Ode to a Fashion Legend, Valentino: The Last Emperor

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Acolyte Films

Valentino: The Last Emperor

"I know what women want," says Valentino Garavani in Matt Tyrnauer's swank new documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor. "They want to be beautiful." But the question any couturier must answer is, What kind of beautiful do they want to be? For Valentino, as he and the fashion house he created are called, it's the very traditional kind: the long lines and soft fabrics of Hollywood Golden Age couture. From 1964, when he captured Jacqueline Kennedy's attention and began clothing her in a monarch widow's blacks and whites, the little man with the slim, feline smile has outfitted a host of high-end one-name celebrities — Liz, Diana, Julia — and the Euro-royalty whose tastes influenced the decisions of retail buyers, country club wives and the more ambitious shopgirls.

Though in the late '60s Valentino dressed his muses and himself in rakish, now garish mod, he soon recognized the allure of gowns that for centuries had made rich women attractive commodities. Other designers might reflect the hustle (without the bustle) of contemporary life — Lacroix, sweetie. Valentino didn't make statements; he made dresses, as he proclaimed, "for women who actually wear them." A warming elegance was his trademark: la belle, la perfectly swell romance. This ethereal chic served the emperor and his clients well for ages; one journalist calls him "the only designer in the world who's managed to last 45 years." But not 46. Two years ago, at 75, Valentino was abruptly retired by Permira, the private equity group that had bought the company.

This attentive, affectionate portrait, which traces the final year of the designer's career, shows that it's good to be the king. Valentino is the creative wellspring, the man whose intricate demands have to be satisfied. And he is not easily satisfied. One of the last designers whose couture was handmade — his assistants, one of his backers noted, never touched a sewing machine — he relies on his invisible artists, the seamstresses of northern Italy, for the anachronistic grace of his frocks. He designs the dresses; they make them. Antonietta de Angelis, the head seamstress of the house, has some of her boss's imperious temperament. She knows that anything less than perfection is unacceptable, for a master who keeps wanting to improve on it. After designing a perfect white dress, a symphony of subtle movement, he ponders his creation and announces, "But some sequins can't hurt."

The emperor might never have succeeded if not for his prime minister: Giancarlo Giammetti, who from the beginning ran the business, ran interference, made the deals and, for much of their 45 years, was Valentino's lover. They met in a cafe on the Via Veneto in 1960, the year Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita made that street famous, and established Rome as the Mecca and Gomorrah of European society. (Nino Rota's music from La Dolce Vita and other Fellini films ornaments the sound track.) Valentino had just come from Paris to open a salon; Giammetti was still in college. Their serendipitous encounter cued a grand, contentious, lifelong partnership. A handsome man whose strength is revealed in whispers, Giammetti seems fulfilled by his crucial supporting role. When an Italian journalist asks him, "How would you define, in one word, your choice to live in another man's shadow?", Giammetti replies, "Happiness."

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