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Master of Couture

A New Valentino Exhibit Opens at Somerset House

Click here to view the article online at Vogue.


It was as if a little piece of Rome in the days of la dolce vita had been dropped into the middle of London on Wednesday night.

When Mr. Valentino Garavani throws a party, his whole exquisite world comes with him—in this case to the Italian embassy, which suddenly became a living tableau of European aristocrats, princesses, and socialites of all generations, moving among the high-gilded rooms as if in a movie. Most of the women, of course, were clad in Valentino Haute Couture and their own spectacular jewelry. When the time came for pudding, there was an orgiastic spectacle fully worthy of Fellini: Guests were led to a separate room where miniature cakes, sweets, ice creams, syllabubs, and zabagliones were piled high amid candelabra and cascading urns of fruit. It’s funny how a dolce extravaganza can drive even the sveltest of sophisticates to something like a feeding frenzy.                   
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The reason the Valentino faithful—including the royalty of many European houses—had gathered was to applaud the maestro at the opening of “Valentino: Master of Couture,” a retrospective at Somerset House. As Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York and their mother Sarah Ferguson, Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, Princess Rosario of Bulgaria, Alexa Chung, Olivia Palermo, Dita Von Teese, Kristen McMenamy, Alexia Niedzielski, Elizabeth von Guttman, Andrea Dellal, Pierpaolo Piccoli, and Maria Grazia Chiuri and filed into the show, a surprise was in store: They found themselves walking a “runway,” with the mannequins seated in the audience, as if socializing at a couture show (as you do). The witty curatorial inversion was created by Patrick Kinmonth, Antonio Monfreda, and Alistair O’Neill. Their choice of dresses, selected from fifty years of Valentino glamour, provided a tricky parlor game of guess-the-date for any fashion mastermind who thinks she knows her vintage stuff. Rather, the show proves how the designer has returned to the same central motivations over the years—exquisitely pristine white embroideries; chic daywear checks; animal prints, and evocations of roses being just a few. Within those groups, some of the pieces, like a black crepe-frilled cocktail dress made for Monica Vitti for the 1961 movie La Notte looks as fresh as if it was made just the other day, proving above all, one thing about Valentino: In avoiding trendiness for all of his career, his handle on timelessness is his triumph. Given the displays of craftsmanship and technique also on show in lightbox and video installations, this is set to be a place of pilgrimage for students and visitors right through next London fashion week.
“Valentino: Master of Couture” runs through March 3, 2013 at Somerset House (somersethouse.org.uk) and is accompanied a book, Valentino Master of Couture: A Private View (Rizzoli, $35), of Valentino’s personal photographs; amazon.co.uk.
By Sarah Mower
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