The Giorgio Armani suit of the ’80s, shoulders padded and waist nipped, was a vessel for masculine decadence. For that decade’s newly gym-obsessed corporate elite, the zoot suit–like silhouette so captured the spirit of the moment that, after its debut on American Gigolo star Richard Gere, Eric Clapton donned it for his slick pop comeback and Larry Gagosian wore it to build Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career. (Basquiat also got one for himself and painted in it.) Armani’s suit became shorthand for swagger and wealth—the original power suit.
Then came the rebuke: the Black Monday stock market crash of 1987. As a Fiat executive put it at the time, the Armani suit was the look of “savage capitalism.” Giorgio Armani went back to the drawing board and emerged with a new idea—the sincere look. He stripped out the padding, the jacket’s signature low gorge came up, and the trousers blossomed. He sent his models slouching down the runway, their hands dug deep into besom pockets. The silhouette was a little clownish, almost derelict, but still reflected Armani’s masterful control of fabric. He never regarded the new direction as an about-face. Rather, as he told GQ recently by email, he considered it the natural progression of “my constant quest for soulful, sophisticated simplicity.” To Armani, the silhouette made as much sense then as it does today. He said at the time, “At this moment of the world, one has to rediscover a little heart, and fashion can help. One has to have the courage to show oneself a little bit as one is inside.”
The suit was the elevation of the casual into elegance—and a look that would define the 1990s. The campaign photographs from that period, captured by Aldo Fallai, created imagery that is, as Armani wrote, “modern, intense, and passionate, while at the same time casual, like a scene of the best life possible.” The tailored layers of silks and linens could “help younger men to feel at ease even in a formal situation.” Suddenly, Gere was ruggedly handsome rather than carved from marble; Clapton, now sincere, refashioned his howling “Layla” to be soulfully acoustic. The suit jacket became nonchalant, something to throw over a T-shirt or pair with jeans. And once more, Armani captured the spirit of Hollywood, which was entering a new creative golden age of sensitive experimentation. Sumptuousness went from hard and big to soft and supple. Clothes and life could be easy. “A sense of style is innate,” he told GQ, “but it takes shape through constant exercise.”
Now, as this decade’s own economic hubris has come into sharp relief, fashion is again responding to the hangover of wealth and excess and using some of Armani’s codes to forge ahead. Long vocal about the need to slow down, he believes the industry will finally chasten itself. “I therefore expect a truer system, on a human and creative scale,” he wrote. “Do not waste, save resources, make better with less.”
Rachel Tashjian is a GQ staff writer.
A version of this story originally appears in the August 2020 issue with the title “Why ’90s Armani Looks So Good Now.”