Dior Down Under – Australian Financial Review

Dior Down Under

While those distinctive watches, cosmetics, fragrances and accessories have been available in Australia for decades, Sydney’s luxury precinct is readying itself for the imminent arrival of the country’s first Christian Dior flagship boutique. The antipodes has nevertheless had its share of close encounters with the house’s very famous founder, as Marion Hume relates.

The Australian Financial Review | December 2012

by Marion Hume

 

Heart Of Glass – Australian Financial review

AFR | December 2012

by Marion Hume

Sometimes an adventure beckons and you have to follow the lead. When an interview was relocated from New York to Prague, I was thrilled, given I haven’t been to the Czech Republic since it was Czechoslovakia. I looked forward to going again to the mighty Prague castle, to walking the span of the historic Charles Bridge.

But then a half-lost nugget of something began to niggle. When, recently, had there been mention of something Czech? I realized it was a few weeks before, in Kenya, when I was watching Maasai women working their magic on a range of bags for Myer, including designs by Karen Walker, Fleur Wood and Jayson Brunsdon.

Maasai beading is every bit as good as in the ateliers of the Paris haute couture. (How lucky am I, to have witnessed both, and often). This is due to a mix of traditional skill and sheer bloody-mindedness. The Maasai won’t even touch beads from India or China (whisper it, but the French will). Only the Czech ones are perfect.

Today, glass seed beads are still traded through second, third, fourth parties, so it has taken a degree of investigative skill to trace the source to where I am standing now, inside an old glass foundry, up a mountain, near a village I will never learn how to pronounce. Getting all the way here from Prague has taken guts and the navigational skills of a girl scout (Ok, that’s not true, but it has required the essential fashion skill of knowing how to hire a cheap driver with a GPS).

Inside, it is roasting hot, as you’d expect when five furnaces hit over 1,000 degrees. What looks like needle-thin vermicelli is being extruded (protuded? Who to ask for vocab when I can’t speak Czech?) along thin, raised contraptions that stretch as far as the eye can see. The secrets of glass reached Bohemia from the Venetian isle of Murano. But they will get no further today. How does this clear vermicelli become tiny beads of more colours than I can describe? Before I work that out, I am ushered outside into the icy cold. With every step I take there’s the crunch of glittering fragments of glass, sparkling under my feet.

Where I am welcomed, warmly and officially, is at the offices of Preciosa Ornela from whence all top-end traditional seed beads, known as rocailles, hail. (Preciosa Ornela, best know for glass figurines, bought out an ailing company called Jablonex which pioneered rocailles). These beads range from so teeny, they are given the measure 13/0 – a percentage of a millimetre – to 4/0, which is just about big enough for me to see without glasses.

Over eggs, ham and pickles, my hosts explain the reason Preciosa Ornela, and previously Jablonex and originally, the way more famous Swarovski, (a Czech company before moving to Austria) all hail from a cluster of tiny mountain villages. While glass is hard work, it doesn’t need many people. What it did need, traditionally, was wood, sand and water a-plenty. Given the Venetians soon ran out of wood, that this landlocked region of icy streams and forests always had to import sand (today a complex mix of chemicals) soon made the competition about even. But while the venetians lent more towards chandeliers, here it was beads and buttons. Thence, from the top of this mountain, traders ventured around the world, all the way to Mexico, China, India and East Africa.

“But the world we have never conquered is fashion,” my hosts lament, comparing to the spectacular style success of Swarovski. That’s when I reveal that Vivienne Westwood evening clutch bags and Sass & Bide tote bags are beaded by the Maasai through the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative in Kenya. My hosts are utterly delighted – although not as delighted as my Maasai mates will be when I hand over the new season’s disco beads in shimmering gold, bronze and silver.

True Blue – Austalian Financial Review

True Blue

Nobody was more surprised than Michael Kowalski when he got the top job at Tiffany. As Marion Hume writes, during his watch the retailer has made some radical moves in its quest to sell fine jewellery in a ‘democratic’ way.

The Austalian Financial Review | November 2012

by Marion Hume

What a swell party it was. The brass band was swinging, the singers were crooning, the dance floor was hopping, fuelled by champagne. Above the granite and marble of the imposing main floor, a towering interior was lit Tiffany blue, while views out of vast windows showcased the rainy night sparkle of the streets of Manhattan. They say the opening of the world­renowned Tiffany & Co. store at the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1940 was a glorious affair, despite the US being on the brink of entering World War II. The above description is not, however, of 1940 but 2012. The vast views were photographs to bring Manhattan to Prague, in the Czech Republic, to celebrate the opening of the American jeweller’s latest global store. That said, the vibe was glamorously retro, a warm contrast to the usual chilly fashion parties where guests dripping in borrowed brand merchandise are more intent on Instagramming than kicking up their heels.

Tiffany should have ended its 175th birthday year with an even more marvellous party – one that was supposed to feature movie stars, Moet, two inflatable zebra lilos and a fabulous pool party. For December was to have seen the Tiffany marque writ large across cinema screens in 3D. But Warner Bros stalled the release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, for which the jeweller has provided scores of sparklers, until May 2013. Surely news of the delay was exactly what Tiffany did not want for Christmas? “Not at all!” laughs Michael Kowalski, Tiffany’s quietly spoken chairman and chief executive, when we meet on the morning before the Prague party in the leafy garden of one of the Czech Republic’s swankiest hotels.

Kowalski, it must be said, is not a swanky kind of guy, despite the locale. Bespectacled, married to the same woman for 35 years, you’d read the 61­ yea r­old more as the dependable numbers guy than the CEO, which, in a way, would be right. His route to the top was finance and, when he reached the pinnacle in 1999, at age 48, he claims no one was more surprised than himself. He still doesn’t act much like other CEOs – although he has a car and driver while in Prague. “I actually prefer to rent my own car because just the act of understanding where a store is, in relation to airport or downtown and navigating by yourself, gives a sense of awareness and familiarity. Or I’ll take the subway,” he says. On the way back from the Prague party, he’ll offer several guests a chauffeur-­driven ride, meaning he will perch in the centre rear seat.

In Prague, Kowalski gives a warm opening speech, he works the red carpet, he shakes hands. He doesn’t appear shy; instead he’s utterly comfortable that he’s made a commitment to this in a schedule that has him travelling at least 40 per cent of his time. He even seems to be a little dazzled by the elegance of the party. This isn’t his natural milieu. “We do what we need to do to manage and promote Tiffany,” he says, “but on a personal level, I like to stay under the radar.”

But while Kowalski, personally, won’t regret that December isn’t a whirl of red carpet movie premieres, surely the delay is a blow for a business that had geared up to maximise the best bit of brand promotion since 1961, when Audrey Hepburn immortalised Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “It has been actually fine for us,” Kowalski counters. “It would have been sort of piling on to the holiday season in those weeks where it’s absolutely impossible for us to put more people in the stores.” You see, in the US, Tiffany pretty much is Christmas, in no small part due to years of seductive advertisements featuring snowflakes, lovers and the brand’s blue boxes tied up with white bows. “Quite frankly, and since we’ve seen some of the trailers, the delay has helped us because it gives us an opportunity to build a more robust product endorsement,” says Kowalski.

Prices of pieces with a Jazz Age theme will range from entry-­level to stratospheric. That’s how it has always been at Tiffany, the American jeweller Kowalski calls ‘democratic’, by which he means that money, or the lack thereof, is not a bar to crossing the threshold of its stores. Australia got its first Tiffany store in 1994, far earlier than most European cities, because our way of life chimes with store environments that are relatively relaxed compared to other high­end international jewellers. You can simply walk in, whoever you are, whatever you do. Let’s not forget that the Holly Golightly of Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s was what was known euphemistically as ‘a good time girl’, before Hepburn’s portrayal sweetened her into a good girl. As Golightly says of the Fifth Avenue flagship store: “Isn’t it wonderful? Nothing bad could ever happen to you in a place like this.”

When Charles Tiffany and his brother­-in-­law John Young set up their stationery and fancy goods emporium at 259 Broadway in New York City in 1837, an early policy dictated that not only was it fine to ask the price, most of these were displayed in plain sight. This policy meant Tiffany was the first fine jeweller to include the price tag when advertising engagement rings. In the contemporary context, it means the price appears within the first product details online (for instance: Tiffany Enchant Scroll Pendant $20,000).

Some things, though, are priceless, such as the cushion­ cut, 128.54 carat, sunburst yellow diamond purchased in 1878 by Charles Tiffany and housed on the ground floor of the Fifth Avenue store. On an earlier shopping spree to Paris, he bought the French crown jewels (up for sale due to revolutionary turmoil). It was in Paris that Tiffany was entranced by a fashionable hue known as Nattier blue, after the painter Jean­Marc Nattier. “The company has a team of people making sure the blue never changes, hunting down anyone who abuses it,” says Kowalski. It is at Kowalski’s insistence – he has strong environmental principles – that these days the blue box is green; that is, made from Forest Stewardship Council certified paper.

Tiffany, for all its sparkle, has always taken a radical lead. Kowalski says that the brand realised early on that, to expand, it had to break down the intimidation inherent in selling fine jewellery: “I’m sure when we opened a store in a mall in New Jersey, now one of our top 20 stores in the world, there were New Yorkers who were appalled, like: ‘My gosh, they’re opening a store in New Jersey! What could they be thinking!’ People were far more likely to walk through that wide door in a mall and once they were through that threshold, it was like: ‘Gosh, nothing bad is happening, I haven’t been asked to leave, did someone say can I help you?’ ’’

The high­-end jeweller with the common touch also lost no time tapping into the feminist Zeitgeist: early in the 1970s, when ads for a fragrance called Charlie showed confident women in pant suits striding through the streets of New York, Tiffany signed a modern visionary, Elsa Peretti, who found her design inspiration in street stall donuts and coffee beans. Until then, the most famous designs were those by Jean Schlumberger, a Frenchman whose opulent creations were adored by Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. Today, Tiffany collaborators continue to surprise. While collections by Paloma Picasso are not radical, the jeweller carries a line of bold, demanding pieces by the architect Frank Gehry.

Outside it doors, Tiffany sometimes generates shockwaves. “We do scandalise our competitors,” laughs Kowalski, recalling the tremors that greeted the news it was moving into e­commerce in 1999, a year before Natalie Massenet launched Net­a­ Porter. Online sales now account for about 6 per cent of worldwide sales, making it the number two store after New York. It even has an app that allows ring sizing, although Kowalski holds with his decision not to sell diamond engagement rings online “because of all those tactile things where you really have to hold it in your hand”.

Nor does he tweet: “Tiffany tweets but CEOs tweeting, that’s asking for trouble.” Not that he avoids controversy: “I know there are many people in the mining world and in the jewellery world and in the supply chain who think that I’m some sort of radical environmentalist who is pursuing his own personal agenda to save the world. But that’s simply not true.” Tiffany does not sell coral or rubies because they are as closely tied to nefarious practices as blood diamonds. As for diamonds, Tiffany’s can be traced pretty much to the square metre of earth they came from. (Of note: Tiffany’s yellow diamonds come from the Ellendale mine, in the far north of Western Australia.) Few knew until recently that platinum is controversial – although not Tiffany’s stock, which comes either from a single mine in Montana in the US, or is recycled.

“We have come up against some real industry opposition; it’s been disappointing in many ways,” says Kowalski. “I’m making a judgment based on what I believe our customers want, and it’s no different to the judgment I make about advertising or design. It’s all part of the brand DNA. One of the things that customers expect when they walk through those doors is that nothing terrible has happened in creating this diamond ring. I’m not suggesting that’s the first thing that they ask about, but consumers should be able to absolutely assume that to be the case.” Tiffany has won rare praise from Global Witness, which campaigns against natural resource­related conflict and corruption, for “one possible model of what major diamond jeweller retailers and manufacturers should do”.

Luck played no small part in Kowalski’s rise to the top. “It’s always better to be lucky than to be smart. In my own case, it was bizarre,” he says. Kowalski was working in financial planning at Avon, which had purchased Tiffany in 1977. “I had been there for about five or six years and I was just bored. I went to see the guy who had hired me, and said, ‘It’s been wonderful, but I really have to move on from here.’ And he said, ‘You got a job to go to? Because I’ve just learnt that there’s going to be an opportunity to head the financial planning department over at Tiffany, would you have any interest?’ And I said, ‘Why not?’”

Six months later, when Avon decided to sell Tiffany, it fell to Kowalski to oversee the sale. The success of the subsequent management­led leveraged buy­out was dependent on liquidating inventory, so Kowalski was asked to move to merchandising and take responsibility. “We had to put in place those basic financial disciplines,” he says. “That’s where the lucky part came in. I was in the merchandising division and moved up, so no, I never thought I would be CEO.”

Would he at least concede he’s a successful one? “I’ll tell you the obvious trajectory of sales growth. It was US$120 million with seven or eight stores [when he started in 1999]. Last year, it was US$3.6 billion with 247 stores, and almost half a billion dollars in profit.” From less than a dollar at the time he took over as CEO, the share price hovers around $US63. Like Kowalski, several key executives have put in years with the company and many hold stock. “There’s this great sense of financial accountability. There’s an incredible sensibility to legacy and tradition yet we’re analytical, disciplined, fact­based and very collegial. We have a great culture of respect and you know, you never raise your voice.” When the Gatsby party season kicks off next year, don’t go looking for Michael Kowalski. “I much prefer anonymity,” he says. “I walk into a party and I really try to avoid talking about Tiffany because once the cat is out of the bag, it’s hard to bring the conversation back to any common ground.”

No faking it on the Gatsby set

On a sunny day on the set of the The Great Gatsby at Sydney’s Fox Studios in December 2011, director Baz Luhrmann’s voice can be heard through a bullhorn. He is revving up more than 500 extras gathered for a party scene in the Gatsby mansion, complete with sunken pool and revellers on lilos. Time and again, Leonardo DiCaprio turns towards Tobey Maguire, repeating: “I’m Jay Gatsby. I’m sorry, old chap, I thought that you knew that,” each time flashing a megawatt smile and an onyx signet ring featuring a daisy motif.

Luhrmann had identified Tiffany as a ‘must get’ collaborator several years before production began. In a nice fit, Gatsby’s author F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Tiffany customer. Luhrmann’s partner, the double Oscar­winning costume designer Catherine Martin, spent months with the jeweller’s in­house designer, Jim Stonebraker, in New York. Stonebraker had to “go through hundreds of hoops because, exacting as I am, Baz is even more exacting,” says Martin. “Just being able to say, ‘Hmm, I think I’d really like a platinum cigarette case in enamel with diamonds and pearls’, and that was no problem, was fabulous.”

It is unusual, and risky, to use real jewellery on a movie set. “What’s crazy [is] my wife walking onto the set wearing a $2 million bracelet,” Luhrmann recalls of a shoot which had to include bodyguards and gems in locked boxes inside a safe within a safe room. “Tiffany has been phenomenal in that they open up the world of decadence. You can have fake diamonds but the real ones are just so much better.” Adds Martin: “We used every single piece because everyone loved wearing them. I would go, ‘Do you want to wear any jewels today?’ And they would reply, ‘We want to wear them all.’ ”

The Doisneau Department – Austalian Financial Review

AFR | November 2012

by Marion Hume

Paris in the sunlight. As my taxi slows in traffic near the Hotel de Ville, I am once again convinced of the existence of a secret agency of the French government, or perhaps a hidden team within the offices of the mayor. Their mission? To hire gorgeous young people and send them out on the streets to kiss, thus maintaining a worldwide reputation for romance.

The codename, or so I like to think; “The Doisneau Department”.

The smart bit is that whoever is in charge doesn’t just reach into the costume cupboard for vintage pieces and send the actors out to “do a Doisneau”. The trick keeps working because the fashions are always up-to-date.  But even if they did just try to stage literal recreations of Robert Doisneau’s eternal and endlessly-reproduced photograph, The Kiss (or Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville, to give it the original title), the snapshots you’d catch from a cab would still look utterly contemporary.

If you can picture the original image, first published in Life magazine in 1950, in your mind’s eye, you’ll recall the young man is wearing an oversized double-breasted jacket which, today, you’d source from Yohji Yamamoto, plus a scarf like any you’d find in a good menswear store. The lass looks like she’s in Prada, although that nipped-in cardigan, pretty blouse and fit-and-flare skirt could just as easily be Marc Jacobs. Or Zara.

The two in my view now? They’re the “on-trend” versions. The boy (long black hair, thick as a paint brush and scrunched up with a rubber band) is in a T-shirt so sheer you can see a tattoo on his flank, worn with pants that are charcoal in tone and multiply slashed. The girl is in a jacket of this season’s Yves Klein blue + skinny jeans. J Brand? Citizens for Humanity? I’m not so close I can read the label. But I can spot Pierre Hardy strappy sandals at 100 paces, which signal the stylist has a considerable budget to work with.

The Paris Metro may be cheap and fast but the way I see it, cabs are a necessity to keep abreast of what the Doisneau Department is up to. This season, I’m noticing a marked casting choice towards Vanessa Paradis lookalikes, perhaps out of solidarity to the chanteuse since her split with Johnny Depp or maybe just because, if you are hiring an actress to look chic in a clinch, you go for the girl with the bee-stung lips.

As for the boys, if I were in charge, I’d be telling the prop stylist to stop handing out guitar cases – there’s been too much of that “Boho/busker” look lately. And all the boys grasping a plastic bag from techo-supermarket, FNAC, in their free hands?  That doesn’t do much for romance, does it?

Ah! But maybe it does! For what better proof that Paris herself is ravishing, than “couples” who can’t help themselves, even if  they only popped out to pick up an external hard-drive?

The Doisneau Department has a long history of getting it right. They’re good, these guys. They managed to keep a lid on the fact that the original picture was a set-up for 42 years. Word only got out when a real couple, who thought they were “the couple”, sued for a slice of the profits of a photo that launched a thousand fridge magnets. Only then, in 1992, did Robert Doisneau himself have to fess up to having hired a couple of actors; a girl of 20, a boy of 23.

Which is exactly the age I’d put on the pair lip-locked outside the Hotel de Ville now. As for me, I love that we’ll always have Paris, the city of love – even if, to keep the myth alive, civil servants are toiling away, somewhere behind these grand Haussman facades, calculating the day rates.

The Stack [Monocle 24]

The Stack cracks spines and thumbs pages as it looks at the world of print media, from glossy magazines to investigative newspapers. 


Episode 1: Monocle 24’s brand-new show focusing on magazine culture invites designer and blogger Jeremy Leslie and acclaimed journalist Marion Hume to discuss quality paper and ink.


Episode 7: The Stack meets US media magnate and domestic goddess Martha Stewart, reviews magazines with Benjamin Eastham and Marion Hume, and discusses Ian Samson’s new book – “Paper”.

At The Court Of Armani – Australian Financial review

COVER1

At The Court of Armani 

Born in the year of the dog, Italy’s foremost designer is a China crowd pleaser, not least for the well dressed sophistication of his highly wearable clothes. But the succession question dogs the 78 year old all the way to Beijing, where Marion Hume joins him on a night of nights that proves Giorgio Armani is unlike any other of fashion’s living greats.

Austalian Financial Review | August 2012

by Marion Hume 

“Are you responsible, compassionate, reliable, honest, pessimistic and anxious?” Giorgio Armani’s ice blue eyes lock onto mine. Who dares ask fashion’s last emperor – his kingdom resolutely independent from the conglomerates that dominate the global luxury landscape – about his personal character? Yet we are in China, where a reporter, born under the year of the tiger, merely wishes to enquire whether the world’s wealthiest designer fits the description of those born under the year of the dog.

This emperor, who has absolute control as sole shareholder of a business worth billions, is shielded by a fiercely protective court. His mandarins – easy to spot because, like their ruler, they don’t wear socks – are stringent about vetting questions in advance. Tabled for today’s interview, taking place in a hotel penthouse 74 storeys above the streets of Beijing at the end of May, is discussion about Armani in China where the group has 289 of some 2125 stand-alone stores globally, with 50 more Chinese openings slated within the year.

There is a beat of silence. Then the interpreter translates the question into the designer’s native Italian (court protocol, as many suspect Armani understands English). “Perfecto!” Armani pronounces. Then he laughs. Then everyone is laughing and so it is that a reporter, distanced from greatness by ample space in which to kowtow, is allowed to stay upright in her chair.

When granted an audience with Armani, whether in the group’s palatial Milan headquarters or anywhere in his dominions, do not expect intimacy. The emperor must maintain distance (unlike, say, Tom Ford, who might start stroking your back). There will be a platoon of people. They will be dressed either just like him (T-shirt, sweater, immaculate casual) or they will ‘work’ his designs in studiously funky ways. The latter is a sartorial shift in a company that used to decree low heels, no earrings, nude nail polish – the change perhaps to semaphore a core brand message of ‘cool’, although the designer himself is 78.

Looking decidedly odd in such an on-trend crowd are the suits. The guy in the tie hand-signalling ‘five minutes to time’s up’ when we’ve only just got started? He’s Armani’s loyal assistant, Paul Lucchesi. The suited and booted guy standing all buff and bristling by the door? His palace guard.

Back in ancient China, it was believed that a man carried the creature of his birth year forever in his heart. Of all the animals in the 12-year cycle of the Shengxiao zodiac, the dog is the most determined. There is no need to ask Giorgio Armani if that is true of him. In 1975, he started a business with cash from selling a car. In 2011 alone, that business achieved a total turnover, including licensed products at retail value, of €6.73 billion ($7.9 billion). The dog is stubborn. When Sergio Galeotti, who was Armani’s partner in business and life, died in 1985, Armani expanded when expected to retreat and runs everything at one of the world’s most recognised brands.

It is written that dogs prefer saving money to spending it. At last report, Giorgio Armani SpA had some $817 million in cash on its books and even Armani’s yacht must earn its keep in charters. To a dog, a well organised home is important. Make that nine private homes, a homeware line called Armani Casa and, in partnership with the UAE property developer Emaar, hotels in Milan and Dubai. But dogs are sensitive, or you might say prickly, given Armani’s less than complimentary comments about other designers’ creations over the years (“molto porno”; “troppo Joan Collins”).

Being born in 1934 makes Armani specifically a ‘wood dog’, the kind that hunts in a pack. Where the emperor leads, others trot behind, even on his annual holiday to Pantelleria, a volcanic speck southwest of Sicily. Apparently, Armani snarls at those he loves the most. In a 2000 interview with Vanity Fair’s Judy Bachrach, he admitted to “verbal violence. And sometimes I even use words, Italian ones – stronzo or cazzo!” Shithead, prick… “That is normal. [Among ourselves], this is what we say all the time.”

This visit to China is not holiday galavanting; it is an international show of brand power – or make that brands, plural. Within the group are Giorgio Armani Privé, Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani, Armani Collezioni, AJ | Armani Jeans, A/X Armani Exchange, Armani Junior, plus eyewear, watches, jewellery, fragrances and cosmetics. On this evening, the emperor plans to dazzle all those who have received a gilded invitation – accompanied by a little box of nine (Chinese lucky number) Armani Dolce chocolates – with an extravaganza entitled ‘Giorgio Armani: One Night Only in Beijing’.

But overnight success is the opposite to how he got to be here. Along with talent and a singular vision are years of sheer hard work. Armani hails from Piacenza, a northern industrial town far removed from the Italy of La Dolce Vita. Unlike Yves Saint Laurent, born two years after Armani (who was telling his mother how to dress when he was four and was famous by 21), Armani’s childhood stories are not of decorating paper dolls but of hiding in ditches while his home town was strafed in Allied bombing raids. His father worked in the offices of Mussolini’s Fascist Party and then as a shipping manager. His housewife mother could be as hard as nails. It took Armani years to see his name in lights, although for almost as many years since, a vast Emporio Armani sign arcing over Milan’s Linate airport has welcomed visitors.

Armani didn’t design under his own name until he was 40, making him something of a fashion George Clooney (often in Armani on screen), which is to say, old enough to know what to do when fame came knocking. That fame has been burnished through associations with many movie stars at awards ceremonies and in costume collaborations. Who can forget a cocksure Richard Gere, matching Armani shirts, pants, ties in the 1980 filmAmerican Gigolo?

This catapulted an Italian label to international stardom just as Western economies were booming and Young Urban Professionals were wondering what to wear. For men, Armani knocked the stuffing out of the suit. For women, his supple tailoring signalled soft power in a changing world of work.

But that is all known to fashion insiders. What we don’t know, when we show up in China, is the succession plan for a company that directly employs some 5700 people and it’s the scoop all of us are really after. In this imperial tale, there is no little Pu-Yi to ascend to the throne when the current occupant journeys to meet the ancestors, although Armani has two nieces (Silvana and Roberta Armani) and a nephew Andrea Camerana. Instead, two weeks after Armani’s appearances in Beijing, it will be revealed through the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, that the Giorgio Armani group will become a foundation once the emperor has gone.

This will benefit family members without giving any one of them control and ensure independence, keeping the kingdom safe from far mightier powers such as LVMH. (About a decade ago when LVMH titan, Bernard Arnault approached Armani with an offer few would refuse, Armani did just that.) Such a structure gets around the risks of selling to private equity, which can lead to strange bedfellows, and also protects against the vicissitudes of the stock market.

But while in China, reporters who have travelled across mountains and oceans to get ‘the succession scoop’ do not yet know of this imperial edict. And so it is that an Englishman, an Irishman and a dual nationality British/Australian walk into a hotel penthouse – not the opener to a joke but instead because we English-speaking journalists find ourselves bunched together. (Pressure of time, what with all the French, the Spanish, the Mandarin speakers also interviewing in teams).

We agree the Englishman will be the diplomat: “Can I ask Mr Armani about Beijing and his impressions of Beijing, especially coming back here after four years?” This Aussie will jest about cutting suits big enough for Russell Crowe’s beloved Rabbitohs, while the Irishman, fluent in Italian and in blarney, will watch for the moment to ask “what happens next?”. But do not forget the mandarins are skilled at games of cat and mouse, or shall we say dog-taunt-tiger, rabbit, monkey. An American journalist joins us just as we start, with more questions to be translated, yet with no extra time.

What Armani wants to talk about is clothes. The emperor pontificates, the interpreter waffles on. “He says that with the jacket, he uses more rational shapes, more easy to dress. He says the main difference is not in colours, is not in material, but especially in the structure, the shape.” The penthouse door swings open again and the reporters from across Asia take their seats as we four are ushered out of ours and forward to shake the imperial hand.

Later that day, it is in the subterranean Hades of Beijing’s fake markets, being suffocated by horrid handbags dangling with gewgaws, that the essential difference between the Giorgio Armani brand and almost every other mighty fashion marque slaps me in the face, almost literally. (“Look lady, best LV!”) As I swipe a gawdy Vuitton copy away from my eye line, there are no Armani logos to be seen, not on the cheap clutches piled high on the stalls or among the more convincing fakes I see in private cubbyholes, through doors concealed behind mirrors, or doors disguised as sets of shelves. There’s ‘Hermès’, there’s ‘Fendi’, there’s ‘Chanel’. Fundamentally, Giorgio Armani is a clothing brand with some bags on the side, thus much harder to rip off than those fashion giants which are bag companies with clothes on the side.

While some brands appear to be using China as a shop window (their rich Chinese customers buying abroad where taxes are lower), clothes are different. You might need something tomorrow for a business meeting or cocktail party. The Armani brands sell robustly within China. No numbers are given, but a figure of ‘hundreds of thousands’ of customers gets a nod from Paul Haouzi, who is offered up for the AFRMagazine to interview when it becomes clear that the most senior executive, group commercial director Livio Proli, will not be taking questions.

Haouzi, chief executive Asia Pacific, is a Frenchman fluent in Mandarin, as well as in the English he uses to explain that Armani customers in China “know what they want, understand what fashion is about and want the best. They won’t care too much about price. Armani is a big name and a great product, especially for menswear. And the men here, they really want to look good.”

Training sales staff is key, he says. “The people who serve the customers are not only nice, not only look good, the most important thing is that they are knowledgeable. They have to make sure the person who buys something not only buys the piece, but also buys the Armani experience: the love that Mr Armani has for beauty, for fashion. I want to make sure that our staff are able to deliver more than a piece of clothing.”

Yet while Armani is the king of clothes, paradoxically, the fashion world tends to get much more excited about showpieces spun out by those labels that principally sell bags. Armani does care, personally, that the fashion media shrugs off his wearable offerings as bland when, frankly, where could you go in what comes down the catwalk at Balenciaga?

To examine how good his clothing can be, you have only to take a look at his Australian celebrity clientele. No, not at Cate Blanchett (“In reality she can be very strong, so sometimes you are surprised about this strongness,” Armani says) because she looks good in anything, although it was Blanchett who got Armani to Australia. Not Nicole Kidman either, a natural clothes horse (“Ah, Nicole!”), nor even Russell Crowe, who scrubs up well (“He knows what he wants.”). But recall Armani also clothes the actor’s South Sydney rugby league football team, the Rabbitohs. (In the interview, Armani mimes thighs of magnificent girth accompanied by “molto machile”.) The day the Rabbitohs were fitted is one some of his staffers will never forget, given several players were ‘going commando’. These days, off field, they look impeccable.

As night falls, we are transported at a crawl across Beijing where five million cars have replaced those fabled 10 million bicycles, towards 798 Space, in the city’s Dashanzi art district. Within what was formerly a power plant is the shell of an enormous gasometer (scale: not quite Rome’s Coliseum, but large at 3500 square metres) where a thousand guests mingle for pre-show cocktails inside the perimeter, then are ushered into a stunning theatre-in-the-round. Off-white cushions, bleacher seats, ‘landing lights’ illuminating the catwalk, all echo Armani’s permanent show venue in Milan. American crooner Mary J. Blige is in her dressing room, the models are lined up backstage, all preparing to perform as part of a show which must be costing a fortune. (How much? Who knows, when Armani has to account to no one but himself?)

In this era of the fashion show mega-stylist, Armani does not appear to employ one. Perhaps he does that job himself too. He checks every model before they step out of the wings. Yet while the catwalk is peppered with pieces you’d grab if you could pick what you wanted from a store, on this night, fussed up to look heightened for the dramatic setting, more becomes less. Then, at last, the finale. In the Shengxiao zodiac, dogs are warned: be wary of dragons.

“The pinnacle of the fashion show is a sinuous black lacquered dress around which a spectacular three-dimensional embroidery of a dragon wraps itself, from whose jaws spout not flames, but the lightest of feathers,” is how the final gown is described in an official press release. Shall we just say that the gulf between how fashion scribes express themselves post-show, in private, and what appears in print is often not the same thing. Global reviews are euphoric.

In any case, Giorgio Armani’s true triumph lies not in such travelling circuses. He stands as a style colossus for a quiet elegance that cuts across class and geographical divides. He is a modernist, as Coco Chanel was a modernist, his key contribution to fashion’s lexicon being the calm clothes that promise at least one element of your day will be right. While he has been refining daywear since 1975, it is telling that he did not launch Giorgio Armani Privé, with its sparkling couture gowns, until 30 years later, in 2005.

Included in our Beijing itinerary is a visit to Tsinghua University, where Armani sponsors a program for fashion and textile students. He is here to tell Wen Ya and Wang Yilong that they have been awarded intensive six-month apprenticeships in Milan. It is in the company of these young women, surrounded by their peers, that an emperor becomes mortal, a man with a burning desire to transmit his knowledge to a new generation. Far more animated with the students than with the press, his sense of urgent need – palpable, even through the mire of translation – is to teach that the true power of clothes is to bring out the best in the person who wears them.

Armani leans into the wattage beam of eager young smiles: “I want to say this to all of you: when you design, you should not just think of external things, you should think of internal things. Maybe a woman’s exterior is not so good, so you think of how a woman’s inner beauty can benefit from your designs. This industry needs inner passion.” The lights in the lecture hall dim and some vintage images flash up on a slightly shabby screen. “When the hell is this video from?” snipes one of the press pack, looking up from trawling through emails on his smartphone, only to be plunged back into the 70s.

Then Blondie’s Call Me from American Gigolo comes through the speakers and here they come: Richard Gere, Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery, an older Richard Gere going up the escalator holding a rose. Here comes Michelle Pfeiffer, Michelle Yeoh, Julia Roberts. Armani’s army marches on with Rafael Nadal and a tattooed David Beckham in their underpants, Rihanna in her bra and (surprisingly) Lady Gaga in her clothes. Cut to Beyoncé shimmying in a spangly mini and even the hacks are a bit awed by the punch, punch, punch of it all.

But from where I am seated, light coming off the screen makes Giorgio Armani himself just visible through the blackness. As all those audacious achievements flash up on the screen to the side of him, a silver-haired senior in a tight fitting sweater stares out into nothingness, fine fingers extended in a cathedral of prayer. As a life in fashion plays out before us all, he is marble-still, like a knight on a tomb.

Armani is not like fashion’s other living greats. He is not a designer-for-hire like Karl Lagerfeld who could (although unlikely) spin on his Cuban heels and walk out on Chanel. He is not Ralph Lauren, six years his junior, whose namesake is a public company where one of his sons is senior vice-president. Calvin Klein, who is nine years younger, sold out to the highest bidder and withdrew. Armani has never been one for opulent indulgence like Valentino, who held an unforgettable farewell party and enjoys a luxurious retirement. We know that, one day, the Giorgio Armani Group will become a foundation. But until his last breath, the emperor rules alone.