John Potvin
Prof. John Potvin Photo by Amanda Scott

He was 16 when he saw his first ad for Armani clothes in an issue of GQ. Years later, art history professor John Potvin described that moment in an essay for the literary journal Descant: “My heart was set aflutter with one particular set of images, which would forever be etched on my mind’s eye…the black and white advertising images from the 1987 campaign of the Italian designer Giorgio Armani.”

That early fascination with the designer’s work hasn’t faded, and Potvin continues to study and write about Armani’s design and influence. His newest publication, a volume of essays edited with Prof. Alla Myzelev, also art history, and titled Fashion, Interior Design and the Contours of Modern Identity, includes another essay about Armani. And by fall, Potvin expects to have completed a new book titled Giorgio Armani: Empire of the Senses.

“The book has really been a 20-year project in the making,” says Potvin.

The big question — does he wear Armani clothes?  — is one Potvin won’t answer. “That was part of the early mystique of Armani. His clothes represent unadorned elegance. People who wore them never said they were wearing Armani, they just did.”

Potvin’s essays seek to dissect his own fascination with the designer as well as Armani’s success and influence around the world.

“Those first ads I saw popped out of the book,” explains Potvin. “They were intangible and elusive yet very attractive, with an otherworldly quality. Fashion normally is about projecting fantasy, but Armani goes beyond that with the sense of longing and nostalgia in those ads.”

He says the study of fashion in an artistic way is an extremely young discipline that has borrowed a lot from art history. “It suffers from the flaw of always searching for the latest and greatest and most extreme. In contemporary fashion studies, the focus tends to be on ‘bad boys’ like the late Alexander McQueen. Italian fashion in general, and Armani in particular, tends to be ignored in a major way. People tend to assume that something so commercially successful can’t be worth writing about.”

His goal is to fill that void: “Armani is an incredible case study. He’s grown and prospered through three major recessions. He’s the only living designer who owns and directs his company 100 per cent. In the age of conglomerates, that’s significant.”

In another book he edited in 2009, The Places and Spaces of Fashion 1800-2007, Potvin included an essay he wrote called “Armani/Architecture” that looks at the Armani boutiques around the world and how they influence the potential shopper. He wrote: “The footprint of the boutique and its marked difference from the street culture outside force complete immersion, imagination and transformation.”

Potvin’s extensive research and studies have been completed without co-operation from Armani and his company. “It’s been painful,” he admits. “The press office is clear that there will be no access to images or information. Armani is a control freak, and maintaining control is one of the secrets of his success.”