Talk about capturing a moment. By the time American Gigolo was released on this day in 1980, audiences had already been introduced to southern California style through films like Shampoo, Bullitt, California Suite, Welcome to L.A. and even guilty pleasures like Roller Boogie and Cleopatra Jones. But American Gigolo offered something different: A hot, young, well-dressed and cultured American male. OK, so the guy is also a prostitute, but when it’s Richard Gere in the role, moviegoers seem to have no problem overlooking and idealizing sticky moral issues.
The movie had another draw: A sexy, can’t-look-away costar—and I’m not talking about supermodel-turned-actress Lauren Hutton, who plays Gere’s love interest. The alluring scene-stealer is this case was new to La-La Land, but still received more screen time than anyone—er, anything—else in the film. Then-unknown Armani clothing, worn by Gere (and supposedly Hutton, too, though the brilliant-but-forgotten Bernandene Mann is credited as costumer) throughout the film, doesn’t just hang on the actors’ bodies like any old garment. On Gere’s broad shoulders and pert ‘tocks—both of which also get lots of screen time—Giorgio Armani’s silk, linen and Italian cotton suits seem to have a life of their own. Not to say that the clothes wear the man; in fact a more perfect model couldn’t be had than Gere. But the beautiful fabrics seem to effortlessly ripple and drape across the actor’s frame, and project the same confident sex appeal that the character embodies. In what has become the movie’s most referenced scene, at least for fashion plates, Gere lays his wardrobe of Italian blazers, collared shirts, slim ties and skinny belts across the bed and shimmies around the room while selecting outfits from his vast closet and meticulously cataloged drawers. It’s product placement 101: Make it pretty, make it sexy and keep the brand name tantalizingly out of sight. Today’s movie marketers could learn a thing or two.
At the start of the film, Gere is meticulously pressed; his shirts remain inexplicably wrinkle-free as he hops in and out of his Mercedes convertible and scoots about Los Angeles. Viewers are only left to conclude that these mystery clothes must be seriously expensive. Certainly no ordinary (American) clothing could perform so beautifully. The effect is reminiscent of the clothes worn in another stylish film, Purple Noon, in which likeminded ladies’ man Maurice Ronet skips about Rome in similarly fluid trousers and shirts open wide on the chest. As the storyline darkens and the plot weaves into a messy tangle, so does Gere’s wardrobe. The sheen fades from his lapels and a rumpled appearance replaces the tidy one. Whether the character will wear wrinkle-free clothing again is unknown, but we yearn for another glimpse of his effortless chic.
Dressing the film was Armani’s genius. Fashion designers had costumed movies in the past, and famously so, but the Italian designer carried his marketing scheme onto the red carpet. In the 1980 awards season, Armani went from an unknown designer to putting the whole of Italian style on the map. It took years for other designers to catch on. But the seed had been planted, and Armani was synonymous with style. If you were a successful stud in the 1980s, you wore Armani: plain and simple.
In a 1985 review of men’s suits, style editor Michael Gross credits American Gigolo for introducing that season’s new slimming cuts. He points out that Richard Gere’s character was “a rare breed indeed—a pumped-up pinup turned out in sleek Italian suits,” and now, “that image is an idea and, increasingly, a reality.” Thanks to a nobody Italian designer, the Armani look has become forever associated with 1980s Hollywood style. Armani didn’t just capture a moment: He created one. —Ali Basye
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.
Credits: All stills from Paramount Studios. Richard Gere portrait in gas station by Herb Ritts.