By  on January 24, 2008

Tout Paris caught the wave as Valentino bid an emotional farewell to a stellar haute couture career that began 45 years ago in his native Italy. His spring collection of 75 looks, shown to 900 guests, addressed the past and present in a masterful melding of the two. Styles ranged from simple suits and jackets in vibrant colors to romantic evening looks and a finale of silk column dresses in, naturally, his signature red.

Valentino: No airborne trapeze artists swinging by, no Annie Lennox tickling the ivories, no mega retrospective exhibition (at least not until June at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs). Rather, on Wednesday evening, Valentino said goodbye to fashion with relative discretion at a stellar show at the Musée Rodin. "We are very serene, very happy," he had said on Monday. And, indeed, when he took that last walk down the runway after a 45-year run at fashion's highest reaches, he maintained his composure as his audience jumped to its collective feet in wild appreciation.

And why not? Valentino wants not for friends, domiciles, nor holiday haunts, and is surely off to a wonderful next phase, which he said might include designing for the theater or ballet. But for now, his signature runway wave signaled the end of an era, one during which he played devotedly to ladies who appreciate grace, grandeur and their share of well-placed pizzazz. In recent years, he expanded the ranks of those regulars to include younger types such as Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu.

They, along with Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann, Emanuel and Laura Ungaro and Alber Elbaz, were among the 900 guests who settled in for a terrific collection, one that spoke at once to Valentino's past and his currency. The opening was spectacular, starting with the first look out — Natalia Vodianova in a loose pink tunic and gleeful floral skirt, topped off with a big retro bow of a chapeau. But what followed was anything but old-fashioned — beautiful coats, suits and jackets in mostly unadorned, pastel double-face wool and crepe. A big smart yellow coat here, a lean melon suit there. Of course, plain has its limits, especially in Valentino's world, and before long he gave in to his decorative impulses, with motifs ranging from the relative discretion of precision fringe on a white ensemble to the vibrancy of allover chinoiserie embroidery — and that was just by day.Evening meant bountiful expressions of all-out glamour — romantic chiffons, chic crepes, indulgent spills of beading, embroideries and frills — something for all of Val's gals and then some. The only thing missing was a spot of Valentino red. That is, until the finale, when all of his models came out in identical simple red silk columns — a perfect expression of timeless elegance.

Backstage after the show, the mood was chaotic but ebullient. Seamstresses smiled through their tears, and Giancarlo Giammetti sipped a flute of Champagne through his television interviews. "He's happy," he repeatedly assured interviewers about the retiring couturier, who braved a wall of cameras to embrace his well-wishers. "He has such an incredible style and sense of playfulness," said Liu. "What impresses me more than anything is his love for life."

VAL'S CROWD: "I'm absolutely thrilled to be here," Uma Thurman declared as she arrived at Valentino's farewell show Wednesday night in Paris. And the paparazzi were equally excited by her presence, given last-minute cancellations by the other expected stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, Liv Tyler and Elizabeth Hurley.

"He will be sorely, sorely missed," said Thurman, who is taking a break from the silver screen. "I'm just enjoying my vacation."

"I feel like it's an amazing part of history being here," said "Cashmere Mafia" star Lucy Liu, noting she's also embarking on a field trip for UNICEF.

And so did gaggles of royals, socialites and designers, from Empress Farah Pahlavi and Rosario of Bulgaria to Miuccia Prada, Emanuel Ungaro and Alber Elbaz. "It's an emotional moment. He represented a style that was very lively and glamorous," said Ungaro. Elbaz lauded "the know-how, the glamour" of the acclaimed Roman couturier. "It's really the end of an era."

The show boasted almost as many models in the front row as on the catwalk. Eva Herzigova, who is plotting a film based on her life, said her directorial debut is on hold because motherhood has taken over "everything."

"I've got some modeling work back on, too, because the old girls are back," she said, referring to the comeback of supermodels.But Nadja Auermann is dancing to a different tune, now focusing on a music career. "I've been writing songs and have done a few very private concerts. I'm looking for a band and to go public in the near future."

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