The other Armani: With Clooney and TomKat as friends, Roberta helps UncleGiorgio expand his empire
For all their bravado on the runway, people in the fashion world aren't great interviews. They are mercurial, sometimes chilly, and often seem focused on selling their designs without revealing too much about themselves.
And you never know what will tick them off. Tom Ford once stormed out of an interview when I asked him about his plans after leaving Gucci.
But Roberta Armani is different.
While Giorgio Armani makes sure everything works just right — when he was in New York for the Fifth Avenue store opening in 2009, I watched him inspect the placement of glasses in the bar with eagle-eye detail even as celebrities flooded the store — his 40-year-old niece is the one who makes everyone feel comfortable. As the head of VIP and public relations for the Italian fashion house, she is used to assuaging celebrities' egos.
With a quick smile and friendly manner, she easily works her charms on the unexalted, too. A few minutes with her at Neiman Marcus and I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio.
Roberta, who is increasingly the public face of the Armani empire (particularly because her uncle doesn't speak English), had jetted in from California, where she had made a store appearance, and was headed to New York for the premiere of Fair Game, the new movie where Naomi Watts portrays unmasked CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson. Armani outfitted both women for the premiere.
"It's interesting because in her life, Valerie Plame actually wore Armani. So we wardrobed her for the movie," Roberta Armani explained.
Another big Armani fan: Lady Gaga. Armani outfitted the singer in several haute couture gowns — including one with space-age hoops — at the Grammy awards. The relationship came about after Roberta Armani saw Gaga perform at the American Music Awards last winter. "I thought what an incredible talent. I contacted her stylist and said we would like to dress her for the Grammys and that's how it happened," she said.
She believes Gaga is good for the Armani brand "because she has been able to fit into the mold that Madonna has left."
"She was able to make haute couture more democratic, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Anything she wears she will Twitter right away for her fans, so young kids from Nebraska who will never go to a haute couture show can dream of it and experience it through her. Anything she wears becomes a piece of art. We put what she was wearing at the Grammys at the Fifth Avenue store and we had lines for 10 days.
"Armani is timeless and she is so avant-garde, but in the end they are very similar. Both are amazing forces of nature."
Roberta Armani has been working for the company more than half of her life. She was only 16 when she went to work as a saleswoman at the Emporio Armani store in New York.
"I spoke no English," she marvels. "I fell in love with America. Thank god I came to the U.S. It open my mind and taught me so much."
Giorgio Armani, now 76, first got noticed when he outfitted Richard Gere forAmerican Gigolo in 1980. "Back then no one would ask what are you wearing on the red carpet; now everyone does. He was a pioneer," she says.
Roberta Armani believes the company has been successful in attracting celebrities like George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes because they treat them like family.
"I don't like the PR attitude, it is very old fashioned. When people come to us they always say they feel at home. That's the greatest feeling when I am able to make these people feel like they can relax."
Her favorite celebrity memory is the wedding of Cruise and Holmes at Odescalchi Castle in Italy in 2006. "It was just like a pure expression of love. They are the nicest people I have ever met and most grateful and constantly expressing gratitude. That event really changed my life," she said.
In what way?
"Just to be able to help Tom and Katie organize their wedding. It's the most important day of their life, so it made me feel so important as well. It's a time when you self esteem goes wow — even a little higher."
Armani has dressed just about every female celebrity on the planet, so Roberta is hardpressed to come up with a wish list. "Maybe Charlize Theron," she says, although that seems unlikely since the actress frequently appears in Dior ads.
As for men, " I would love to work with Edward Norton. I admire him a lot. I think he's a great unique incredibly smart and talented artist," she says. "I don't think he's very much into fashion though."
She never ceases to be amazed by her uncle, whose spring/summer 2011 collection features only shades of blue. "He's the only designer who can perform one show with just one color and still be amazing," she says.
She believes he has been so successful because he "always creates things for real women. Your sister, my mother, everyone can wear it. My uncle's advice is when you enter a room, you don't have to be noticed but remembered," she says.
She has also learned an incredible work ethic from him.
"He is the first one to get up in the morning and the last one to go to bed," she says. "Sometimes we prepare events for him. And he comes into a store that we think is perfect and changes the whole thing. He has the way of seeing color in a different way. Artists like that have a perception that is not like our perception."
At 76, he remains motivated because the company remains essentially a family business.
"Sometimes people become unsuccessful because they diversify and lose the purpose. My uncle has kept all his energy and his focus into his company. He did haute couture at a time when haute couture was unsuccessful and many designers weren't doing it anymore. But he was able to do it in a very modern and wearable way. Now he is very much into his hotels. I think that's the secret of his success. And it's incredible.
"He works in Milan until 8 at night and then you see him at Nobu making sure that everything is good and the tables look good and people are happy. And checking the windows of the stores at night.
Perhaps in a nod to his mortality, he has put a talented staff in place, she says. "He's very much into total control of everything. But lately he's been able to find really good managers who will help the company thrive."
Will he ever retire?
"No," says, while laughing. "It's what makes him alive and happy."