The subject of a special exhibition in the heart of the UK, ‘Valentino: Master of Couture’ celebrates the supreme artistry of the unique designer – and promises to reveal some of the ‘secretive world’ of Italian couture.
In a career spanning over 50 years, Valentino Garavani has dressed international society figures to cinema stars: the Agnellis and the Crespis to Liz Taylor, Sophia Loren, Monica Vitti and Isabella Rossellini; Princess Grace of Monaco, Princess Diana and Carla Bruni to Liza Minnelli, Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow. Adored for the elegance of his creations, his style innovations include the playful use of animal print, exclusive couture techniques to complete collections in black and white, plus a passion for bold red.
Exhibition highlights include Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress of 1968, and Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece’s beautiful mid-90s, bridal vision in lace, to the trend-setting vintage gown worn by Julia Roberts when she won an Academy Award in 2001.
Starting out in 1959 - when couture still meant Paris - Valentino boldly opened in Rome – and never looked back. Consequently, he became the first Italian couturier to receive the French Chevalier for his services to fashion: Valentino effectively put Italian couture on the worldwide map. He has since received awards including the Cavaliere di Gran Croce and Cavaliere del lavoro to the Legion D’honneur and the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Today, his company continues under the great couturier’s protégés, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, as in 2008, Valentino retired to enjoy the fruits of his success. The man who is fondly known as ‘the Last Emperor’ lives across several homes with his original business partner Giancarlo Giammetti, and their five pug pets.
Of his off-duty life, Valentino says, ‘My private world is a simple world. I thank heaven for the life it has given me. I have a great appetite for splendour, but at the same time, very simple tastes.’ Of the present exhibition he presided over, he adds, ‘Each of these designs have a beautiful story. The atelier crafted each so diligently by hand, taking hours, sometimes days to complete. The details are incredibly intricate, though outside the runway shows and events, the dresses have rarely been seen, so to be able to showcase these designs at Somerset House, where they can be seen in great detail by the public, is very unique.’
Exhibition designer and co-curator Antonio Monfreda, picks up the thread…
How did the Valentino collaboration with Somerset House happen?
‘I have co-collaborated with Valentino for many years – since 2006/7, when he and Giancarlo Giammetti asked me to co-curate a previous exhibition. Somerset House holds London Fashion Week and is fast becoming a point of reference. They were keen to have a retrospective of one of the last great couturiers – interesting in England, which is not exactly a place of haute couture, being more ‘street’ in style culture. Couture is more in the French or Italian tradition. The selection was personally chosen by Valentino to show the exquisite and extensive scope of his work over 50 years.’
How does this exhibition differ from the previous Valentino exhibition in Italy?
‘Valentino’s exhibition at the Arapacis in Rome was very contemporary, with a chronological line-up of 300 outfits. For London, Valentino agreed to an edit of 137 dresses, chosen in a more emotional display, to reveal his unique skills and tailoring techniques. We turned the tables in that the viewer becomes the model walking down a long corridor catwalk looking at the mannequins either side. On display there is also a private view section of Valentino’s correspondence to the bridal gown of Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, to hand-crafted samples and behind the scenes looks at couture techniques.’
What for Valentino, are this exhibition’s highlights, and why?
‘Despite outfits from his muses such as Jackie Kennedy to Monica Vitti and Audrey Hepburn, there are no highlights… just I assume he would hope, a constant production of perfection!’
What is Valentino like to collaborate with?
‘He is a perfectionist and an amazing person, incredibly sensitive in his creative understanding. You’re always learning from him. When setting up his exhibitions, he always comes and discusses and gives just the right last touch. It’s a pleasure to watch him. He treats all his creations like his babies.’
In your view, how does Valentino stand out as an Italian designer?
‘First of all, Valentino’s distinction lies in his exceptional sense of fashion and sensibility. I personally think the man’s a genius. The gift of artistic talent you either have or you haven’t. Of course, all the couture techniques he learnt as a young boy in Paris, before working with Jean Desses and Guy Laroche, and later absorbing the La Dolce Vita trend in Rome. All have been creative influences. Far beyond that, he has always added his own unique mark. Valentino is so wearable. Everything in his career trajectory from the ’50s to 2006 represents the art of timeless elegance.’
As the exhibition shows, the Valentino atelier is known for several exclusive couture techniques. Can you explain a little on these?
‘Valentino exploits several techniques in the most marvellous way. There is budellini – charmeuse silk rolled over loops of wool; drapeggio –chiffon and crepe silk draped on the bodice; tappet di ruches – strips of tulle sewn to a base fabric for a flat, packed ruffle effect – and several others! There’s his emblem, the rose, expressed in his rose di Volant or Volant a coni – lengths of silk and tulle modelled into roses or laid into vertical volants. As the timeless symbol of civilization, the rose shows his strong rapport with nature – which is ambitious, as nature is perfection!
His designs – and let’s not forget his seamstresses - he calls them le ragazze – are renowned for exemplifying the highest standards of textural detail. In this exhibition, he wanted to give the public a substantial vision of the very many hours of work, the essence behind his couture - hence our short video installations of the specific techniques perfected in the Valentino laboratory. Valentino creations really are like wearable works of art!’
Valentino says that trend-wise he was never into minimalism, grunge or ‘80s excess. What trends then do you think he’s renowned for? Who have been his icons or inspirations?
‘I don’t think in general he is a trendsetter, but a jetsetter. He creates the perfect outfits for the jet set and every girl dreams of owning a Valentino! Uniquely, all his outfits are evergreen. That said, the current European fascination for vintage fashion I would connect to Hollywood actress Julia Roberts wearing a beautiful black and cream gown from his 1992 collection to the Oscars in 2001. Similarly, actress Jennifer Aniston made contemporary his famous red rose dress of the ‘50s – 44 years later. It shows his incredible timelessness – and his impact on the American market. This began when Jackie Kennedy began to wear his couture. On an international level, she helped build him into who he is. Even so, he wouldn’t say he had any particular icons; rather that he loves women as a whole and always aimed to enhance every woman he’s dressed, famous or not.’
What’s next on Valentino’s creative agenda?
‘He and Giancarlo had the innovative idea of a virtual Valentino museum - the first online style archive of its kind. It’s a great and up to date, free to access resource with 360 degree animation. Though Valentino no longer works for clients as such, he is open to creating for special events – such as costuming the New York City Ballet in 2012. He’s spending time enjoying life, loves to travel and adores being in nature.’
The new Valentino online archive reflects, and extends on from, the exhibition. In filming this, what did you learn about Valentino?
‘Like the exhibition, Valentino’s idea of the archive is also without nostalgia. It simply reflects who he is. Perhaps the exhibition title says it all: Valentino: Master of Couture.’
The Valentino exhibition runs at London’s Somerset House until March 3. For more info visit www.somersethouse.org.uk.
For the virtual Valentino archive visit www.valentinogaravanimuseum.com