The King of Couture
On the eve of a grand retrospective of his work, Valentino Grants Colin Mc Dowell a rare audience
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The ﬁrst time I met Valentino Garavani was in Rome many years ago, when I was just starting as a reporter and was pretty green. When he languidly said, “I know everything about fashion,” my modest English soul was shocked at his boldness.
Now I realize that he was absolutely right in his claim, extravagant as it seemed at the time.
Valentino is the last of the haute-couture grandees, the great designers such as Christian Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent who deﬁned the ﬁnal years of high fashion in the late 20th century. Of course he knows everything. Now 80, he is the grand old man of the catwalk and the only world-class couturier that Italy has ever produced.
Valentino was born in Voghera in northern Italy, but, ﬁred by the ambition that has driven him all his life, he left as soon as he could to become part of the great world beyond. By the time he was 17 he was in Paris, where he worked for Jean Dessès, a couturier from whom he learntthe skills that have made him one of the most accomplished of all fashion designers. His great talent, now as then, is in the speed and accuracy of his drawing, and even today he says, “I start everything with a drawing, it is the way I think,
long before I touch a pattern or cut into a fabric. All my ideas come from the pencil.”
Everyone with even the vaguest interest in fashion knows the name of Valentino, if for no other reason than the famous red evening dresses that have ended his couture shows for many years. When he was still a young designer in Paris, he went to Barcelona and saw an opera in which all the costumes were red. As he says: “It was at that moment I realised that, after black and white. there is no colour more beautiful or ﬂattering to women than red.”
For many years now, the wardrobe of any well-dressed international woman has contained a “Valentino red“, which is added to at least once a year. These are the kind of fashion fans who felt that life had come to an end when he retired four years ago: women such as Jacky Kennedy, who wore a dress by him for her wedding to Aristotle Onassis and who once cried, “Valentino. live for ever!” Or Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece. who also wore a Valentino wedding dress with, as he says, “just to amuse myself, a veil with 10 different qualities of lace. It took a table of 10 girls a month to make.” And the list goes on from Princess Margaret and Elizabeth Taylor to Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow and virtually every wealthy and stylish woman across the globe.
From the start, Valentino's talent was matched by his luck. When he returned to Italy from Paris and set up his headquarters in Rome, he met another ambitious young Italian, an architectural student called Giancarlo Giammetti, on the Via Veneto — in the late 1950s, the hottest place in Italy for social contacts and a very Valentino area. They hit it off immediately and Giammetti became Valentino’s friend, companion and business adviser, as he remains to this day. They seem the perfect couple, very formal, very chic and very shrewd. When I met them recently at their London home in Holland Park, I was struck by the similarities between them. Together with their six dogs — all pugs — they seem to be the perfect family unit. “I love animals,” he told me, while stroking Mary, the youngest and his favourite. "She is my little princess and always sleeps with me.”
Valentino lives the complex life of the super rich as he travels between his homes, each one of which is different. His favourite is his base in London, because he loves the British attitude. The drawing room is elegantly belle époque in feel, with lots of french-polished wood and quite a few tassels, adding up to a restrained feeling of opulence complimented by huge contemporary modern pictures. He and Giammetti have always been collectors, known to dealers for their discerning eye. It is exactly the kind of room in which one would expect to ﬁnd a grand couturier.
“l love being in London," he says. “I love the way of life and always feel totally comfortable here. I admire the tradition.“ He pauses and then adds, “And the Queen. The most important woman in the world.” Would he like to dress her? “Absolutely,” he says. “I know exactly what she should wear and, with my touch, I would create marvellous clothes for her.“ He modestly lowers his eyes and adds. "I would be so honoured to be asked.”
One of the other attractions of London for Valentino is the shops. “London is a very dangerous place for me," he says, "because I love shopping and there is so much temptation here. I always come home with some small thing to wear: a crocodile belt or a cashmere sweater, alligator loafers. And I tour the galleries. All the dealers know us.”
He itemises what each of his other homes gives him. “New York, I love. The theatres and the movies and, of course, I have many former customers and dear friends there who have parties and dinners for me. Although I am not crazy to go out every night, even in New York." His chateau in the countryside outside Paris is all about gardening and “looking after the trees“. He has set up a museum there to display and conserve the huge archive of his life in fashion: “There are thousands of documents, letters and pictures of all the people l have met all over the world. I have had a marvellous life. I have met everyone and I have always received love from people, and that is everything to me. l am perhaps a little spoilt, but I am not a snob.“ The Valentino property portfolio also includes a home in Rome and a chalet in Gstaad, where he normally spends a month skiing.
It is clear that time does not hang heavily in Valentino’s world. There is no clock- watching with this guy. Since his retirement he has had one retrospective and is about to open another at Somerset House that will include more than 130 dresses, most not previously shown. He designed costumes for the 2010 Vienna New Year’s Day concert and a gala for the New York City Ballet that was received with curtain calls. He has also launched a ground-breaking virtual museum, with 5,000 pictures documenting his entire career (www.valentinogaravanimuseum.com).
And, of course, there was the popular and highly praised documentary The Last Emperor, a ﬁlm that he at ﬁrst found embarrassing, but now rather enjoys. And that is suitable, as life for Valentino Garavani seems to be entirely agreeable. He has made the best of all possible worlds for himself.
Knows everything about fashion? You bet he does
— and the rest.