Fashion & Beauty / Character Study

An Ode to the Aesthetic of Cult Film American Gigolo

As Milan Fashion Week draws to a close, we decipher the style of the 1980s movie which thrust Giorgio Armani, and Richard Gere, into the limelight

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American Gigolo, 1980

Crime drama American Gigolo was an immediate critical success when it first hit cinemas in 1980, but its ratings had as much to do with the highly sexed insouciance of the film’s protagonist, a high-end male escort named Julian Kaye, played by Richard Gere, as it did with its plotline. Set in Los Angeles, the story centres around the comings and goings of a “tour-guide, translator and chauffeur” who enters into an ill-advised romantic relationship with the wife of a well-known politician (Lauren Hutton), while also being framed for the brutal murder of one of his clients. The film is widely believed to be responsible for launching Gere to movie-star status and, while the Giorgio Moroder-composed soundtrack, full frontal male nudity the likes of which would scarcely make TV screens nowadays, and generous lashings of Armani from the costume department all have a part to play in its success, one would choose to believe it is the latter which really swung it. Legend has it that Armani himself was so delighted with Gere's representation of the Armani man that he never needed to pay for a suit again.

The Signature Style
Simply put, American Gigolo might have been little more than a flash-in-the-pan thriller without the wardrobe services of Giorgio Armani, a then-little-known Italian designer whose contribution to the film was to launch both his own career and the sartorial ambitions of a whole generation of men in the process. In fact, Armani’s involvement was set in motion by John Travolta, Schrader told GQ in an interview; the Grease actor had previously been optioned to star in the film, and as such his manager proffered the name of an emerging Italian designer he believed to be destined for great things, to clothe him. “We all went to Milan and Giorgio was just getting ready to go into an international non-couture line, so the film synced up perfectly with what he was up to,” Schrader continued. “John dropped out at the last moment and Richard came in, but we kept all the Armani clothes. It was just a matter of tailoring.”

The resulting rails of suits epitomised everything that the designer would come to represent to a new era of menswear; the clothes were relaxed, elegant, and refined – a natural fit for Gere’s laid-back character, who took particular pleasure in dressing (see the opening scene, where Kaye is fitted by his tailor for a new ensemble, or the moment when he lays out his suits for the week ahead, carefully co-ordinating his shirts and ties). For his part, Armani's alterations to the tried-and-tested menswear codes were small but revolutionary. By removing the internal padding from suit jackets, switching out traditional sturdy fabrics in favour of linen, and exchanging shades of black and navy for a gentler palette of beige and brown, he recreated the suit for a new and more informal age of masculinity.

The Modern Manifestation
Happily, the style codes woven into American Gigolo’s fabric are as timeless as they are agendered, allowing women as well as men to tap into Kaye’s innate, effortless sensuality. First and foremost: the suit, which must be high of waist, straight of trouser and preferably in an elegant Armani greige. For sunbathing, embrace an all-important golden perma-tan with a loose cotton shirt unbuttoned to the navel, and a tiny pair of denim hotpants – in fact, as the poolside scene in which Stratton arrives at Kaye’s home to seduce him demonstrates, the tinier the better. Likewise for sportswear; the iconic regime which has Kaye hanging from the ceiling of his LA apartment hotel doing abdominal crunches in soft grey shorts is truly the stuff of legends. The real trick to Kaye’s ineffable style, however, is in the details, from a lazily rolled up shirt-sleeve, and a suit jacket swung nonchalantly over a shoulder, to the popped collar on a heavy camel overcoat. And that, grazie Mr Armani, is easy to replicate.