Obsessed with beauty
'Valentino: The Last Emperor' profiles a master of haute couture
by Tavo Amador
A precocious Italian boy living near Milan is taken by his sister to see MGM's Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and is transfixed watching Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, and Lana Turner parade across the screen in lavish costumes by Adrian. The boy decides on the spot that he will create beautiful clothes for glamorous women. And he succeeds.
Matt Tyrnauer's Valentino: The Last Emperor is a fascinating documentary about that boy, the master of Italian haute couture Valentino Garavini, his 47-year relationship with his romantic and business partner Giancarlo Giammetti, and how the craft of making clothes becomes an art. In 2007, Valentino staged his final runway show, moving it to Rome from Paris, and announced his retirement after dominating his profession for 45 years. A few years earlier, Giammetti had shrewdly sold a controlling interest in their company to an Italian conglomerate for over one billion dollars, and later sold off the remaining shares. Their uneasy relationship with the new corporate boss, the stunningly handsome Matteo Marzotto, is a taut thread that runs throughout the film.
The handsome, boyish Valentino and the good-looking, compact Giammetti met in 1962 at a cafe on Rome's Via Veneto during the notorious La Dolce Vita era. They began as lovers, and after Valentino's first company went bankrupt, Giammetti, who had studied architecture, started managing the business. They surrounded themselves with a staff of friends and family who shared the designer's passion to satisfy a woman's most basic desire: to be beautiful. One hundred seamstresses hand-sewed Valentino's dresses, including some that required thousands of sequins. The head seamstress, Antonietta, is as demanding of her staff as she is of herself – and as Valentino is of her.
Women wanted to wear Valentino's dresses, and paid dearly for the privilege. His clients included Jacqueline Kennedy (he created the gown she wore for her wedding to Aristotle Onassis), Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline de Ribes, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Meryl Streep, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Julia Roberts. His attention to detail is staggering. For a glorious chiffon gown, he instructs the seamstresses to sew a strip of fabric with sequins after every fourth pleat, and to make sure the total number of pleats is 24.
Valentino and Giammetti, together for almost every day since meeting, live an unimaginably opulent life. Their 17th-century chateau outside Paris is luxurious, as is their Roman townhouse, and their huge yacht. Guests range from a badly dressed Elton John to European royalty. The men are no longer lovers, but their devotion to each other is palpable. They bicker like many old marrie
The documentary's high point is his final show, staged in Rome's Ara Pacis Museum. Gowns from his entire career are draped on mannequins and mounted along the walls of the contemporary building. Karl Lagerfeld pays homage, as does the elegant Hubert de Givenchy. The coarse Donatella Versace looks on admiringly. A huge party with a dazzling guest list is held at the Temple of Venus. A fashion writer comments that Valentino, Yves St. Laurent, and Lagerfeld, who apprenticed in Paris in the 1950s, were taught by Givenchy, Christian Dior, and Pierre Balmain, themselves heirs to Cristobal Balenciaga, Elsa Schiaparelli and Paul Poiret. She notes, sadly, that they have no successors. It's the end of an art.
The most touching moment, however, shows Valentino accepting the Chevalier of Honor Award from the French government. Usually guarded, he tearfully acknowledges the many people who made his success possible – and saves his most tender, most emotional words for Giancarlo, who, typically, is in the background. He, too, struggles for composure. The men have provided for their former employees and, among other acts of generosity, established a foundation for children born with AIDS, to which Taylor made a generous donation.
Alas, Valentino's brilliant eye, which unerringly knew the difference between excess and elegance, failed when applied to himself. Too much cosmetic surgery has marred his good looks. His once dark hair is now an odd bronze color. The suit jacket he wore to receive his award is unflatteringly tight, a flaw he would never tolerate on his models. Giammetti, on the other hand, remains trim and exceptionally attractive, his handsome face framed by glorious silver hair.
Tyrnauer compares Valentino to the last emperor of China, but that's misleading. Pu Yi was born royal. Valentino's extraordinary life is akin to a 17th-century Italian's, Giulio Raimondo Mazarini, who, despite his humble background, became a trusted adviser to Cardinal Richeleu and later to Anne of Austria and her son, Louis XIV. As Cardinal Mazarin, his passion for art was unequaled and became the basis for the collections now in the Louvre. Mazarin would have understood – and approved of – Valentino's ambition and obsession with beauty. Opens Friday.