Ode to a Fashion Legend, Valentino: The Last Emperor

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Acolyte Films

Valentino: The Last Emperor

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Happiness is accommodating a man whose certainty can sound like petulance. ("People have to be on their knees in front of me," the master says.) It's no small challenge, Giammetti tells Tyrnauer, "to be with Valentino as a friend, as a lover, as an employee." He must deliver the emperor's whims to others: "Valentino says, 'If the bathrooms are set up like that, I'm not coming.'" At times the boss is ready to wave the whole business away with his expressive hands. "I don't care about the collection," he fumes. "My dogs are much more important." (He and Giammetti have a half-dozen pugs, who travel everywhere with the couple, and whose teeth Valentino meticulously brushes.)

The emotional vectors of their relationship are both constant and complex. When Giammetti pursues one line of argument, Valentino huffs, "Once you get an idea in your head..." "And you're not stubborn?" asks Giammetti. "No," Valentino insists. A pause. "Almost never." Yet everyone in the couture world knows that each is an incomplete half of one fabulous organism. Even Giammetti is impressed: "I've never seen two people so close for so many years, not being married." For the designer of couture inspired by American movies, it's only fitting that he and Giammetti should live out an old-fashioned Hollywood romance.

Every love story needs a threat, and here it's money and the people who wield it. Valentino's lifestyle is beyond lavish; with the villas and chateaux, the extravagant parties, he's been more of a jet-setter than the people who buy his clothes. Somebody had to subsidize all that luxe, and in 1998 he and Giammetti sold their company to the HDP conglomerate, which four years later turned it over to a textile group run by Matteo Marzotto. Giammetti treats the young plutocrat as a nuisance at best: "Matteo is a very nice guy. I like him as a friend. But whatever he says has no value." Marzotto returns the compliment to his elder: "He's like an old lion. He's trying to roar, like this, but he has no voice." In fashion, as elsewhere, money talks; and by the end of the film Marzotto has cashed out, selling the firm to Permira for $1.1 billion.

Haute couture is a small part of a modern fashion house's income — just a way to get publicity for the brand. The real money is in the accessories: handbags, shoes, perfume. But the old-school Valentino declares that his gift is "to design and to create dresses. I always did this. I am not capable to do anything else. I am a disaster in everything else." In his climactic show, which everyone seems to know is his last, his admirers shed tears as they congratulate him. Karl Lagerfeld, another king designer-dinosaur, tells Valentino, "Compared to this, the rest of us are making rags." Shortly after the show, Permira announces that the 35-year-old Alessandra Facchinetti will be the new couturier for the house of Valentino.

"I only remember the things I want to remember." Viewers of this brisk, poignant documentary have to believe that everything Valentino would want to remember — and want them to remember — is right here, the narrative line flawless, the sequins in place.

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