The moment American Gigolo director Paul Schrader trained his crew’s cameras onto Richard Gere’s Los Angeles male escort laying out his suits on his bed, while dabbing cocaine off a mirror and singing along to Smokey Robinson, menswear underwent a seismic shift. But the man responsible for the up-to-11-and-a-half Richter scale vibrations caused by American Gigolo was neither Schrader or Gere, but actually a man born into an Italian-Armenian family in the northern Italian town of Piacenza some 36 years prior to the movie’s release, and who found his way into fashion, following a stint in the armed forces, via a role as a window dresser in a Milanese department store.
It’s impossible to overstate just what Armani did for menswear in the 1980s. One might just, without getting a kick in the Jacob’s for lazy hyperbole, suggest that he sexed up men’s wardrobes early that decade in the same way that Deep South blues sexed up rock and roll music half a century earlier. And the core of his strategic masterstroke was the frontier dividing casualwear and formalwear.
Giorgio Armani wasn’t the first to see heavily structured clothes as inherently constricting – to note that their angular-linear silhouettes were dignified and imposing yet far from debonair and insouciant – and act on the problem. Frederick Scholte – mentor to Per Anderson of Anderson & Sheppard fame, and tailor to the Duke of Windsor – invented the British drape in order that clients might trade rigidity for fluidity, while around the 1930s, the most esteemed tailors of Naples – notably Rubinacci – began eliminating linings, canvasing and pads from their coats to create garments better suited to la dolce vita than a stiff appointment at the city’s Royal Palace.
But no one post-war has done more to transform male dress codes – and not just what men wear but, crucially, what they might be allowed to wear – than a then little-known Italian designer whose name now is among the most prestigious clothing brands in the world. Bolder colours were a big part of his revolt. Lighter fabrics including bouclé, flannel and crepe also played a huge role. The lowering of the buttons removed even more of the military sanctimony of traditional suiting. But it was those cleaner, more fluid lines that fuelled a kind of bloodless coup: one which didn’t so much tear the barriers down between formal and casual as expose the distinction as fictitious – chimerical, forced and entirely corrosive to post-war male elegance. In doing so he re-wrote the codes of masculinity forever.