By Hermione Eyre www.thisislondon.co.uk
We’re a very loyal family,’ says Roberta Armani, her voice echoing round the former ducal palace that is now Armani’s global HQ. ‘It’s an Italian thing. You can trust your family.’ Her warm smile toughens as she thinks of her uncle Giorgio. ‘We would give our life and blood for him.’
Here on the Via Borgonuovo in Milan we are, as Roberta says, ‘inside the kingdom’. From the building’s neoclassical façade, a huge Italian tricolore unfurls in the winter wind. Hardly humble, but then Armani is Italy’s prime brand export. When I enter the building, a foot soldier tells me: ‘You are now breathing Armani air’. It’s about the only thing they haven’t branded. Just down the road, on the Via Montenapoleone, Milan’s Bond Street, shoppers are buying Armani clothes, sitting on Armani/CASA furniture, eating at the Armani Caffe, browsing the Armani bookshop, smelling the Armani flowers (mainly spiky, sculptural affairs in pots of gravel) and then heading on to the Nobu-Armani nightclub to lounge the night away within its matte aluminium walls on orange Armani banquettes.
The whole merry dance (or, in Roberta’s words, ‘lifestyle flow’) is orchestrated by one man, working upstairs at Via Borgonuovo. He is not to be disturbed lightly. Indeed, when I ask a senior member of staff what Mr Armani’s office is like, they laugh. ‘I have never been inside.’ At 76, Armani has a personal wealth of $5.3billion. He is self-made: his upbringing, in post-war Italy, was impoverished. Papa worked in transport and Mama was a housewife. After training at Cerruti, Giorgio Armani launched his own line in 1975 with a fashion show at the Pitti Palace in Florence and became the byword for restrained, contemporary chic and ‘deconstructed’ tailoring, cut in artfully loose, lean lines.
The company’s global reach is unrivalled, with something for everyone, everywhere, from toddlers (Armani Junior) to connoisseurs (the haute couture collection Armani Privè). The first store in China opened in Beijing in 1998 and now 11 per cent of the company’s business is done in China (wheresales rose 32% last year). Global sales in 2009 were 1.52 billion euros, with an operating profit of €218 million for Mr Armani.
Armani was not built in a day, and Giorgio has always relied on the support of his family. His elder brother Sergio was a general manager of Coin department store who gave him business advice, and his sister Rosanna, a model, worked in the brand’s PR department. Now that Sergio – and Sergio Galeotti, Giorgio Armani’s business partner and friend – have both died, the younger generation has stepped up. Rosanna’s son Andrea, 40, works on the commercial side of the business and Sergio’s daughters Silvana 55, and, Roberta are full-time employees, Silvana in design and Roberta in PR. Roberta’s enviable brief is ‘celebrity liaison’.
As head of VIP PR, she befriends the stars, and bedecks them in Armani. ‘My dream job!’ she beams in an ice-cream Italian accent. With blow-dried hair, bright eyes and a keen, alert posture, she smiles across the table at me, a one-woman charm machine. Poised, warm, and a natural at hyperbole – Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are ‘the kindest people in the universe’ – she is clearly Giorgio Armani’s secret weapon.
His senses are more acute than ours,’ she explains. He would find it difficult to talk to someone wearing a colour he didn’t like, for example.’Yes. He has a more than average perception of colour. Something ugly would bother him more than it would other people. He wouldn’t say anything, but I would be able to tell…’ She mimes wincing as if blinded by a lurid dress. Born in Bologna 40 years ago, Roberta has always been close to her uncle.
‘As a girl she was a dreamer,’ Mr Armani tells me, ‘but she was always extremely observant. Affectionate by nature, she has always been close toher father, my brother Sergio and her grandmother. She gives me a sense of family.’ Roberta tells me her family always knew Giorgio would achievegreatness, but that her personal wake-up call came when as an 18-year-old she went to the cinema as a teenager to see The Untouchables, the Brian de Palma drama about Prohibition. ‘Then I saw his name on the credits for the costumes. Wow. It was really my first memory of elegance.’ Fighting what she describes as the Italian tendency for children to stay at home, cosseted by their mamma, she forced herself off to New York, to learn English working on shop floor at Emporio Armani on Madison Avenue. ‘I spoke no English at all. When a customer said ‘How ya doin’? I said ‘no, my name is not doing’.’ There, she learnt the scope of her uncle’s empire. ‘In Italy everyone had to have a Moncler jacket and Armani jeans, people would stab you in the street to get a pair, but when I went to America I realised the scale of what my uncle had created and I was shocked. When people heard I was my uncle’s niece, they wanted to touch me. I was mobbed.’ Her first foray into celebrity relations came when, aged 18, she was charged with taking the young Leonardo di Caprio out on the town in Milan. ‘We went clubbing with a few of his friends. I translated. He was three or four years younger than me but already so handsome. This was before Titanic. His face was perfection, like a Raphaello painting.’
Roberta had found her niche. These days, she dresses countless stars, flying to LA twice a month to host premieres and attend fittings. ‘Roberta is always by my side on business trips,’ Mr Armani tells me, ‘and her presence is very important, she always sees things in a positive light. She establishes and maintains our connections and collaborations with celebrities, forming close relationships that go way beyond discussions about red carpet occasions.’
Her latest coup was forging an, at first unlikely, partnership between her uncle and Lady Gaga. ‘I flew five hours just to see her three-hour concert.It gave me goosebumps, she is such a great performer.’ And did she introduce Mr Armani to her music? ‘No, my uncle loved her music already,from the radio. He is not always shut away in the kingdom. He goes out, he sits in bars, he watches young people – how they dress, what they arelistening to.’ So Roberta called Lady Gaga’s stylist Nicola Formichetti.
‘I said, ‘we love Gaga’, and he said, ‘Of course, she loves you guys’. And so my uncle created a dress for her, very dramatic, very theatrical’ Orbiting her body like spun sugar, the dress was an extraordinary creation. ‘The first time she saw it, she said, ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful!’ and she started to cry. She is a woman who can become very emotional very quickly, she’s a very shy, clean soul.’ Moreover, as a good Italian girl (real name Stefani Germanotta) Lady Gaga shares Roberta’s fixation with family. ‘She’s very close to her mum and dad, very proud of them.’ Roberta invites Cynthia and Joseph Germanotta to Armani parties too.
For the recent Facebook film, The Social Network, Roberta helped Justin Timberlake into the early Naughties vintage Armani clothes his character, Napster founder Sean Parker, would have worn. She did the same for Naomi Watts in Fair Game – because her character, secret agent Valerie Plame Wilson, wore Armani in real life, as Roberta proudly tells me. She recently recruited the tennis champion Rafael Nadal, to model underwear, long having loved his look. ‘He always chose interesting clothes for tennis, like long trousers [he has also been known to wear Capri pants], or long sleeves oncourt – he wears a lot of colour. He is not just an amazing sportsman but also an artist. I’m so proud he is joining the family.’
It is not hard to see why Roberta bonds effortlessly with stars. She is very much one herself. Her age is unguessable from her appearance and her conversation leans toward Eastern philosophy. Her skin glows, due to a one and a half hour daily fitness routine of yoga and martial arts and Shiatstu massage, from the same guru who works with her uncle. On her wrist she wears an orange prayer bracelet from Tibet, and she lives by a philosophy that so many stars find helpful: ‘I always say, failure does not exist…’. A lapsed Catholic, she is ‘very influenced by Buddhism. I find it great. There is no judgement, there is no guilt, it’s all about acceptance…’ She has been looking east since reading Siddharta aged 14. But she has never yet been to Tibet. That would be fascinating, I remark. ‘Shall we go?’ she asks me, laughing. Spontaneous invitations are very much Roberta’s thing.
Over the space of an hour, she asks me to a concert, an exhibition, and to Dubai, to stay in the Armani Hotel suites in the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world. ‘You will see, it is amazing.’ Roberta made a brief detour into acting, taking classes at the Actors’ Studio in New York and appearing in an Italian TV adaptation of the life of Jesus as an Old Testament maiden. She did not pursue this career but returned to work for her uncle with a understanding of what makes actors and actresses tick. ‘They are all insecure, like we are. Even the most beautiful. We are all insecure. But Armani is like a second skin. When I wear it I feel safe.’
Of the two royal weddings going head-to-head this year – Prince William and Kate Middleton, and Prince Albert of Monaco and Charlene Wittstock, Roberta admits she is more excited about Monaco. ‘But Charlene is my friend, which makes me biased!’ The two are often spotted together at fashion shows and parties. ‘She is perfect for being a princess. She’s down-to-earth but also clever, determined. She shines in our clothes!’ She giggles breathlessly at the suggestion Armani will make Miss Wittstock’s wedding dress. As for Kate Middleton, ‘she is gorgeous but she will wear a British designer, and I admire her for that.’ If Roberta were dressing her, she would put her in… ‘A beautiful Armani Prive rose de bois [dusky pink] pant suit of handmade shantung silk with straight trouser legs, not flared.’ And underneath the jacket? ‘Nothing! Quite sexy, quite modern.’ The actress Roberta would most like to convert to Armani is Keira Knightley. ‘With her androgynous beauty it would be perfect, but I think she is with… Dior?’ Roberta says, studiedly offhand. It’s Chanel.
Roberta is a wedding expert having helped organise Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise’s ceremony in 2006, in Odescalchi Castle in Bracciano, outside Rome. She even found the venue. ‘Every year on their anniversary they send me flowers. It was a very beautiful wedding, made out of love because they emanate love.’ Once asked if it was better than her own wedding, in Milan in 1997, to the scion of an Italian energy dynasty Angelo Moratti, she responded ‘Oh yes!’, even though Giorgio Armani got up at her wedding and sang O Sole Mio with Bryan Adams, letting his hair down as never before or since. Armani is a stylish enigma to most of the world, but Silvana and Roberta see his soft side. He has just given them ‘a lovely house’ in Switzerland near St. Moritz. They spend time together at his country home on the volcanic island of Pantelleria (‘he loves to have an idea and change the whole décor’) and on his yacht (‘it’s so huge you forget you are at sea’). They all spent Christmas together at his house near Pavia in Broni, surrounded by his beloved animals. ‘Horses, dogs, cats, hens and… how do you say it? Bambis.’
Roberta’s own marriage did not work. ‘I was reading a book by the Dalai Lama, he was reading a book by Warren Buffett. We learnt from each other – he gave me protection, I gave him spirituality. Now he’s a real supporter of the Dalai Lama. I’m so proud of him.’ Their divorce, after 10 years of marriage, was amicable. Roberta, for her part, is now dating TV favourite, extreme mountain biker Vittorio Brumotti, the man she chose to open a fashion show on his stunt bicycle, a year and half ago. They met in the Armani Caffe and it was a coup de foudre. ‘Yes!’ she cries. ‘Love at first sight. He’s a world champion of extreme bike trails. He goes to the top of buildings on his bicycle. He has a world record. In Sardinia he climbed to the top of a stone 200 metres tall.’ Brumotti uses a demanding-looking back-wheel hopping technique, which must require circus-level fitness, as well as nerves of steel. ‘When he comes home afterwards he’s very Zen, very calm.’ She adds, as if saving the best detail for last, that he is nine years younger than her.
In a life otherwise totally dedicated to Armani – she deals with emails from Tokyo, LA and China all through the night – Roberta surely deserves this extracurricular fun. Though she will still be buried in an Armani/ Casa tomb. ‘Of course!’