American Gigolo and the Rise of the Armani Generation
American Gigolo and the Rise of the Armani Generation
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date February 27, 2018
Released at the dawn of the 1980s, American Gigolo proved prophetic. As Christopher Laverty of Clothes on Film put it, “American Gigolo is not even about its protagonist, it is about what he wears. American Gigolo is about Armani.” This idea set the precedent for an entire decade. In the height of the materialistic '80s, the adage “the clothes make the man,” was pushevd even further—suddenly, a man was his clothes
Reflecting on the film decades later, director Paul Schrader told GQ, “to me, the clothes and the character were the same. I mean, this is a guy who does a line of coke in order to get dressed.”
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While today we look at the clothes of Gordon Gecko or Patrick Bateman and see a stuffy cliche, in 1980 the soon-to-be stale Wall Street power suit was revolutionary. The venerable Giorgio Armani lead the charge. Under Armani’s influence, the suit underwent a transformation. Lightweight, generous silhouettes allowed emerging members of a new business class to announce themselves via bolder colors and more daring fabrics. Armani removed the internal padding of his suit jackets, shifted from traditional fabrics to linen, and moved from the harsh blacks and blues of tradition to the ease of beige and brown. The 1980s man was bolder, smoother and sexier. At the center of it all were two letters: “GA.”
Before the release of American Gigolo, Giorgio Armani was an Italian designer with a small profile in the United States. He released his first collection in 1975, and within a few years, his softened suit jackets had taken Europe by storm. He was dubbed the “King of the Blazer.” Yet, he was still relatively unknown stateside. Interest started to bubble early on, when Barneys New York became the first stockist in America. Still, with few accounts and high price tag, U.S. expansion moved slowly. Luckily, Armani found admirers where it mattered most. With John Travolta initially attached to Gigolo, his manager insisted his star wear Armani. In a twist of fate, Travolta opted out in order to pursue other projects. Armani, however, stayed on.
The partnership ended up a perfect fit. Travolta’s role eventually went to Richard Gere, who played Julian, a high-end Hollywood escort. While Julian could be described as a bit shallow, he also embodied everything that Armani wanted to project on his potential clientele: effortlessly sexy, not overly masculine, self-assured, yet confident enough to genuinely be concerned for how he looks. For director Paul Schrader, the clothes perfectly suited the enigmatic protagonist. The clothes and the man had a symbiotic relationship. They gave Gere the sensual, light touch, essential for the role and he gave them life, breadth and character.
From the very first scene of American Gigolo, the clothes are front and center, as the film explores the relationship between the suit and the man. When we first meet Julian, he is being fitted by a tailor. Then we cut to him laying out his suits on the bed, doing a line of blow, and singing along to Smokey Robinson.
The wardrobe of American Gigolo proved exceedingly successful. Men across the country saw themselves—or rather, they saw how they hoped to be seen—in Julian. When considering the suits of the Mad Men era, they are boxy, crisp, buttoned up, the picture of professional. Gere’s wardrobe was different. His frame, broad shouldered and thin waisted, filled out the bold Armani silhouette. The new shape suggested another approach to a men’s formal look: elegant rather than stuffy and sexy instead of handsome. A box office success, the film helped launched Armani’s career. Contemporaries recount how Savile Row changed practically overnight, remade in Armani’s image.
Fortune favored Armani, but it would be naive to say it was all a happy accident. Giorgio Armani had a plan. Just prior to production, Armani was preparing his first international ready-to-wear line. That meant as the film hit theatres, his suits were immediately available to entirely new clientele. When the denizens of New York and Los Angeles’ agencies and brokerages came calling on the heels of Gere’s performance, Armani was ready to meet their demands.
Armani knew the marketing value of star power, and would go on to replicate what he achieved with Gere countless times, codifying his brand amongst the American mainstream. From American Gigolo forward, he would enjoy an iconic relationship with Hollywood. He designed the costumes for The Untouchables as well as Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft remake. Armani also aggressively pursued celebrities to great effect: Michelle Pfeiffer, Matt Damon, Mira Sorvino, Ricky Martin and Eric Clapton have all made high profile public appearances in his suits.
Perhaps most importantly, Armani secured a prime place for his clothing as the wardrobe on the hit ‘80s TV show Miami Vice. Though the iconic pastel suits are now a novelty throwback, the Armani power suits worn by Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas only heightened the appeal of Armani to Western audiences. If American Gigolo brought Armani suits to Chateau Marmont and Peter Luger, Miami Vice ensured that even high rollers who took their power lunches at a suburban Olive Garden aspired to be clad in Armani.
Hollywood shine, European chic, and the powerful cut: Armani created the look that dominated ‘80s business. Colloquially referred to as the power suit, double-breasted Armani’s became the uniform in board rooms across America. Commanding $700 (roughly $1500 by today’s numbers), the loose fitting cuts were considered exorbitant for off the rack tailoring. Still, Armani flew off shelves nationwide.
By the early '90s, Armani was ever. A 1994 New York Times [article](*http://www.nytimes.com/1994/10/09/style/the-great-suit-quest-one-man-s-agony.html?pagewanted=all) describes Armani as a “colossus,” to be “confronted...either directly in its form of his soft-shouldered, lightweight wool clothing that pulls up whole floors in department stores, or indirectly through his strong influence on others.” Once the author tried the suit on, he wrote, “I felt like a Wall Streeter who knew his way to Nobu.” Wall Street suits had wanted to look like Gere. Now, the average American wanted to look like a Wall Street suit.
The Armani suit continued to dominate the market through the mid-90s, even as Internet culture birthed loose-fitting khaki pants and upended the way we think about dressing for the office. Even today there are men (and women) across industries who refuse to wear anything but Armani. While still wildly popular and profitable, the brand, at least culturally, has become a victim of its own success. The modern Armani suit is considerably more tame than what Richard Gere wore to capture men’s attention (and wallets). The iconic power suit became so over-saturated through the ‘80s and ‘90s that the look feels exceedingly dated. While The Wolf of Wall Street may have reintroduced the loose look to a new generation, and men are exploring different tailoring options, ‘80s Armani is a thing of the past. Upon the film’s release, one financier said, “The power suit is over. Less is more today. Finance is less brash, and so are its clothes.”
Today, the Armani brand spends ample time and money attempting to stay relevant. Armani realized that vying to remain the preferred suit of America’s business class was no longer a viable option. Beyond changing its suits, the brand has expanded its vision. As soon as the brand achieved Wall Street dominance, Armani began to diversify. In 1991, Armani Exchange started wading into shopping malls and suburbs across America. Armani Jeans, Armani Casa homewares, Armani fragrances, and Armani Junior followed in quick succession. Though the Armani Empire has had its ups and downs, over four decades Giorgio Armani grew a $8 billion business, made possible by the foothold he gained through his core menswear offering.
Armani’s place in fashion history is not up for debate—a businessman of any stripe can respect his lifetime balance sheet. Still, as Armani approaches retirement and his work begins to appear in museums and retrospectives, it’s worth thinking about the role he and American Gigolo played in American menswear.
In 1980, The loose fit and light touch of Armani suits revolutionized men’s tailoring. Yet, by the end of the decade, the rigid set of executive style expectations was entirely replaced, and the once groundbreaking Armani was at the precipice of normalcy. While Armani suits gave rise to their own kind of executive monoculture, they achieved more than that. Giorgio Armani’s work opened up the possibilities, redefining what it meant to wear a suit.