Valentino's Day

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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. They are what used to be called the ladies who lunch, but they might better be called the ladies who shop.

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. These days, most designers are caught in a constant battle to create and recreate the must-have look of the moment — complete with shoe, bag, coat, sunglasses, and nail polish. Valentino, though, rides above that fray. His clothes are worn season after season by his loyal Gals.

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. It isn't always hot and it isn't always sexy, but that's okay. Neither are many of Val's Gals, 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. Should a grown woman suddenly wake with a desire to look like a ballerina, she has found her man. 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. Tiny ones were embroidered on coats and dresses, larger ones hung as tassels on rope belts. 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. Not exactly the stuff for your average charity fund raiser.

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. "We feel that the Valentino brand name is becoming a trendy label in the world," said Giombini.

Licensing was easy money. Trendy is much harder to pull off. And 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."

But the couture gowns that made Valentino's name account for only 6% of the company's annual sales. Last season that meant that just 70 pieces were sold to clients. And while it is standard today for fashion's number crunchers to institute a Gucci-like business model, it is much harder to retain the status of a designer brand without a designer — and harder still to replace one capable of couture, as HdP must eventually do to ensure the image of Valentino remains. "I am the bird with the gold egg," Valentino said when asked if having new owners has affected his ability to design. "If I want to do a collection with fur, I use fur. If I want to do one with two tons of sable, I do one with two tons of sable."

This is an attitude others have long indulged. As a child growing up in Voghera, a small town south of Milan, he 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. In 1960, when Elizabeth Taylor came to town to film Spartacus, she paid the hot young designer a visit and kicked off a 40-year friendship that helped keep his name in the headlines.

Rome's position as the jumping-off point for the burgeoning jet set and cinema's glitterati put Italian fashion in the limelight: Simonetta Colonna Cesarò, the Fontana sisters, Emilio Schubert and Pucci all benefited. But they still lacked the respect that the French received. Valentino was a notable exception. "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 Onasis. 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.

In those days, mass-produced copies of couture dresses were offered to the American public with the blessing of the designers. In exchange for their buying liberally from the collections (Lord & Taylor bought 26 models from the White Collection), at $1,000 to $2,500 a pop, the designer would visit the American department stores to promote sales of the reproductions. The Lord & Taylor copies of the White Collection cost from $100 to $500 and in five days more than 400 dresses were sold.

Valentino traveled frequently to promote his collections. When in New York, he and his partner Giammetti were fêted by the fabulous, including Diana Vreeland, the editor of Vogue, and Steve Rubell, the founder of Studio 54. Valentino and

Giammetti made the gossip pages of the New York Times when they were refused entrance at the Plaza Hotel because they were wearing Nehru collars, not ties. The lavish nights on the town and the high-profile friends and clients secured Valentino's reputation as an integral part of the world-class 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. Other couture designers get their inspiration from the street — and write off the obvious contradiction that no one on the street can afford their dresses — but Valentino gets his inspiration 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. "The women, they bought dresses like peanuts — without thinking." In 1986, Valentino 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 the fall of 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.