The life and work of couturier Valentino Garavani, known to the world as just Valentino, can be summed up in two words: Val's Gals. Val's Gals are, of course, his devotees. To those in fashion they're as clearly defined-and as obsessed-a group of people as Manchester United football fans. They aren't trendy; they aren't business women; they aren't even fashion's most ardent fans. First and foremost, they are rich, and they want to look rich-very, very rich.
A steady stream of Val's Gals has been making its way to Valentino since 1959, when, at age 27, he opened his studio in a luxurious Roman apartment on Via dei Condotti at the foot of the Spanish Steps. And thanks to them, Valentino has met more kings and queens, more princes and princesses, more movie stars, socialites and first ladies than any other working designer. Thanks to Val's Gals, Val is a multimillionaire. Thanks to them-and with their participation-Valentino is celebrating his 40th anniversary in business this year. "I've been a Valentino fan for years and years," said society dame Judy Peabody at a 40th anniversary party, one of many, thrown by Valentino at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York in June. "He is a great artist."
Such fashion loyalty is hard to find these days, when customers may pledge allegiance to brand names in general-but not necessarily to any one designer in particular. Valentino's secret is deceptively simple: since the moment he picked up pen and ink as a schoolboy to sketch his visions, he has been ruthless in the pursuit of one thing-elegance. There isn't a practical bone in his body. And elegance is one thing that Val's Gals understand, who over the years have included Elizabeth Taylor, Nancy Reagan, Farah Diba of Iran and Imelda Marcos. "His design language weathers fashion shifts," says Harold Koda, a costume historian set to take over the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in November. "What Valentino does is make outrageously pretty dresses without making them seem silly."
Take the recent couture shows in Paris. Karl Lagerfeld, the designer for Chanel, embraced tulle-there was a flouncy baby-blue tulle tutu and a black dress with two white tulle sleeves. For Viktor & Rolf, the design duo revered by the fashion intelligentsia for their insightful and witty ideas, this season's message was that noise is as important as cut. Bells were the adornment of the day. But perhaps most bizarre of all was the collection by John Galliano for Christian Dior. Galliano, who last season paid homage to the homeless, this year found inspiration in sexual fetishism. His collection was an S&M bonanza, complete with whips, chains, corsets and a noose. Meanwhile, Valentino chose as his inspiration ... Hollywood. It's not exciting, it's not subversive, and it's not even original, but the long beaded chiffon dresses, the satin columns and the jeweled sandals will be bought and worn by those who live lives where such things are practically everyday wear. "The young generation, they are crazy about couture," says Valentino. "They love to have beautiful dresses and to come to see the shows. They grew up in a stage-from the middle '80s to the middle '90s-where the look was either minimalism or this dirty, grungy look. They never knew what was beauty."
What the young generation wants is at the front of Valentino's mind these days. In January 1998, he and his longtime business partner Giancarlo Giammetti sold their company to the Italian conglomerate Holding di Partecipazioni (HdP) for some $300 million. The move was HdP's first major step toward building a stable of luxury goods brands, and was followed by an acquisition in June this year of American men's wear designer Joseph Abboud.
HdP plans to invest some $70 million in Valentino's advertising and stores over the next three years. To recoup that, it needs to ensure that there are plenty of junior Val's Gals in the pipeline eager to buy flouncy dresses and beaded bags for decades to come. "We think it is important to build the brand name Valentino," says Fabio Giombini, who runs the Valentino business for HdP. "Not just the person, but the brand name, so that it becomes like Chanel and Dior."
That means Valentino the Company must start behaving like the other luxury brands which have staged revivals in recent years, brands like Gucci and Burberry and Christian Dior. The first step is to cut off the licenses which result in products that Giombini feels demean the brand image. Valentino was among the first designers to jump into licensing in the mid-1970s as a way to bring in extra money, though he did not go as far as others. Pierre Cardin had some 230 licenses in 1974; Valentino had just 10, for things like sheets and tablecloths and men's ties. But that number has grown over the years to around 50, including bathroom tiles and cigarette lighters. By the end of 2000, HdP will have cut off 40 deals. The next step is to take control of distribution by pulling goods from sub-par retailers and opening more freestanding boutiques.
It will be an expensive transition. In 1999, Valentino lost $22.2 million, mostly through costs associated with the acquisition. Sales for the year were flat at $75.7 million. Giombini is hoping that next year's lost licensing revenues, which made up 60% of the company's earnings in 1999, will be offset by gains the company makes in controlling its own stores. But that's just part of the puzzle. Giombini is also putting big bets on new lines Valentino will now create itself.
To this end, he has hired two new young designers to create, under Valentino's supervision, a lower-priced collection for men and women called Roma. Two designers came from Fendi to design a line of flashy accessories. An ad campaign shot by fashion photographer Steven Meisel is running to back these efforts. But some question whether this is the right route for Valentino. "The fashion world is marketing mad," says Iain R. Webb, fashion director of British Elle. "Everyone wants to be the new Gucci and mimic their success. Valentino has his own brand of desirable clothes. He almost transcends fashion."