By Anil Bhoyrul

Giorgio Armani has built one of the world’s greatest fashion empires and bagged over $5bn along the way. Mohamed Alabbar turned Emaar into one of the world’s biggest property developers. So what happened when both men met in Milan? Anil Bhoyrul talks to the two icons.

In addition to 160 guest rooms, Armani Hotel also includes eight meticulously designed restaurants.
In addition to 160 guest rooms, Armani Hotel also includes eight meticulously designed restaurants.

The first time Giorgio Armani met Emaar boss Mohamed Alabbar, it didn’t exactly go according to plan. “He came to my office in Milan telling me that he wanted to build an Armani Hotel in Dubai,” explains Armani at the opening of his first hotel in Dubai last month. “I said ‘are you sure? Do you really want me? Why Armani?’ I mean, come on, in my world less is more. And Dubai, it was being called the Las Vegas of the desert.”

It took two years from that first meeting in Milan for the Italian fashion designer to be persuaded to sign on the dotted line. Today, the end result is for the world to see: a spectacular new hotel on the first eight floors of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Designed by Armani, built by Alabbar, and already loved by everyone.

“When I looked into Mohamed Alabbar’s eyes, and his smile, I knew I could trust him. So we did business,” says Armani.

Alabbar looks on smiling, before adding: “Giorgio wanted to know everything about me. He even asked me if I was working out in the gym.”

What has more than worked out is the partnership and its end product. As well as the first eight floors and levels 38 and 39 of the tower, the hotel also features 160 guest rooms and suites, eight restaurants, retail outlets and a spa. Every single aspect of it has the Armani touch, a clear indicator that the designer has been heavily involved in every design aspect.

For Armani, it is both the crowning glory and a new beginning in the 75-year-old designer’s career. As the president and chief executive of the Armani Group and sole shareholder of Giorgio Armani SpA, he runs one of the world’s leading fashion and lifestyle design houses, with 5,000 employees, thirteen factories, and a direct network of 500 exclusive retail stores in 46 countries worldwide.

According to the newswire Bloomberg, the 33-year-old company currently has no debt and had €373m ($494m) at the end of 2007. Not bad when you consider that the firm is one of the few remaining independent, privately-owned companies in the fashion industry. The firm has a proven business strategy that has capitalised on the worldwide power and potential of the Armani brand name.

Most experts value the group at least $3bn, with Armani’s personal fortune estimated at over $5bn. With Emaar now leading the charge in the group’s hospitality sector – together they plan to develop more than 30 hotels across the world – both companies could benefit hugely in the coming years.

But talking to Armani, despite his vast wealth and success, you get the feeling that for him neither money nor success are that important. For him, it’s all about style, attention to detail and passion.

“I’ll be honest I was not sure about this whole idea at first, because I am a minimalist. When I looked at what was going on in Dubai, it was a very different style to what I am used to,” he explains. “But we talked and talked, and he [Alabbar] wanted me and I wanted him. And from there the adventure started.”

In 2004, Armani’s Milan-based company granted Emaar the right to build a series of the designer’s hotels and resorts over the next decade in a deal said to be worth around $3bn. In addition to the Dubai hotel, Emaar is also currently constructing a Milan hotel while others are also planned for North Africa and New York.

So how did Alabbar persuade the cautious Armani to sign up?  “It was not easy,” admits the Emaar chairman. “I said to him in Milan that I wanted to do the Armani Hotel. I went to his home, to his fashion shows, to his boat. He wanted me to understand how to live with Giorgio Armani. He had to be satisfied I understood that before he would sign up.”

Getting here has been no easy journey. Armani admits he can be “difficult” to work with and that the many people who worked on the project “suffered a lot… it was a tough project.”

“When I do designs in fashion, it is not very different to designing a hotel,” he explains. “I want comfort and style; that is what I base everything on. With those principles [in mind] I look at the aesthetics in every single point of the environment. There are so many different aspects involved; it makes it a very exciting project. But unlike fashion, this is a much bigger commitment and of course a much bigger risk.”

But was it worth the risk? “Yes,” he says. “I saw this hotel come to life and I felt very emotional. I have followed every step of the design and styling process for the last five years and now it is real. What I saw and drew on paper has come to life, that is something amazing to experience,” he adds.

Armani might have been the brains behind the design but it was Alabbar’s job to make it all happen. And Emaar has a lot riding on this partnership. The Middle East’s largest property developer said in April that net profit in the first quarter of this year had surged 221 percent from the same period last year, to $206.9m. The incredible rise was largely down to increased revenues from its hospitality and retail sector.

Although clearly a lot rests on the success of its project, for now the Emaar boss is keen to focus on the success of completing the project. “It’s very easy to build, but very difficult to create space with spirit and lifestyle. That’s what Armani does every day. We’ve gone through a lot of design workshops and there are times when things change, but what Giorgio Armani has is incredible common sense,” he says.

“But when I think about the global situation, projects like this are built for a hundred years. Cycles come and go.  Some things are easy to do and some things are hard. But that’s our job, we get it done.”

It is hard to believe that Armani is now 75 years old. Dressed in his traditional trademark look, black t-shirt and white jeans, he looks at least fifteen years younger, and rarely refers to his past achievements, of which there are plenty.

Born on 1934, Armani grew up in the northern Italian town of Piacenza. In 1957, following two years of study in medicine at the University of Piacenza, he left to pursue his interest in fashion. He accepted a job as a merchandiser at the Milan-based department store, La Rinascente and then worked as a fashion designer for Nino Cerruti. In addition to his work with the well-known Italian brands he also freelanced for various companies, an experience that resulted in an exceptionally rich and varied evolution of his style.

After several years as a freelance designer, he took up his friend Sergio Galeotti’s suggestion that they start up a company together. In July 1975, the two business partners founded Giorgio Armani SpA and launched a men’s and women’s ready-to-wear line.  Armani now oversees both the company’s strategic direction and all aspects of design and creativity. He is perhaps best known for revolutionising fashion with his unstructured jacket in the 1980s.

After over 30 years of running his own label, he now presides over a stable of collections, which in addition to his signature Giorgio Armani line, also includes Armani Privé, Armani Collezioni, Emporio Armani, AJ,  Armani Jeans, A/X Armani Exchange, Armani Teen, Armani Junior, Armani Baby, and Armani Casa home interiors, offering a choice of lifestyles to the marketplace. Today, the company’s product range includes high-end women’s and men’s clothing, shoes and bags, watches, eyewear, jewellery, fragrances and cosmetics, and home furnishings.

So what next for the Italian legend? It’s highly likely to be another hotel collaboration with Alabbar. Although the two said some years ago that the partnership would include several hotels, both are now closely studying the various options before deciding where to head next.

As Armani says: “This adventure is over but another one will begin soon.”