The Milanese designer ranks among the most revered icons of the 80s. But the 90s have thus far put a emphasis on value, and for many people the uniform of choice has become a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.
Armani plans to open a chain of about 200 stark, utilitarian boutiques stocked with jeans, dresses, skirts, coats, T-shirts, sweaters and jackets bearing the label Armani Jeans and selling for the most part for less than $100. The boutiques will be known as A/X: Armani Exchange, and the first is expected to open in New York. It will, in effect, be his version of the Gap.
In a telephone interview from his studio in Milan, Armani said through an interpreter Friday that he had no intention of abandoning his wealthy, sophisticated customers.
"People are not going to give up dressing expensively," Armani said. "But because of monetary reasons and because of the overeating of fashion, the orgy of fashion that happened in the late 1980s, people want not to be so obvious. They're more casual. They don't want to boast about their latest acquisition."
Marketing experts say he is breaking one of the cardinal rules of their profession: Never use a brand name, particularly one as exclusive as Armani, to sell another product.
"In a way, he's attacking himself," said Jack Trout of Trout & Ries, a marketing consulting firm in Greenwich, Conn. "I have no doubt that he'll have some success selling cheaper clothes, but marketing is littered with brands that have been cheapened by line extensions. Once you go downscale with a brand name, you can't ever come back up."
He cited Cadillac as a powerful brand name that damaged itself by the introduction of less-expensive models, and he said Armani should introduce his popularly priced apparel under a label without the Armani name.
Will using his name on a less-expensive line of clothes alienate consumers who buy his $2,000 suits?
Four devotees of Armani suits insisted on anonymity before responding. "I don't want anyone to know how much I pay for my suits," one said.
"I do think the line is proliferating too much," said one New Yorker who wears Armani suits. "I had to get a definition from a sales person as to the difference between the black label, which they only sell in the boutiques, and the white label, which they only sell in department stores, and Emporio Armani. It's all getting really complex."
Over the last five years, many designers have introduced less-expensive lines of clothing, called "bridge lines," in an effort to capture consumers fleeing high prices. And most have avoided overtly linking their names to their bridge lines. The American designer Donna Karan, for example, has had success with a line of less-expensive clothing labeled DKNY.
Armani has carried Emporio Armani, a less-expensive, trendier line of sportswear, since 1981, but he controls the distribution of these clothes by selling them only in Emporio Armani stores, which he owns.
He said that introducing a bridge line under his name or another would be more harmful to his designer collection than Armani Jeans, which will be sold in A/X: Armani Exchange stores or boutiques designed to meet his specifications within better department and specialty stores.
He said Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman-Marcus, Macy's and Bloomingdale's have expressed an interest in having Armani Exchange boutiques within their stores, despite his requirements 1,500 to 2,500 square feet of main floor space with a separate street entrance.