It was one of the few museum exhibits where the art was apt to be strolling the floor.

At the Guggenheim Museum in New York Saturday night, a woman's jaw dropped as she tugged at her friend. "Did you see that?" she gasped. "That dress was upstairs. She is wearing the actual Armani from upstairs." 

"Work it, girl," the friend responded. 

Most of the Giorgio Armani outfits in the building, however, were on mannequins, part of a 25-year retrospective of the Italian designer's work on display at the Guggenheim until Jan. 17, 2001. 

The exhibit is the first of its kind at the Guggenheim and was curated by theater director Robert Wilson and Harold Koda, curator-in-charge at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Grouped thematically, the procession of some 400 ensembles snakes its way around the museum's ascending spiral display space. 

Hollywood Love Affair 

Born in Piacenza, a small town near Milan, Armani began as a designer by creating a menswear line for Nino Cerruti in 1964. With partner Sergio Galeotti, he founded his own company 11 years later. 

His initial unstructured treatment of suits for men and women and, during the following decade, his '40s-inspired power suits, established him in the fashion pantheon. 

Armani's costume design for Richard Gere in 1980's American Gigolo marked the beginning of his long, fruitful relationship with Hollywood and its stars. 

He has been involved in the costuming of over 80 films, including Brian De Palma's The Untouchables and, most recently, John Singleton's remake of Shaft

Awards show gowns for Jodie Foster, Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer and countless celebrities cemented his rarefied status. 

A preview of the collection last week brought out celeb devotees in full force: Jeremy Irons, Dylan McDermott, Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro and other living Armani mannequins took up the Guggenheim space. 

"He's been dressing me for 20 years," Pfeiffer told the New York Times. "I feel I can always rely on him — it's a huge relief." 

Armani Empire 

The Armani company is worth more than $2 billion today, according to a 1999 report. The retail network stretches over 33 countries and includes 53 Giorgio Armani stores, six Le Collezioni stores, 129 Emporio Armani stores, 48 A/X Armani exchange stores, four Armani Jeans stores and two Armani Junior stores. 

The Guggenheim's collection revisits various periods of Armani's career, from interpretations of the tuxedo and kimono to beading and textile combinations inspired by Eastern and African cultures. Present throughout are his elegant evening gowns. 

"He has always made clothes that people want to wear," said Patrick McCarthy, chairman of Fairchild Publications, which publishes Women's Wear Daily

With a new fragrance, cosmetic line, home furnishings and other enterprises in development, the 66-year-old designer shows no signs of slowing down. 

He said recently, "I see this exhibit as a beginning, not a retrospective ... It shows what I can do, more than what I have done." 

— The Associated Press contributed to this report