Valentino: King of the Red Carpet

Italy’s style icon stepped down a few years ago, leaving a legacy of unbridled opulence.

Ah, Valentino! Is there anyone else in the fashion industry that travels with six lapdogs, collects Picassos and owns a supersized yacht? Never one to hide his lavish spending, Valentino Garavani also maintains one of the most dazzling gardens in France, where he dotes over his roses—one million roses, to be exact—and 280 cherry trees. His dinner guests enjoy meals with over thirty courses. Yet, upon retiring this year, Valentino is afraid of being remembered solely for his opulence. If that’s true, perhaps he shouldn’t have allowed Oprah’s television cameras to follow him around Europe, inspecting his mansions. The gig is up. His lifestyle is an ode to self-indulgence and would we really want it any other way?

We expect nothing less from a man named after screen legend Rudolph Valentino. In his retirement, the designer can fully enjoy his amusements, surrounded by Meissen swans and Andy Warhol paintings. Bravo and well done. Valentino has earned his down time. Most fans don’t know the grueling work it takes to be an haute couture designer like Valentino, who pumped out two main collections a year to fuel the franchise. He lorded over his accessories, fragrances, a men’s line and let’s not forget his bridal collections and one-off wedding gowns for celebrities. Loyal clients require a certain amount of face time, so organizing Valentino’s social calendar is a task best handled by a high-ranking diplomat from the United Nations. With all of these demands on his time, Valentino was never interested in living like a journeyman, too harried to enjoy his accomplishments.

And talk about accomplishments! After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy turned to Valentino the following year to make her entire wardrobe in black and white as she came out of mourning. Four years later she married Aristotle Onassis wearing an ivory georgette mini dress of his design. “Jackie Kennedy made me famous around the world,” he said, famously. “It was that simple.”

Behind that modesty, of course, is the heft of his talent. Valentino’s reputation as a couture designer is undisputed, but highly defined by feminine elegance. He made dresses that were graceful and flirty in a way that both men and women find flattering. What’s his stance on gold lamé and wild mink? Bring it on! Bows, taffeta, chiffon, décolleté? It’s all good. This sets him apart from designers like Prada, John Galliano and Yves St. Laurent, who push boundaries between art and fashion. Valentino never apologizes for lacking conceptual depth and modern daring in his work. “Sometimes we forget: the lady makes the dress,” he explains, frequently, when asked about his “wearable” clothing. “I love a woman who eats food, who has a body – that is a woman and not a stick.” Spoken like a true Italian.

Valentino was born in Voghera, Lombardy, in 1932. He apprenticed under his Aunt Rosa and local designer Eernestina Salvadeo before heading to Paris at the age of seventeen. After studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, he worked under Guy Laroche, among others, until he returned home to Italy to hang out his shingle. His international debut in Florence in 1962 made him an emerging star, and that reputation was cemented in 1966 with his famous all-white collection and the new V logo. By the mid 1960s, he was dressing Elizabeth Taylor, former Persian Empress Farah Diba, and a roster of Euro royals.

Today, Valentino’s command central is an 18th-century palazzo in the centre of Rome, next to the Spanish Steps. A former nobleman’s house, Palazzo Mignanelli serves as his global headquarters and couture studio, the lifeblood of his empire. Here, more than 60 seamstresses—mostly elderly women who have worked meticulously under klieg light for 25 to 30 years—labour for regulars such as Princess Firyal of Jordan, Lady Bamford, Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece and Kate Winslet. The palazzo also houses part of Valentino’s vast dress archive. Hundreds are kept in polythene bags; others are in a giant facility in Valdagno, northern Italy. He makes sure the history of every item lent is logged on a computer and that each creation is tagged.

“You can build a Valentino wardrobe and team it up with something new from season to season,” notes Alexandra Shulman, of British Vogue. “That’s the thing—they’re classic pieces that seem fresh each year”.

Shulman was at Valentino’s last haute couture runway show, held at the Musée Rodin in January 2008. The show followed a blow-out weekend in July in Rome, where there were lavish dinners at the Temple of Venus, the Villa Medici and the Villa Borghese. The weekend celebrated the 45th anniversary of Valentino’s career and the launch of a retrospective exhibit of 300 dresses at the Ara Pacis museum. The highlight of the weekend was a runway show, attended by Uma Therman, Jude Law, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sienna Miller, Eva Mendes, Claire Danes and Elizabeth Hurley (Hollywood was well represented, since Valentino has been as prominent on Oscar night as Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.) Actors mingled among Mick Jagger, Anna Wintour, Claudia Schiffer, Karl Lagerfeld, Manolo Blahnik and many more design heavy-weights.

Shulman notes that some fashion insiders considered the weekend in Rome to be Valentino’s real goodbye. But the last runway show in Paris was no less important. Not content to rest on his laurels, Valentino created a stunning lineup of pastel daywear: skirt suits in Easter egg shades of pink and purple; shimmering floral prints; a polka dot group in black and white; wool coats with matching gloves; white cashmere trench coats trimmed with satin. Cocktail dresses, worn under a ruffled bolero, were hand painted with irises. Evening gowns were shaped by sunray pleating and his famous ruch-and-drape technique.

For the closing homage to his signature shade of red, 30 models swanned onto the runway wearing identical red gowns to the tune of Annie Lennox’s No More I Love You’s. The standing ovation was thunderous. Nestled between the socialites and royalty in the front row was Alessandra Facchinetti, the former Gucci designer and Valentino’s replacement—a replacement hired by the private equity company that owns his empire, not a replacement hand-groomed by Valentino.

Is Valentino sad to go? One of his final dispatches on the matter in Italy said it all. “The world of fashion has now been ruined,” he declared recently to the newspaper, Il Messaggero. “I got rather bored of continuing in a world which doesn’t say anything to me. There is little creativity and too much business”.

Let the man get back to his rose garden.

written by Joanne Latimer