Giorgio Armani’s Weekend Retreat Features Live Swans and Gilded Arches

For decades, the fashion designer has been escaping to an estate outside Milan that proves even minimalists (sometimes) like a little cosiness.

Article by Nancy Hass

Photography by Simon Upton.

Giorgio Armani, now 86, spends a great deal of time shuttling between his nine residences throughout Europe, the United States and the Caribbean. Unsurprisingly for someone whose exacting, understated aesthetic has profoundly shaped both fashion and the culture at large, he likes things to be just so in each of them. One of the reasons he keeps such a vast array of homes is that he doesn’t like to stay in hotels; he is easily upset by a sink mounted too high or an unnecessarily oily bruschetta. Decorative flamboyance dismays him, as does poor execution.

In view of such fabled perfectionism, not to mention the sharp lines and hushed neutrals that define both his clothing and home décor collections, the weekend compound he has owned for nearly 30 years in Broni — an unremarkable industrial town about an hour and a half south of Milan — is nothing you would expect. Unlike Lake Garda or Como, the area is not known as a fashionable retreat for wealthy Milanese, but from the moment you drive through the unmarked metal-plate gates incongruously set on a two-lane highway, you are transported into a vast Impressionist canvas stippled with fruit trees and fields of roses, where sunshine diffuses into a blur of pastels.

The house that anchors the property is grand — Armani is, after all, on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires — but it is also pink, a color one does not readily associate with him. The nearly 15,000-square-foot, 26-room chalky rose stucco villa that he visits at least a dozen times a year — far more than any of his other vacation homes — stands on a slight rise overlooking 25 groomed acres. Its colour evokes the 1950s, the era in which the house was built (by the Italian count Franco Cella di Rivara, who made a fortune creating Marvis toothpaste), but its style is late 18th century — a supremely decorative period that the designer, who made his name displacing 1980s kitsch with sophisticated Italian minimalism, seems to crave in his off time.

It is to this romantically accoutered house that he repairs, in the back of his chauffeured Bentley after a workweek in Milan. He grew up the son of an accountant in nearby Piacenza, so the area has profound resonance for him. “When you are here, you want to escape from things that are dark or serious,” he says (in Italian — he has never mastered English), as he squeezes your arm gently for emphasis. “I come on the weekend to see the light.”

Giorgio Armani's Italian Villa (Photography by Simon Upton.)
Giorgio Armani's Italian Villa (Photography by Simon Upton.)

He also comes to surround himself with his collection of fauna, many of which he has imported in the past few years from distant lands. (“Now I am a zookeeper!”) Beyond the pink villa and the pond stocked with swans and egrets lie large grassy enclosures where a menagerie of exotic animals lazily grazes — zebras, guanacos, alpacas, longhorn deer: about 80 animals in total. A pair of South American parrots spread wide wings of crimson, marigold and emerald as they nuzzle each other in a giant outdoor cage. The designer’s dogs, a pack of six that includes not merely obscure purebreds with noble lineage but a football-size coffee-brown mutt called Pepe, greet you enthusiastically; the soundtrack is the soft call of the cuckoos hiding in the beech trees that rim the property’s distant borders.

Inside the main house as well, Armani’s lingua franca — white, gray, taupe and black — is markedly absent. In its place is a palette that somehow in his hands is both subtle and vibrant: celadon, slate blue and pale coral. The smooth plaster walls have a gently mottled finish that suggests age and depth. “I wanted this house to make one feel as though you are part of history,” he says.

Sunlight streams into the 70-foot-long main gallery through a series of arched glass doors to the patio and a sweeping back staircase inlaid with smooth pebbles. Most of the doorways on the main floor are crowned with ornate 18th-century gilded arches, rescued by the home’s former owner from a neglected, centuries-old villa nearby. The repeating motif lends a gravitas that belies the house’s relatively recent vintage. “These symbols of the past make you let go,” says Armani. “You can breathe.”

The marquetry screen behind the pool table in one of the living rooms was designed by Renzo Mongiardino. (Photography by Simon Upton)
The marquetry screen behind the pool table in one of the living rooms was designed by Renzo Mongiardino. (Photography by Simon Upton)

It is difficult to imagine the notoriously precise designer — seemingly always in his uniform of navy cashmere pullover, navy trousers, white trainers and a late August tan — taking the time for deep breaths, much less relinquishing control. And yet, despite its classical proportions, the house has a warmth, a relaxed cosiness, that makes you question everything you thought you knew about the man who spent decades building an international empire.

While his Milan palazzo on Via Borgonuovo in the Brera neighborhood was famously done up by the designer Peter Marino in the 1980s in linear monochrome, there is no trace of an outside decorator’s statement here. Nor has Armani updated it much through the decades. Absent, too, are sculptural contemporary furniture pieces or antiques of the great-to-look-at-but-miserable-to-sit-in sort. There is also little evidence of the spare, Deco-inspired furniture he creates for his own line, Armani/Casa. Instead, the living areas are dominated by deep-cushioned ivory roll-armed sofas that you instantly want to sink into for a nap, perhaps with a dog or two snoozing beside you. The lush neutral carpets are lightly stained here and there; there may be evidence of a canine tooth mark on a low wood-edged coffee table. In a nook off the grand main entrance with its mirror-polished marble floors (the doorway is flanked by a seven-foot-tall pair of classical stone statues whimsically turned into giant lamps) stands a foosball table.

Armani has never been much for hanging art on his walls — “distracting,” he says — and the objets arranged on the low Asian-influenced tables and painted étagères in the living areas are a mix of the precious and the sentimental: a marble bust picked up in the local flea market (“to me, it resembles Seneca”), a collection of 19th-century pharmacy bottles from Tunisia (“charmed away, for a price, from a man who looked about 120 years old”), a stone lion from the 1700s purchased at the Marché aux Puces outside Paris. On a side chest in the dining room is a collection of silver serving pieces from Gran Caffè Doney, once his favorite osteria in Florence, long defunct. A small table is arrayed, shrinelike, with sculptures of graceful male bodies and a framed image of Sergio Galeotti, Armani’s partner in life and business, who died in 1985. There is another framed image of Galeotti in the master bedroom; almost no other photographs are on display.

While other designers may use an invitation to their weekend homes to cement relationships with celebrities, Armani’s guests at the villa are never famous. Too tiring, he says, with a wave of his hand: “And then one tells the other and you have to have them all.” Instead, he prefers to be surrounded by family — his sister and nephew once worked for the company, and his nieces still do — and his close group of key employees and friends, many of them journalists.

After a day strolling the gravel paths, visiting the alpacas, a late afternoon swim in the pool and a simple dinner by his chef, his guests will gather in one of the living rooms. The lofty ceilinged space is made cosy by his collection of folding screens — Japanese antiques and one by the revered 20th-century architect Renzo Mongiardino — that soften the room’s angles. At the far end sits a pool table that Paul Newman played on in “The Color of Money,” a gift from one of his nieces.

And then, once the lights are dimmed, Armani, finally far from the demands of the sprawling principality he has ruled for nearly half a century, settles into what could be an almost ordinary life. He pushes up the sleeves of his fine-gauge sweater. He arranges himself just so on the goose-down cushions of one of the ivory sofas. He flicks on the enormous flat-screen that dominates one corner. It is time to binge late into the night on “The Crown.” Even the emperor sometimes needs a break.