Valentino Garavani is a man who loves women. This is evident not only in the way he dresses them but also in the way he greeted us yesterday morning at the opening of his London exhibit. “Good morning beautiful ladies. And gentlemen….”
We are gathered before him under a huge, electronic version of his signature rose in the cavernous galleries below Somerset House. He is in London for the opening of Valentino: Master of Couture, a celebratory retrospective of his life and work, on now until March 2013. In real life, the man himself is elegant, perfectly coiffed, and looks every bit the English gentleman. His perma-tan and cluster of glittering chakra beads are the only evidence of his Mediterranean lifestyle as we shiver on this typically cold, grey London day.
As he stands at the podium, the walls flanking him display a timeline charting his trajectory to the top of the fashion A-list. Glass cabinets lining the walls are filled with personal photographs, including a Christmas card from Prince Charles, Harry and William (!) and letters from Meryl Streep, Anna Wintour, and Donatella Versace. It is the first time an exhibition has shown his private letters and photographs, as well as invitations and seating cards from years gone by.
We climb the glass stairs to find the real gem of the exhibition–a long hallway that has been transformed into a runway, lined with the classic Louis chairs found in French salons so loved by fashion week behinds. Only this time we are walking down the catwalk, and the mannequins are seated as guests, all clad in the best Valentino couture. Placards on empty seats read like a list of Valentino’s friends and clients over the last 40 years–from Liza Minelli and Sharon Stone, to Gisele, Sarah Jessica Parker, and even Lady Gaga and J. Lo.
The mannequins are cleverly painted different colors corresponding to the decade of the clothes they wear. Mint for the 50’s, Mustard for the 60’s, and so on.
And speaking of clothes–they are the best, most ornate, and complicated examples of Valentino’s work. They are all there, from the white delicate lace gowns for which he is so famous, to his signature red numbers. There is a particularly striking animal print collection (a zebra crop top and flares anyone?) and an assortment of the frothy pastel gowns from recent years. Mannequins’ heads are adorned with silk bow headbands, velvet structured cutaway hats, and even a realistic-looking snake curled around one mannequin’s head.
It’s sometimes hard to tell which gown is recent, and which is historic–a testament to Valentino’s enduring appeal. Even the beaded cape dresses with an obvious ’60s reference could easily have come down the runway this September. As Manolo Blahnik wrote to him in a letter on display, “Your work and you will be here forever.”
Moving back downstairs we see the technical side of the clothing. A huge “atelier table” reveals glass boxes with examples of the unbelievable techniques used by Le Ragazze, or the atelier seamstresses. The roses can be seen in close detail, all handstitched from organza, with thread pulled in different measures of tautness to shape them into realistic-looking petals.
The grand finale of the exhibit is the wedding dress of Princess Marie Chantal of Greece, which took 25 seamstresses four months to make by hand, with real pearl embroidery and 12 different types of lace.
As we exit through the shop (where you can find the sold-out studded heels, along with sunglasses, tote bags, scarves, and six–six!–different books on the man himself) it’s hard to imagine a world without Valentino.
Click through to get a peek at the exhibit.