Valentino, Best of Italian Design

Valentino collection haute couture, autumn-winter 2007-2008, photo Jean Tholance

In the more than two decades of reporting on fashion collections, I have noticed that the most successful designers are those who turn a deaf ear to the ramblings of the press (both good and bad reviews),  while remaining faithful to the aesthetic needs and tastes of his clientele. This is especially true in the world of Haute Couture where the clothes cost a fortune and the number of women affording them a scant few. This also applies to a man whose name is synonymous with high fashion, a man who, for 45 years, embodies all that is great with Italian design….Valentino.

From his use of sparkling jewel-tone colors and intricate embroideries adorning those beyond-your-wildest-dreams fabrics, to the lovely silhouettes that transform women of all proportions into “million dollar babes,” Valentino is the gold standard for elegance, sophistication and most of all….timeless style. It is look that transcends the fleeting whimsy of here today-gone tomorrow trends. Style that is light years ahead of Hollywood stars. Style that is in a class by itself.

But like everything else in life, all good things, at some point, come to an end. News of his retirement  last summer, signaled yet another nail in the coffin of Haute Couture glory days.  Another maestro has left the stage. In a statement released to the press, Valentino pronounced, “Last July, in Rome, I celebrated my 45th Anniversary in Fashion. It was a moment of infinite magic and tremendous joy, and I cannot fully express with words how deeply moved I was by the occasion. I received an outpouring of good wishes from all over the world, which brought me great satisfaction.” He went on to explain, “It was a moment that will be impossible to repeat. And so, at this time, I have decided that is the perfect moment to say adieu to the world of fashion,” the 75-year-old designer added.

From June 17 through September 21, Decorative Arts Museum pays homage to the career of Valentino Garavant, simply known as “Valentino,” with a first of exhibitions based on great, contemporary couturiers. This first Parisian retrospective with its 200 Haute Couture creations and accessories provides an opportunity to look and reflect upon the exceptional career of this Italian designer based in Rome from his beginnings in 1959 through his retirement in January 2008.

Valentino maintains a place in Haute Couture history as the undisputed ambassador of elegance who allies majestic grace with timeless allure. Ever faithful to the needs and lifestyles of his clients, he is not so much a cutting edge innovator as he is a true couturier whose style is both distinguished and sophisticated. His creations are constructed to provide a fluid, feminine and sensual silhouette to a woman’s figure. Shapes are clean, fabrics sumptuous and his collections are always drenched in a vast array of gemstone colors often embellished with refined embroidery. The work of Valentino underscores romanticism, modernity and classicism.

Originally from Vaghera, a small town south of Milan Italy, Valentino was always drawn to fashion. After attending Milan’s Institute de Mode Santa Marta, he arrived in Paris in 1950 to continue his studies at the Chambre Syndicale de Couture. In 1952 at the age of 20, he entered into the house of Jean Desses where he was introduced to movie stars and high society as a way of comprehending the lifestyles and women he hoped to dress. At Desses, they equally courted a clientele consisting of members of the European Royal Court, Egyptian and Grecian princesses and Queen Fedeva. A huge fan of the theater, he spent a good number of evenings at the Comedie Francaise where he discovered and admired Jean Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud.

In 1957, Valentino was hired to work with Guy Laroche who had just opened his own couture house. Later, Valentino left Paris and returned to Rome where, thanks to financial aide from his parents, he opened his own couture house in Rome at 11 villa Condotti. His first collection was cut from intensely colored sumptuous fabrics. This was the point where he introduced a vibrant, passionate red which later became his signature, “Valentino red.”

The following year marked the beginning of a long collaboration with Giancarlo Giammeti.  As Italian film makers and movie stars rose to international fame, Rome became the “new Hollywood.” As such, Valentino dressed the great actresses of the world’s silver screens. Elizabeth Taylor, while filming, order a white gown for the premiere of “Spartacus.” He also dressed Audrey Hepburn and Rita Hayworth. In 1964, Jackie Kennedy hired him to design a wardrobe for her while she mourned the death of her husband.

From that point on, a veritable friendship developed between the designer and these ladies who swore by Valentino’s creations nearly exclusively. (There were reports of Jackie Kennedy who some seasons purchased the designer’s entire collection worth more than the president’s yearly salary.) In 1968, Valentino designed an all white collection from which Mrs. Kennedy selected a white lace dress for her marriage to Aristotle Onassis. At the age of 36, Valentino was at the height of his career. In less than a decade, he became the idol to a new generation while incarnating the symbol of modern luxury.

Under the driving force of Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino’s fashion house developed an international dimension with a line of ready-to-wear he introduced in the 1970’s which he showed in Paris. On the other hand, he reserved his prestigious couture presentations for the Italian capital. He also hosted sumptuous galas and spectacular launches that reunited the hottest celebrities linked to the world of luxury or to that of the cinema which, in turn, maintained the notoriety of his own career. Valentino always knew how to seduce his clients because, right down to his last collection, he interjected the latest fashion trends into his collection while remaining faithful to his timeless notion of elegance.

This thematic exhibition explores the works of Valentino and underlines the variations and themes which were developed and refined throughout his career.

The exhibition opens with an exercise in style, incessantly exhibiting the constant variations presented within the designer’s stylistic vocabulary. The volumes, lines and textures are repertoires in a palette of colors reduced to the strictest minimum: red, black and white. In effect, depending on the season, his volumes show off or emphasize certain parts of the body while enveloping the silhouette or accentuating movement. Using a palette with voluptuous nuances, Valentino also uses solid, bright colors which transformed the shapes of a dress into the image of a red poppy, which later became his signature color. It comes from a memory traced back to his adolescence when he vacationed in Barcelona or where he attended an opera and was in awe of the women seated in their loge. To him they resembled a bouquet of red flowers.

The second section reveals the types of themes we find in the couturier’s collection with items cut from florals or animal prints which contrasts his own work based on geometric shapes. The mastery of techniques of the house takes center stage with a show of pleating, transparent fabrics and ruffles. This part also shows off the richness of the designer’s color palette from monochromatic tones to the most surprising mixtures employing abstract or figurative motifs.

In the last room, the exhibition plays homage to the Italian icon by presenting a selection of garments from his last couture collection (January 23, 2008), which was the perfect ending to a long, brilliant career that lasted nearly a half century.

Valentino, Themes et Variations, to Sept. 21, Musée de la Mode et Textile 107, rue de Rivoli 75001 Paris. Tel:  Open Tue-Fri: 11am – 6pm / Sat, Sun: 10 am – 6 pm. Entrance: 8 €.