Velvet is a strange fabric. Linen, silk, wool—these are classic materials used again and again in fashion, no one thinks twice when they encounter them. But velvet, with its connotations of religion and royalty, and the sensuous pile of its hand, has its moments in the style sun and then retreats again. It’s a dish too rich to be eaten at every meal. Fall/Winter 2016 was a velvet season—and over the course of Mr. Valentino’s tenure at the maison, he had several standout velvet seasons of his own. Some of his iconic looks were made of the stuff, from the Tatar-inspired ensemble of embroidered chiffon and velvet that he showed for Fall/Winter 1970, to the black velvet column gown trimmed with inlaid white ribbon from the Fall/Winter 1992/1993 Haute Couture collection, which Julia Roberts oh-so-famously wore when she nabbed her Oscar for Erin Brockovich. If velvet is a material appropriate for special occasions, that was one, indeed.
The genius of Mr. Valentino’s work with velvet was his knack for using just enough of it, and no more. Note, for instance, his chocolate brown suit from the Fall/Winter 1979/1980 Haute Couture collection, which featured a trim velvet jacket embellished with pheasant feathers, and a full knee-length skirt of matching faille edged in velvet trim. Another designer might have cut the whole look in velvet, but Mr. Valentino understood he needed the smooth faille to underline the velvet’s texture, and that a bit of trim would serve to make the outfit feel whole. This is the specificity and discipline of a master. And even when Mr. Valentino went for a full velvet look, as in his outstanding, high-necked velvet gown of Valentino red from the Fall/Winter 1992 Ready-to-Wear, he gave the material a sense of delicacy by gathering it in twin ruffles about the navel and collar. Mr. Valentino never shied away from drama—and velvet is the most high-drama textile of them all—but he always knew that the real drama was in the details. That’s why his clothes, like velvet itself, was fit for royalty.