The Last Emperor


His timeless elegance has conquered the fashion world and won the hearts of princesses, film stars and the world’s most beautiful women. He is recognized as one of the top names in Italian Haute couture: the master of sensual femininity, Valentino Garavani.

Valentino never wanted to be a fashion designer who sets trends. His dream was to dress the world’s most beautiful and famous women and to design beautiful elegant timeless dresses that would make them look like goddesses. “All I have ever wanted is beauty — to make women beautiful,” he said a long time ago and then turned his desire into reality. His outfits are the epitome of classic timeless elegance taking us back to the Golden Age of Couture when the main characteristics of the haut monde were glamour and good taste.

Matt Tyrnauer, director of the 2008 documentary on Valentino, nicknamed him ’The Last Emperor’. The nickname fits like a glove — just like Roman emperors, he is known the world over only by his first name. His muses have always been princesses, queens and film stars, and he lives like a king. Since the mid-1960s Valentino has been considered one of the greatest masters of haute couture by both colleagues and fashion experts from all over the world.

The Golden Boy of Italian Couture

Valentino Clemente Ludovico Garavani was born in 1932 in Voghera near Milan. He loved drawing and perusing fashion magazines, and was interested in art and architecture from an early age. He designed his very first dress for his elegant aunt Rosa, who encouraged his passion along with his parents.

The nickname fits like a glove — just like Roman emperors, he is known the world over only by his first name.

“Even as a young boy, my passion was to design, and I have been very lucky to be able to do what I have loved all my life. There can be few greater gifts than that,” Valentino said. As a child he had already demonstrated his diva-like behaviour and aesthetic sense, refusing to wear anything from a high-street store and requesting made-to-measure shoes and clothes. His parents indulged his every whim. When he was seventeen, he moved from Milan to Paris to study fashion at the École des Beaux-Arts and at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. After his studies he worked as an apprentice at the fashion studios of Jacques Fath and Balenciaga.

Valentino with models
Valentino with models

Having been awarded a prestigious prize for fashion design by the International Wool Secretariat, he then got an invitation from Jean Dessès, a famous French fashion house where he helped with window dressing, took care of guests during daily private showings and drew sketches. At Jean Dessès, Valentino met Guy Laroche, who had decided to open his own salon and invited him to work there. After five years, he left the salon of Jean Dessès and joined his friend’s tiny fashion house where he spent two years that provided him with the technical skills needed for a career in fashion — he improved his sketches and cuts and learned the basics of the fashion industry. By 1959 he felt ready to set up his own business and so returned to Italy.

All Roads (of the Elite) Lead to Rome

In 1959 he opened his own atelier Valentino in Rome in Via Condotti with the financial support of his father and presented his first collection displaying 120 outfits. It met with considerable success, but Valentino could not manage his finances and spent a huge amount of money in one year. Who knows how his career would have then turned out had he not met Giancarlo Giammetti, who became his lifelong friend and business partner. The young architecture student abandoned his university studies to become a business manager at Valentino fashion house. Since Valentino was an immensely talented designer and Giammetti had a knack for business and marketing, together they succeeded in building a fashion empire. Their first success was the fashion show at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence in 1962. Florence had been the centre of Italian Alta moda, which is an equivalent of French haute couture, since 1951. The Palazzo Pitti fashion shows and exhibitions were attended by editors of prestigious fashion magazines, buyers of luxury department stores and the fashion elite from around the world. Valentino’s elegant and tasteful creations, in muted colours, were sold out immediately and the press were soon calling him a rising star of the fashion industry.

The opening of an atelier in Rome at the beginning of the 1960s proved to be a great investment. Since the 1950s Rome had been the second centre of Italian fashion, mainly thanks to the arrival of Hollywood film-makers at Rome’s Cinecittà studios and co-productions with American film companies such as the epic historical films Cleopatra, Spartacus and Ben-Hur, and romantic blockbuster films like Roman Holiday.

Couture 1992
Couture 1992

The major Hollywood studios moved production overseas and the entire casts and crews, including film stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Anita Ekberg, Ava Gardner and Richard Burton, made their way to the Eternal City. Their presence attracted members of high society from around the world. In the ’50s and ’60s Rome thus became a city of beautiful women, multi-billionaires, royals, Oriental monarchs and influential politicians. It was not unusual to meet a European king or princess in the street or to sit next to stars such as Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, or Elizabeth Taylor in a restaurant in the famous Via Veneto. Federico Fellini managed to immortalise the atmosphere of that hyperactive era in his 1960 film La Dolce Vita. The world discovered Italian fashion mainly thanks to Hollywood and European film stars, who had fallen in love with Italian casual elegance, light-fitting good-quality fabrics, precise cuts and beautiful shoes.

The Stars’ Favourite

Valentino’s exclusive creations with their aristocratic allure were perfect for film stars and other wealthy socialites. The first Hollywood star to discover his boutique was Elizabeth Taylor, who was in Rome for the filming of the celebrated epic film Cleopatra. Who could have given the brand’s reputation a bigger boost than Queen Cleopatra? And since Taylor was as extravagant as Valentino, they hit it off straight away. She left the boutique with seven dresses and the couture gown she later wore to the premiere of the film Spartacus. She became his loyal customer, friend and muse, and influenced other stars, rich women and fashion editors from the United States, such as the editor of the American edition of Vogue magazine Consuelo Crespi and her sister Gloria Schiff, who acquainted Valentino with Jacqueline Kennedy. In the mid-1960s Valentino’s salon became extremely popular with beautiful and wealthy women from around the world; wearing a Valentino dress was a status symbol in high society.

The first Hollywood star to discover his boutique was Elizabeth Taylor, who was in Rome for the filming of the celebrated epic film Cleopatra.

When he presented his first collection Couture at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in 1964, rich Americans and Hollywood stars considered him their new fashion guru. Jacqueline Kennedy could not attend the event, so the designer sent a few pieces from his collection, a model and a sales representative to her apartment. Jacqueline ordered six dresses in black and white and became his loyal customer. Valentino made a name for himself as a couturier in 1968 when he presented the legendary White Collection, part of which was a short white lace dress Jacqueline later wore for her wedding to the shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. He has dressed many royal brides ever since. Actresses such as Audrey Hepburn and Marisa Berenson, and wealthy fashion icons such as Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Jacqueline de Ribes, Queen Paola of Belgium, Princess Margaret and the former Empress of Iran, Farah Diba, all took pleasure in wearing his dresses that made them look not only young and seductive but also respectable and elegant. Such designs suited their luxurious lifestyles full of lavish evening parties and dinners, balls and vernissages.

In 1966 he began presenting his collections in Rome. A year later, the fashion shows of Italian Alta moda moved from Florence to Rome. In 1967 he received the prestigious Neiman Marcus Fashion Award, which is the fashion world’s equivalent of an Oscar. Valentino spent much of the 1970s in the United States where he became the designer of choice among Hollywood elite and was adored by fashion editors.

King of Classical Elegance

Summer 2017
Summer 2017

What is the magic of Valentino’s style? Experts would say it epitomizes classical timeless elegance, sensual femininity, drama and luxury. The Valentino heroine is a noble and elegant woman — she embraces her femininity, likes to flirt and dresses to impress, but at the same time she is modest and has style. His couture creations are characterised by simple silhouettes in sophisticated cuts and intricate details. “Elegance is the balance between proportion, emotion and surprise.” Details have always been the surprising feature of his creations — a big bow, an extravagant flounce, ruching, or bead embroidery added to make the ordinary extraordinary and to create a dramatic effect. One of Valentino’s most beautiful inventions is a couture technique called ‘Pagine’ in which discs of organza are piled to create an effect of pages in a book. When it came to formal dresses and evening gowns he liked to use the Empire waist, which was popular with Hollywood costume designers in the 1930s, extending and flattering the body without being too revealing. The young Valentino was fascinated by the silver screen stars — Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich — who later became his muses. Hollywood glamour was an important source of inspiration for him. He especially liked designing dresses because he considered them essentials of every woman’s wardrobe, accentuating femininity and going with anything. “I don’t think any man in the world wants to go out with a woman dressed like a boy.”

Couture 2016
Couture 2016

His favourite fashion decade was the 1960s. “It was a sort of little revolution; the clothes were amazing but not too exaggerated. I didn’t like the 1980s at all; it was a vulgar period in fashion,” he said in an interview. Valentino became known for his unique shade of red, ‘Valentino Red’, which he created with his dyers at the end of the 1950s. In the fashion industry it is as legendary as Hermès Kelly bag and scarves. Rumour has it that as a fashion student, Valentino went to see a performance of Carmen in Barcelona and was so enthralled by the fiery red dresses that he fell in love with the colour. However, the designer denied this rumour and said that he had been fascinated by a beautiful elderly woman in one of the boxes who had worn a red velvet dress and had overshadowed even much younger women. It was then that he realised how beautiful a woman dressed in red is. Valentino’s style and design approach are of the old school. He would always sketch his design ideas first so is somewhat disenchanted by many of today’s fashion designers. “Very few designers today actually design — it’s very important to be able to do your own sketch on paper and then explain your vision to the fabric cutters. Instead, lots of designers drape — it’s the new way.” Valentino is of the old school even in his personal life — he keeps it private and does not create headlines for scandalmongers.

He especially liked designing dresses because he considered them essentials of every woman’s wardrobe, accentuating femininity and going with anything.

The Master of Couture’s Dolce Vita

Valentino and Giancarlo have built an enormous fashion empire with boutiques worldwide. In 1982 Franco Maria Ricci published a monograph about him and Valentino became the first fashion designer to present his collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1989 he opened the Accademia Valentino — a cultural space for art exhibitions and events —near his atelier in Rome. Its profits are used for humanitarian purposes, especially for the L.I.F.E. association which he created with Elizabeth Taylor and Giancarlo Giammetti in order to support children living with AIDS.

In 1991 Valentino threw a three-day party for 1,600 guests from all around the world and held a prestigious retrospective called Valentino: 30 Years of Magic to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his fashion house.

At the end of the 1990s he sold his fashion house to the HdP conglomerate. In 2006 he played himself in the film The Devil Wears Prada and the French president awarded him the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. In 2007 Valentino announced his retirement and said goodbye to the world of fashion in style by holding three days of fashion shows and parties and a retrospective exhibition Valentino in Rome: 45 years of Style at the Ara Pacis Museum. In January 2008 he ended his fashion career by presenting his final haute couture show at the Musée Rodin in Paris. Even when retired, Valentino stays true to his nickname The Last Emperor. He spends his retirement living the high life, enjoying luxury skiing holidays, lounging on his luxury private yacht with the beautiful and the wealthy and throwing lavish parties in his castle, the Château de Wideville near Paris, where he greets other jet setters wearing flawless bespoke suits by Caraceni.

Valentino 2
Valentino in Rome: 45 years of Style at the Ara Pacis Museum

“There are only three things I can do — make a dress, decorate a house and entertain people,” he said. ‘Va-va’, as he is called by his close friends, travels on his private jet like a film star with his five pugs (Milton, Molly, Margot, Maude and Monty) and staff, and he needs three cars to move him and his entourage from the airport: one for himself and Giancarlo, another for the luggage and the staff and a third for his dogs. “My normal life is like being on holiday,” he quips. And even though he no longer designs, he remains an important figure in the world of fashion and culture. In 2011 Valentino and Giancarlo launched a permanent virtual retrospective the Valentino Garavani Virtual Museum that documents his career.

Famous museums and galleries are eager to organise exhibitions of his work. Valentino’s dream of injecting hints of grace and glamour into everyday life has come true not only for him and his clients but also for his fans. Valentino SpA remains true to its classical elegant style and thanks to a shrewd choice of successors, continues to prosper. The brand’s main lines today include Valentino Haute Couture, Valentino prêt-à-porter, Valentino Garavani accessories, the casual Valentino Roma line and the youthful R.E.D. Valentino line.

Text: Zuzana Šujanová-Gregušová, photo: Getty images,