The last of the great couture generation, Valentino Garavani‘s career spanned almost 50 years, during which he dressed many of the world’s most beautiful women, before his retirement in 2008. Now, an exhibition of his couture designs opens at Somerset House. In his own words he describes the exhibition as, “Sen-sational. Very beautiful, it’s very, very beautiful. I choose 140 dresses, and some of them – they had never been seen.”
Valentino Garavani certainly knows how to butter us up, announcing,“I love England, I love to be in London,” at a press preview of his “Valentino: Master of Couture” exhibition, which is on display from 29 November through 3 March. It turns out that no butter up was necessary, as the lovely couture clothes thoroughly charmed us all by themselves.
A camouflage-print, chiffon-and-silk gown circa Fall 1994, a black velvet gown worn in 2001 by Julia Roberts when she won her Best Actress Oscar, and a Spring 1954 strapless red tulle number covered in rose corsages were among the countless beauties that had us swooning.
Arranged in catwalk formation around chairs bearing place cards for fashion icons through the years who were lucky enough to don the elegant outfits – including Babe Paley, Audrey Hepburn, Veruschka, Kate Moss and Nicole Kidman just to name a handful – stand the mannequins. All blonde and all tinted a different color according to which decade the design made its debut, they are displayed thematically – animal prints in one cluster, candy pinks and oranges in another, and so on.
However, beyond the aesthetic pleasing, these arrangement hammered home a important point: that fashion trends may change, but beauty never goes out of style. With a flower-detailed cream evening ensemble worn by Audrey Hepburn in 1968 standing demurely next to an eerily similar Spring 2008 cream Mikado silk tunic with flower-detail tulle skirt, it becomes nearly impossible to guess which of the two is vintage and which is not. “Today, I look at those clothes, and they look as if I finished them last season,” said Valentino, “They look like today”.
Yet, the designer concedes that, while his style may not have changed too dramatically over his 50-year career, the way people dress has. “People work, people with lots of money…[they] do lots of charity engagements, they move,” he says. “So they cannot be dressed like in the ’60s. Ladies used to change four times a day. Now it’s different.”
Though he’s officially retired, Garavani’s commitment to quality and craftsmanship couldn’t be clearer with the exhibition’s Atelier section showcasing couture techniques like nervature and rose di volant. Although his namesake label did team up with Gap in 2010 under the direction of Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri the designer admits he much prefers high fashion.
“I am not comfortable to do cheap-chic clothes,” the 80-year-old says. “I admire other people that are able to do [it], but they copy the big designers, and they do a good job. I mean, thank God. Zara, all those people do a fantastic thing. But there are dresses that [after] you wear five times, you have to put [them] out.”
And what does the iconic designer think of Britain’s very own leader of high-street fashion, Kate Middleton?
“She’s the talk of town because she’s so beautiful and so elegant,” he says. “What I admire about the Duchess of Cambridge is she’s always elegant but a little low-profile. She doesn’t want to appear splashing all the time, but people appreciate very much this sort of, how we say, sotto tone. I hope one day to bring one dress to her so she can wear Valentino.”
“Valentino: Master of Couture” runs from November 29 through March 3 at the Somerset House (Embankment Galleries, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA; somersethouse.org.uk)