the cover of Time magazine (and he has since gone on to amass a personal net worth of somewhere around $7.8 billion).
Thus, when we talk about fashion history, the significance of the Gigolo jacket cannot be overstated. Sure, you could argue that there are other pieces in the world that are worth more, or that are more impressive to look at, than this slightly battered garment. This, though, is something else: It’s a defining relic. This one jacket, you could argue, sparked a revolution and launched an empire that, to this day, remains one of the greatest in fashion: the house of Giorgio Armani. Which, at least by my personal criteria, makes this jacket menswear’s most valuable. It’s fitting, then, that it would be housed in a museum.
The vast Armani/Silos complex, which opened in 2015, sits just across Via Bergognone from the company’s headquarters. When it was first acquired by the fashion behemoth, the 70-year-old granary was earmarked for office space. But then Armani came up with another plan. This would be the perfect place to tell his story—to put his archive on display as a way of sharing the narrative of his career and exhibiting several decades’ worth of work. As Armani told me by email: “By opening the Silos I was making my archive public, because I thought that what I was doing was something worthy of being considered and reflected upon. I also wanted it to be available for students with the hope that it could motivate them to build their own careers. The intent was not merely self-celebratory: There was pride in what I had achieved but also the awareness of what it could inspire in others.”
These days, nearly 600 pieces are spread across four levels and some 48,000 square feet. The Gigolo jacket was displayed, on the day that I visited, in a section of the exhibit space—subtitled “Androgynous”—that ricocheted between menswear and womenswear. Seeing his work like this, I was struck by both the tremendous range in Armani’s oeuvre, as well as the ways in which he has been shockingly consistent over the years. Another jacket on display, for instance, from Giorgio Armani’s fall 2014 collection in gray flannel with a peak-lapel, couldn’t be more different in the details, but the commonalities are striking: the lack of wadding, the softness, the fluidity. Made more than 30 years apart, the two pieces both exude Armani’s signature cool confidence, comfort, and ease—qualities that recur over and over again through the archive.
As I wander the galleries, it becomes apparent how many of Armani’s once-radical menswear innovations became so popular that they could be dismissed as ubiquitous. Across the four decades of work, Armani’s choice of materials and pattern have run the gamut from laser-cut leather to innovative corduroy to wool herringbone overdyed in argyle. There are collections with high-end synthetics, created long before such materials were rechristened “technical” fabrics. And there are suit pants with drawstrings, a prescient detail, conceived at a time when the collision of sportswear and tailoring was still years away.
The Armani revolution was rooted in a transformation of tailoring—traditionally a strictly defined, exclusively masculine category—into a softer, sensuous, and much more versatile medium that was neither menswear nor womenswear but everyone’s wear. And by making the masculine malleable and empowering the feminine, Armani was both reflecting a broader social change underway and anticipating the one that was to come. “It’s about going back to certain topics and fine-tuning them again and again,” he said. “And in doing so you see that the male body is more athletic, and it deserves softer volumes or maybe stricter volumes. It really depends on my observation of what’s happening around me. Of course, the ’90s were the moment when the metrosexual attitude was coming to the limelight, so it was a moment when men discovered their sensuality and vanity—even in a broader sense. And it made perfect sense to have a silhouette that was more fitted. Whereas the ’80s were all about power, so the shoulders were broad but still the colors were muted and soft. It’s an ongoing dialogue between me and the world.”
For those who haven’t been keeping up with this enduring dialogue, on the top floor of the Armani/Silos, tucked behind the display of some of his most notable red-carpet looks, is everything required to catch up. Even on a sleepy Wednesday afternoon, this area is well populated with visitors, most of them young, apparently students, chatting among themselves. They’re here to pore through the digital archive of full Armani shows that is viewable on huge touchscreen displays. These allow you to swipe across more than a thousand Armani looks and immediately see the collections from which they emerged, then delve into other, related looks from across the designer’s career. In looking through the videos, what is remarkable is how, while the fashions for hairstyle and model type have changed dramatically over these years, the template of the clothes that frame them has remained so consistent.
Without an archive like the one created at Armani/Silos, the conventional relationship between a fashion designer and the world is pretty straightforward, and it runs something like this: “I design clothes and you wear them (should you choose to), and then next season we do it all over again with new clothes, forgetting the past ever happened.” But here, something entirely different is possible: The designer’s history collides with the viewer’s present, and the relationship is transformed. As Armani said, “It is a living memory.”
When you happen to be, at 87, one of the world’s greatest and best-known living fashion designers, your archive is not only memories, but also the articulation of a creative legacy. When I ask Armani about some of his most famous designs—that Gigolo wardrobe included—he acknowledges the power in that. “Of course, you’re talking about pieces that are part of the collective imagination,” he said. “And although I am proud of those pieces, what I am most proud of are the everyday outfits, like men’s and women’s suits. Very down-to-earth creations that have helped both men and women achieve another way of presenting themselves to the world.”
Whether it’s those students in his digital archive or the recently emerged Italian cultural icon Ghali (who, during my visit to Silos, was in a studio across the road), how does Armani view the collision of his past with a generation whose youth automatically makes that history appear brand new? “That is actually one of the main challenges when I create,” he said. “I think that design really matters when it is timely, when it captures the spirit of the time. But in capturing the spirit of the time, I always wanted to create a style that was pure, refined, and edited down to the bare essentials. A style that became timeless. So seeing that my work from the past still speaks to new and younger generations makes me proud.”
Downstairs, on the ground floor, the Silos space is dedicated to temporary exhibitions. The week after I visited, a new show was installed, charting the 40-year development of Armani’s key second line, Emporio Armani, entitled “The Way We Are.” It’s sadly too early to take that in today, so I head for the gift shop and pick up the trophy I’ve been hankering for—a T-shirt featuring an ’80s photo of Mr. Armani himself, dressed in full black-tie, staring into the camera with total focus.
Luke Leitch is a writer based in London.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2021 issue with the title “Cracking Open the Armani Archive.”
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Photographs by Scandebergs
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu
Hair by Pierpaolo Lai for Julian Watson Agency
Skin by Serena Congiu for Blend Management
Tailoring by Rosangela Perucelli for Zeta Fashion
Produced by Mai Productions
Location: Armani Teatro, Milan, Italy