Designer to the Stars Takes a Stroll Down the Catwalk
"When I see them, I remember every single dress," says Valentino
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LONDON — “When I see them, I remember every single dress,” says Valentino, as he walks down the runway, looking at chair labels in the audience reading “Jennifer Lopez” or “Carla Bruni.” The designer points to dresses worn by the famous to the Oscars — or, in the case of Jacqueline Kennedy, for her 1968 Greek island wedding to Aristotle Onassis.
The 1992 velvet, tulle and ribbon detail dress, center back view, in which the actress Julia Roberts won her Oscar in 2001, among other signature ‘‘Valentino red’’ gowns, including a 1959 short dress with rose-couture technique worn by Jennifer Aniston in 2004. More Photos »
“It’s a catwalk — but the other way around,” says Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino’s partner, as he explains the display of dresses along the 60-meter, or 200-foot, “runway” and their focus on high fashion skills. Video close-ups of couture hands later show the works in progress.
“Valentino: Master of Couture” (through March 3), which opened last week at Somerset House in London, has taken a new angle on the much celebrated Roman designer.
The show mixes up the outfits, using 137 mannequins whose skin tones define the decades: cream for the new millennium; parma violet for the 1990s; terracotta for the ’80s; smoke for the ’70s; mustard for the ’60s; and mint green for the ’50s. That was when Valentino Garavani started out working with the Paris couturier Jean Dessès and made a sketch (which he still has) of a dress for the Mexican actress María Félix.
Patrick Kinmonth, co-designer of the exhibition with Antonio Monfreda, both longtime collaborators of Valentino, describes the show as “absolutely not chronological” — hence the colored bodies and changing hairstyles and the focus on color themes, such as black, white and the famous Valentino red.
Gwyn Miles, the director of Somerset House, expressed joy that the 137 outfits were “not behind glass.” The museum’s curator Alistair O’Neill helped to edit the vast Valentino archives.
Perhaps the most revealing part of Valentino fashion character is from 1959: a red tulle evening dress unfolding into a rose and its petals.
For all its Roman grandeur and couture sensibility — and in spite of a vivid orange satin poncho worn by the aristocratic and androgynous model Veruschka — Valentino’s deepest inspirations are from nature.
“That is why we put in the digital flower patterns,” Mr. Monfreda said. He was referring to a giant rose projected on the wall of the opening display space, which contains memorabilia (including letters signed Princess Diana, Jacqueline Kennedy and Karl Lagerfeld).
The digital rose changes constantly, working in flower-patterned fabrics that Valentino created, according to Mr. Giammetti.
This sense of a green shoots among the couture high life makes an intriguing counterpoint and offers a new perspective on the designer’s much-displayed work. The last major exhibition was in 2007 at Ara Pacais in Rome, a hyper-modern space that required a different, less romantic, approach.
Mr. Kinmonth, co-designer of that exhibit, explained how, for London, he stripped the upper gallery, but kept the sense of modernity in the metallic stair case and brutal, undecorated walls.
The designers then added a stage set of Roman architecture, including a door inspired by one at the Palazzo Mignanelli, where the Valentino studio has been based since 1968.
The door opens into the show’s tour de force of art and nature: the 1995 wedding dress of Marie-Chantal, Crown Princess of Greece, made from 10 different types of lace, according to Mr. Giammetti, who explained how the flower designs morph into birds butterflies as the train rises upward.
“It was overwhelming, interesting, exhilarating — I knew it was going to be beautiful on the day,” said Marie-Chantal, one of the many high-level guests at the opening evening.
The bride never saw her dress finished until the wedding day — “because they were so busy doing all the intricate work.” Marie-Chantal, whose own daughter now wears her Valentino dresses, says that the couturier’s secret is that “It’s timeless — and he understands the female form.”
The incredible lightness of this exceptional couture work is followed by a room devoted to the virtual museum that Mr. Giammetti created to bring the archive to life (www.valentinogaravanimuseum.com).
A final room has video clips showing how the “hands” create the special couture techniques, for example “budellini,” tiny sausages of silk that are exclusive to Valentino.
“That is very important,” said Valentino, showing how the budellini technique was used in a white chiffon evening gown in 1993.
Is that alta moda era gone forever with the corporate luxury culture and the tsunami of fast fashion?
The exhibition is surprisingly free of nostalgia, give or take a charming dress from 1968 that seems to bring Audrey Hepburn to life.
Mr. Kinmonth points out that the rising stars of British design, like Christopher Kane and Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, are eager to make an artistic statement by transforming material into sculptures to create complex couture-type pieces.
The current work of the Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaulo Piccioli proves that a younger generation is equally eager to create couture. Their pieces on display in the exhibition show a rare successful fashion succession story.
The most extraordinary feeling about the exhibition is Valentino’s consistency. It is as though the designer started with a vision that he has never abandoned, but rather passed along from one set of clients to another.
This timelessness explains why Julia Roberts chose to wear to the Oscars in 2001 a back-revealing dress that was designed in 1992; or how Jennifer Anniston’s red rose tulle dress had originally been designed 44 years earlier.
As Mr. Kinmonth says, the very first dress from 1952 — slim, black with a loose panel at the back — looks as if it just “popped out of pod.”
The real audience at Somerset House, walking the runway to see what Valentino, who is now 80, calls “my expression of clothes and my creations,” is gazing into some kind of fashion eternity.
By SUZY MENKES
Published: December 3, 2012
Photos : Warrick Page for the International Herald Tribune