As a child growing up in Voghera, a small town south of Milan, Valentino begged his parents to take him across town to see a cousin dressed up for a fancy party although he was sick. As a teenager, he insisted on custom-made shoes and cashmere sweaters. By 17, he had convinced his parents to send him to France to study fashion. On graduation, he got a position in the design department of Jean Dessès' couture salon. Five years later he joined Guy Laroche in his new salon. By 1959, it was time to strike out on his own, and again his parents came forward to support him-paying for the atelier in Rome that became the talk of the fashion set.
Rome in the early '60s was the playground of the world's most glamorous people: Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor were all there working. Fantastical films by Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni were causing everyone to call it Hollywood on the Tiber. Valentino fit right in. His first fashion shows were well attended by the society women he met in Paris and were favorably reviewed. "The jet set started flying to Europe and Valentino was very hooked into that," says fashion historian Caroline Rennolds Milbank, author of Couture. "He had a big impact on making Italian fashion utterly first class."
In 1968, the fashion press dubbed Valentino both the King of Fashion and the Sheik of Chic. The collection that secured him those honors was the White Collection. Done in all-white, Valentino stitched his trademark Vs on pockets, into lapels. White tights hand-painted with gold sold for over $200. Even Valentino said it was the best he had ever done. In October, Jackie Kennedy wore a white Valentino dress to marry Aristotle Onassis. As soon as the wedding photo appeared, the phone started ringing in Valentino's Roman office, and within days, 40 women had ordered their own couture versions.
Valentino traveled frequently to promote his collections, and the lavish nights on the town and the high-profile friends and clients secured his reputation as an integral part of the world's partying set-a reputation he says is not deserved. "I was never completely crazy to go out. I don't drink, I don't smoke and those places are boring. I prefer a calm life."
Valentino's social life, however, has long been the key to his success as a designer. While other couturiers get their inspiration from the street-and write off the obvious contradiction that no one on the street can afford their dresses-Valentino gets his from the rich women he surrounds himself with. "Valentino always kens the aesthetics of his time," says Koda. "He never ridicules his clients. He never positions them in a way that is faddish."
It was to Valentino, for instance, whom women turned for guidance on the mini-skirt debates of the '60s and '70s. He was firmly anti-mini. The subject still riles him: "It was a big disaster. It's better not to think about it." (He maintains, then and now, that the perfect length is to the knee or an inch or two below.) This aversion to miniskirts does not stem from conservatism. Valentino was an ardent fan of pantsuits for women in the early '70s and pioneered radical looks like evening pajamas and turbans. But he has an innate sense of what is appropriate.
Valentino's reign as a style setter continued into the '80s, when looking rich was popular. "Professionally the '80s were amazing," says Valentino. In 1986, he was Italy's top fashion exporter-shipping some $385 million that year. It was his best decade ever. With the '90s came minimalism-austere black looks in nylon. It should have been a disaster for a man with his taste for flourishes, but he survived. For autumn 1998 his theme was hidden luxury. Picture a perfectly cut coat with beading on the inside. He added Sharon Stone, Claudia Schiffer and Ashley Judd to his list of Gals. And it is modern times that Valentino prefers. "I like the way women look now," he says. "I think we have arrived at something very nice because I see that people around-my friends, my clients-they like to be well dressed."
Valentino's role in making sure that happened was recognized in June, when he was given a lifetime achievement award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. After the ceremony, he had dinner in a suite at the Four Seasons hotel in New York. A smattering of his current Gals were there: Susan Gutfreund, Marisa Berenson, Claudia Schiffer. The group passed the time drinking champagne, looking at photos of themselves from the week's parties and complimenting one another on their gowns. A classic Valentino evening.