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A New-Fashioned Valentino

NEW YORK — For all the whirlwind appearances of Valentino Garavani’s career in the past year — selling his company to Marzotto, opening new stores, a watch license, dressing Jennifer Lopez for her second wedding, and maybe her third,...

NEW YORK — For all the whirlwind appearances of Valentino Garavani’s career in the past year — selling his company to Marzotto, opening new stores, a watch license, dressing Jennifer Lopez for her second wedding, and maybe her third, even showing up as a character in Joan Collins’ new novel — staying relevant to the whims of fashion after 43 years in business has had a calming affect on the designer.

This story first appeared in the December 4, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Since Marzotto acquired Valentino from HdP at the end of March, the designer and his business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, feel they now have a partner that understands and respects the nuances of a designer business, resulting in markedly improved working conditions for the duo.

“I feel very comfortable,” Valentino said during a casual tour of appearances in New York last month. “They let me do what I want and they let me work peacefully, which is very important. When I am designing my collections, I don’t want to be disturbed for anything.”

In a season that included stellar spring collections throughout Paris, Valentino stood up to the competition and has sold 26 percent ahead of plan for the season, Giammetti said. Valentino also has a new management structure that, as reported, is quickly taking steps to build the brand into a profitable venture. In August, Michele Norsa, managing director and chief executive officer of Valentino and president and ceo of parent company Marzotto Apparel, said the company, with sales of $115 million in 2001, is in the midst of renegotiating and signing new licenses, bringing in a younger customer by developing a new sportswear collection, rebuilding Valentino’s men’s wear business, forging an Asian joint venture, expanding accessories and the haute couture operations and opening new flagship boutiques in the U.S., Asia and Europe.

Valentino and Giammetti said they expect to renew their contracts with Marzotto next year and brushed aside reports that the costs of private jets and lavish residences had caused some contentious negotiations.

In the wake of charges of tax evasion against Roberto Cavalli for expenses to restore his Tuscan villa, the Italians have become obsessed with the financial details of the designer lifestyle — but that’s not all that different from the corporate accounting scandals of the U.S.

“In Italy, the reaction would be much less dramatic than it is in this country,” Giammetti said. “We’ve become used to scandals in Italy. America still seems to be very puritanical about it. In Italy, there would be a big scandal, but people would be less affected by it.”

Anyway, given the wild and colorful fashion fantasies that were recently presented in Paris, perhaps extravagance is in, or soon will be. Wearing a charcoal double-breasted suit and windowpane tie from the nearby Ralph Lauren store on Madison Avenue, Valentino appeared to be a somewhat conservative foil to the exploding bouquets of lilies and orchids and paintings of more flowers that decorate his apartment, overlooking the vibrant fall foliage of Central Park.

“I love soft things,” Valentino said. “My eye is moving toward nicer things now.” Pointing to a green painting from Andy Warhol’s “Flowers” series, Valentino said he is looking to acquire another one in yellow.

Valentino, who redecorates regularly according to his interests, theorized that fashion designers in general are striving to create more beautiful things right now. He attributed this partly to the nostalgic trend of mining the depths of vintage clothes, which has exposed a young generation of customers to an ideal of dressing up that they might not have previously appreciated.

“I feel at this moment that design is very, very strong,” he said. “The youngest designers are going back again and again to beauty. They really want to make beautiful dresses. But I’ve seen it already. For me, it’s what is new, new, new. You have this mixture that is maybe what the magazines and journalists want to see today, but — entre parenthèses — I belong with designers who love to create dresses that will be worn. I love beautiful things, but to design clothes that will just stay on a rack, I would not be happy with that. In this world of fashion, which is so crazy, you need people like me and Karl [Lagerfeld]. You need old-school people like us who can act in the new world.”

Looking at the collections of some of the young designers who have quickly grown in prominence, Valentino, who trained under Jean Dessès and Guy Laroche before starting his fashion house in his late 20s, questioned whether the training of today’s generation will merit an ultimate success. “We call it a fire success,” he said. “Like every single job, you need to have experience. You see so many collections that have no sense to exist.

“Sometimes, when I am alone, I think, ‘Why are you doing this after so many years?’” Valentino said. “But I love it and I still have the same enthusiasm. In my opinion, you cannot be a designer with lots of creativity if you are not really concerned with what you are doing. You can send lots of assistants around to vintage shows and flea markets and bring things back, but I do not like this way of designing by grabbing. When I design, my assistants sit in front me and we talk about what I would like to see. For example, I say I would like to see books about Nepal and embroidery. It is a very big conversation with my assistants. They take lots of notes and afterward, I start to draw.”

While Valentino is critical of some elements of the direction fashion is taking, he also has adapted to modern principles, both from the vantage of style and business. He and Giammetti have eliminated a broad series of licenses from a peak of about 31 to a handful of partnerships based upon mutual interests, such as perfume and eyewear. The most recent addition was for watches with Sector, controlled by the Bulgari-backed investment fund Opera, while a less-expensive sportswear collection could be launched in about a year. The company is also focused on its directly owned retail operations, having added a store in Las Vegas last month, which will be followed by a Madrid location in the near term, Giammetti said.

Valentino and Giammetti said the new partnership with Marzotto has afforded them an opportunity to spend slightly less time focusing on the state of their business and more on hobbies like art collecting and gardening. Their schedule in New York included hosting the opening of a high-end accessories store, VBH, founded by their longtime associate Bruce Hoeksema and a luncheon for important clients at Bergdorf Goodman. Incidentally, Hoeksema’s renovation of a massive Upper East Side bank, with architecture star Peter Marino’s help, has also raised some eyebrows for its sheer extravagance and scale, given the timing. For the record, Valentino and Giammetti denied having a hand in helping set Hoeksema up, while Hoeksema professes the V in the store name is one of his own initials, although he wouldn’t disclose his first name. (“His shop is a very unique way of presenting accessories,” Giammetti said. “It’s an amazing project. I just hope in this market, he will be as successful as he deserves.”)

At the Bergdorf’s lunch, held at Goodman’s Cafe, an exclusive gathering of Valentino’s best customers along with some of his closest friends were on hand to fete the designer and sample tuna over white beans and grilled escarole. Surveying the finely laid tables and elegant guests, which included young socialites, such as Marisa Noel, Ashley McDermott and Jill Roosevelt, and Vanity Fair scribe Amy Fine Collins, the designer talked about how he hadn’t done personal appearances at stores for such a long time and how fortifying it was to see customers’ reactions. “I’m very proud to see how enthusiastic the ladies are for my clothes and also that these beautiful young girls are interested in my things as well.”

But Valentino said any impression that he is a creature of high society is mistaken.

“I hate social life,” he said. “I love life, friends and communication, but more and more, I love to stay in my homes or in somebody else’s houses. I am not so crazy for big events. I never was, except maybe in the Seventies, when life was very different. I don’t want to seem blasé either, because what I love is being a creator of clothes that people wear. I am very happy to see Madonna chose my black coat to be introduced to the Queen and that Gwyneth Paltrow wears my things. This makes me very proud that, after so many decades, to have the interest of so many people, movie stars and society girls. This is my gratification.”

And what of J.Lo’s impending nuptials and the efforts to create her next dress?

“Oh, she looked like a princess last time,” Valentino shrugged. “Maybe this time she wants something more simple than mine. But if she wants something, I’m there.”