In the eighties, Eric Clapton was trying to quit drugs and alcohol. Naturally, he got really into clothes and women. “I’d always loved clothes, and that became a huge interest for me,” he told Classic Rock in 2016.
Clapton meant it when he said he’d always been really into clothes: His 1970s stage ensembles included overalls and a bucket hat made from a flour bag, for example, and his former bandmates have spoken to his obsession with getting the look. But in the mid-1980s, he made a conscious effort to pivot away from his rock-dude image of vests and blouses and clean up his act a bit. So he turned to Armani and Versace. “I was really interested in Italian stuff,” he told Classic Rock. “I met and loved this lovely Italian lady, we had a child, and I met Giorgio Armani and I met Gianni Versace.”
Throughout the 1980s, he almost exclusively wore the two Italian greats and went all the way in, developing a look as rock-and-roll gigolo. He appeared onstage and in publicity photographs in Versace’s gangster-fashionisto tailoring—“revolutionary, but simple at the same time,” as he wrote in his 2007 biography—and Armani’s sexy cool-guy suits, with their soft shoulders and loong jackets. He liked the energy and the romance of it, he said: “English culture, and fashion, was always much more tweedy and introverted, so when I finally got to Italy in the mid-eighties I was overwhelmed by the vivacity of it all, and the colors and the flamboyance of everything, and I was sucked in, I really loved it.”
But in the early 1990s, he pumped the brakes on the bella figura thing for a bit, and this is where we must begin to pay close attention. If Clapton has been eager to speak on Armani mania, this much more bizarre and rewarding period is less documented. The British press, with its enviable flair for the poetic, has been eager to connect this makeover with his newfound sobriety and 1989 “comeback album” Journeyman, referring to his 1980s period as one defined by “heroin, alcohol, and dodgy Armani suits” and expressing relief later that “the suits have been binned in favor] of jeans, [and] his entire Armani-period output has been trashed.” Instead, The Telegraph wrote, “with his weatherbeaten, beardy visage, wire-rimmed specs and tufty, bed-head hair, he could pass now as a regular middle England dad, the sort you would hardly notice in a DIY superstore, or a country high street.”