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WSJ Magazine

Private Eye

Private Eye

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WHAT CONSTITUTES A casual weekday lunch for fashion executive Giancarlo Giammetti would qualify as an elaborate affair for anyone else: served by his butler at a table set with sterling-silver flatware and a starched white linen tablecloth on the terrace of his apartment overlooking Rome’s Spanish Steps. But for most of the past five decades, this is how Giammetti has lived, whether at this home or any of his three others—in New York’s Upper East Side, London’s Cadogan Square or in Paris’s 7th arrondissement. Giammetti is the Roman-born business czar behind designer Valentino Garavani’s 50-year tenure at his self-named fashion house, which became equally synonymous with red gowns and an opulent old-world lifestyle rarely seen anymore. All of this was funded by Giammetti’s maneuvers—like his prescient early forays into fashion licensing and the $300 million sale of the company in 1998—and overseen with precision. “The way in which they live feels very warm and impossibly luxurious, and everything is always done to the highest level. There is such an otherworldly level of luxury, charm and history,” says his close friend Gwyneth Paltrow, adding, “I started calling him Nonna, the Italian word for grandmother, which is an absurd nickname because there is nothing grandmotherly about him except that he takes very good care of the people he loves.”


For actress Anne Hathaway, it was the fictional fashion world that brought her face to face with the pair. “I first met GG and VaVa on the set of ,” she says. “I am definitely not acting when I stammer in the scene where Miranda [played by Meryl Streep] introduces me to them.” A bond formed, but Hathaway is still aware of the company she keeps: “I do still make sure I carry a pocket-size lint roller with me when I’m going to see them, because they notice everything.”


Paltrow and Hathaway are among just a few of the many Hollywood royals, European blue bloods and bold-faced names—including the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—who have been wined and dined by Giammetti. And this month, he is publishing , a photographic tome culled from a 50-year collection of personal pictures documenting behind-the-scenes moments with such friends. Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Jerry Hall, Grace Kelly, Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Lawrence are all pictured in spots from Rome to Capri to New York to Los Angeles. There are images of Barbra Streisand partying at the Pierre hotel and Madonna giving the finger while riding a Lalanne sheep sculpture at Valentino’s house in Gstaad. “I always think of Giancarlo with a camera,” says Paltrow.


The book is also a sequel of sorts to the 2008 documentary , which chronicled his and Valentino’s last two years at the helm of the fashion house. The film elucidated Giammetti’s role as Valentino’s regent, chief cajoler and commander—pictured in action with a seemingly permanent tan amidst a swirl of private planes, movie stars, châteaus and manicured gardens. The decadence is unforgettable: One scene featured Valentino’s numerous pugs having their teeth brushed.


Although Valentino was the star of that production—which did unexpectedly well at the box office and garnered him fans beyond fashion’s fiefdom—he is happy to share the limelight. “Giancarlo deserves to tell a bit more about himself. Living all his life next to me, he accepted a role that was reducing,” says Valentino. “But there’s a saying, ‘When two men ride the same horse, one has to be in the back.’ “


It is a life that allowed Giammetti access to the highest echelons of art, society and celebrity, especially in the ’70s, when an international jet set was coalescing and he and Valentino were enthusiastic participants. There are Polaroids of a laughing Andy Warhol, whom the fashion executive befriended when they met in 1973. Warhol took a Polaroid of Giammetti and signed it; then Giammetti snapped a picture of Warhol and signed that. “Polaroid was like that. Throw it on the table, share them, see it immediately. It was a great way to get to know people, and everyone got to take something away with them,” Giammetti says. Many of the early photos, which include snapshots of Jack Nicholson, Bianca Jagger and designers Diane von Furstenberg and the late Halston, were taken at the gilded 72nd Street pad that Valentino bought in the 1970s. “It was outrageous to imagine that an Italian who was that young could buy an apartment like that in New York,” he remembers.


Over the years, Giammetti has amassed more than 57,000 images in various formats. He switched from Polaroid to film in the ’80s and hopscotched from digital to Instagram in the past two years. (His Instagram handle inspired the name for the book: @PrivateGG.) In 2008 and 2009, Giammetti hired the official photography archivist of the Vatican to organize his personal photo albums, which, in turn, influenced his book. It was a task made easier because the highly organized Giammetti has kept a daily diary since 1975. (Entries were handwritten into red leather journals, though in the past four years the diaries are typed on a computer.) “They are very precise,” he says. “I didn’t always write feelings, but my life became such a chaotic series of events and I needed to have order. I’m a maniac like that. I have to make things rational.”


The son of a salesman of electrical appliances, Giammetti grew up in a comfortably affluent Roman family and met Valentino in 1960 at then hot spot Café de Paris. They struck up a conversation and realized they’d both be on holiday in Capri the next week and so began their relationship. Though they ceased to be romantic partners in 1972, their relationship has proved inviolable. “What was between Valentino and me was something no one could get between,” he says. It’s a recipe that worked: Valentino was free to immerse himself on the creative side, while Giammetti dominated the corporate side, forming an early version of today’s mega brands.


Their lives remained intertwined as they built what Giammetti dubs their “tribe” of friends. Among these was Onassis, who was a frequent partner-in-crime in Capri, and whose dress for her 1968 wedding to Aristotle Onassis was a Valentino creation: She chose a cocktail-length white dress with lace tiers, long sleeves and a high neckline that showed up on the front page of every newspaper around the world the next day. “She was a very, very strong woman,” Giammetti says. She was also nearly his editor on another book project. “When she was working at Doubleday in the late ’70s, she wanted to do a book on Valentino. Fashion books weren’t very important then, but I remember I went to talk to her—because I was the businessman—and I had a meeting with her and her editor in chief. It was so amazing. She was sitting in the corner like a little girl with her notes.” Onassis wanted to do the book, but Doubleday passed.


Legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland also figures largely in the book, as does the 1982 exhibition she organized of Valentino couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Giammetti points to a photograph of Vreeland talking to Valentino, who wears a stupefied expression. “This picture is so touching to me because it says it all. She is so herself here! She would take your arm with that hand manicured in red nail lacquer and talk to you for days,” he remembers. “Valentino would turn to me and say, ‘God, what is she talking about?’ “


Among the many spreads in the book are images of Paltrow dancing the night away at her 30th birthday party, held at Giammetti’s house in Tuscany, which became a particularly poignant memory for the actress. “[It] may very well produce a book of its own someday, or at least be a large chapter of my memoir,” she says. “Giancarlo hosted myself, my father and my closest friends at his beautiful country house. It was one of the most special weekends of my entire life, and I lost my father three days after it ended.” Giammetti stepped in during the days that followed, which were some of the hardest in the actress’s life. But, she says, Nonna was a rock of support and friendship, breaking the news to her and helping her make arrangements.


While Giammetti vehemently rejects any suggestion of nostalgia, he does yearn for the sun-kissed Italian bravura depicted in his early photographs. “I miss the way I was. I miss the courage of youth, when you’re ready for anything. Age gives you such limits,” he says. “Sometimes I think, Wow, we looked good.” Today, he usually turns to Instagram to satisfy his photographic impulses. But, as Valentino notes, “They get more ‘likes’ when I’m in the photo.”

- Derek Blasberg


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