By  on June 27, 2007

"Valentino, live a hundred years!" gushed Jackie Kennedy to one of her favorite couturiers during fittings at the St. Regis-Sheraton Hotel in New York in 1966.

He's not there yet, but at 75, the trim and tan Valentino is still going strong, especially as he gears up to celebrate the 45th anniversary of his house with a three-day bash in Rome, July 6 to 8.

Seated on a gilded wooden armchair in his sumptuous Louis XIV office overlooking Piazza Mignanelli in Rome near the Spanish Steps, Valentino recalled the changes he witnessed from these windows over the last four decades.

"Everything has changed, fashion is much more industrialized. Today, from this window, I see people that dress however they want, they mix and match and can find a nice top for 50 euros," mused the designer, clad in a beige Caraceni suit and a crisp, pale blue shirt.

Another sign of the times, he said, is the more money-less taste equation. "The number of millionaires in their 30s is frightening, but very often they don't even have good table manners. It's a shame."

But Valentino's gallantry and sense of fair play hold him back from making nasty comments about Rome's herds of poorly dressed tourists or the general sloppiness that prevails.

"I'm a Taurus, hence, hard-headed, and I have gone through these 45 years with the image of a beautiful woman in mind," he said. "Maybe that's because beautiful women were part of my career from the beginning. I got used to them."

Dubbed "The Chic" by WWD early in his career, Valentino is and will always be a couturier at heart. A self-admitted control freak and a devil over details, he is wistful for the days of a perfectly done-up Duchess of Windsor visiting Jean Dessès' Paris atelier; obsessed with impeccably laid tables, and detests disrespecting a dress code.

Since his start in 1962, he has continued to believe in flawlessly executed clothes, a dose of refined glitz, exquisite fabrics and feminine shapes. Never stuck in a time warp, the designer adapts his silhouettes with a nip here, a hike there, a longer sleeve or a brighter color."Valentino gives women a certain femininity that no one else does. His style has always been coherent, which isn't that easy," said Sara Piccolo Paci, who teaches costume history at Florence's Polimoda, a fashion school.

It is a vision he's had since childhood. Born in Voghera, Italy, Valentino at age 17 convinced his parents to let him move to Paris, where he took drawing lessons at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in 1950. (Still an avid sketcher, he has created 500 drawings since January.) He remained in Paris, cutting his teeth chez Jean Dessès and Guy Laroche, and now considers the city a second home.

"My parents were very courageous to let a boy go to France. It's like today, if your child asked to go to Shanghai."

At the end of the Fifties, Valentino returned to Rome and, in 1962, presented his first couture collection at Palazzo Pitti, in Florence. Retailers described it as a "triumph." It would be the first taste of the critical and commercial acclaim that have showered his career.

Because of his intense focus, though, he is perhaps his own worst critic. "I have many faults, but I can still judge my collections. The day they aren't good anymore, I'll quit," Valentino said bluntly.

That event doesn't appear to be coming any time soon, though. The designer and his business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, have repeatedly denied waves of speculation that the upcoming festivities in Rome will mark the end of his career. The talk was fueled most recently by the purchase of a majority stake in Valentino Fashion Group by Italian investment fund Permira. But Valentino reiterated he is "not thinking of retirement...I love my work too much. There's still a lot to do."

It is this focus that has allowed Valentino to weather fashion's cycles and develop a broad perspective over the last five decades.

"Fashion is an accordion — back and forth, up and down — you have to have your head firmly on your shoulders and remember who your customer is, instead of wasting your time trying to design foolish things to catch the attention of the press," he said in 1989.That drive has propelled him throughout the decades, some of which he applauds (the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies) and others he judges off-key, like the Eighties and, later, grunge and minimalism.

The halcyon days were surely the Sixties. In 1966, Jacqueline Kennedy, Babe Paley, Jacqueline de Ribes, Marella Agnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth and Audrey Hepburn ordered up a storm of the maestro's chic ensembles. But if there was one woman who held a special place in his heart, it was Kennedy. In 1968, he delivered an all-white collection and garnered endless media coverage when he designed her ivory silk georgette dress for her wedding to Aristotle Onassis.

During that time, when Valentino, his entourage and their heaps of luggage landed in the Big Apple, the first people the designer would call were Kennedy and Diana Vreeland, another of his favorite style icons.

Valentino recalled the time he and Kennedy lunched together in New York at Quo Vadis, harassed by a flurry of shutterbugs. "The next morning our photos were everywhere. I was desperate because I didn't want her to think I had orchestrated our outing for the paparazzi," said Valentino. "She sweetly responded to stop worrying, because she was more than happy to be photographed with me."

Rather than stealing the spotlight in his front row, the former first lady preferred tea in the atelier where, in between long chats and looking over the collection, the two munched on cookies and sandwiches.

In her final years, though, when she became ill, the two regularly spoke by phone until her death in 1994. "I was devastated. There are some people that are part of your life, that you have loved and esteemed and that it seems impossible that they're not here anymore, a bit like Gianni Agnelli, too," said Valentino.

The late Sixties was when Valentino's reputation took off in America. With actor's sideburns, a perennial tan and macro sunglasses, he was his own best fashion advertisement. In 1967, he received the prestigious Neiman Marcus Award. Three years later, he launched his first ready-to-wear collection.

He adored the Seventies, which he calls fun and carefree with its long skirts, full volumes and the hippie style of its "filles des fleurs." In 1975, he showed his first rtw collection in Paris and the year after, Vogue dubbed him "the idol of the young, a new symbol of modern luxury."In July 1977, Valentino blazed a new suit trail by introducing the blouson jacket, only to switch gears a year later with pencil-thin dresses. John Schumacher, chairman of Bonwit Teller, flew in to attend the show and declared the blouson "fabulous and very trendsetting. It will have a big influence."

But Valentino loathes what fashion became in the Eighties. "I never liked those enormous shoulders, horrible puffy hair, heavy makeup. We all put our ideas in those clothes, but the proportions were terrible," said the designer, who was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1988 and was granted the higher honor of Chevalier last July.

When grunge and minimalism kicked in, he didn't even attempt to be part of it, describing those movements as "an offense to women."

"All those pale-faced women dressed in black that looked like nuns, with their booties and shapeless clothes. It was terrible," he contended.

As for today, Valentino's style seems more ubiquitous than ever — from the ladies who still adore him to a younger generation of actresses who don his clothes on the red carpet. If each era has its style icons, Valentino certainly knows who today's are. He rattles off a list including Gwyneth Paltrow, Sandra Bullock, Scarlett Johansson — comparing her to a "little Lana Turner" — and Keira Knightley. Above all, though, he is mesmerized by Meryl Streep.

"She is an extraordinary woman and, to me, the greatest actress in the world — and the only living one who has had 14 [Oscar] nominations," he marveled.

So it was with feverish excitement that Valentino accepted a cameo in the movie "The Devil Wears Prada."

"She told me they were filming and that they needed a designer's backstage. It was easy to do, so it happened," he laughed.

Such coddling of friends and clients has been a hallmark throughout his career, as has a firm belief in his style and designs. "I believe in me and in what I did," he said.

But Valentino stressed that he's never taken things for granted. "Regardless of all the good things that have happened to me," he said, "my beautiful homes and my success, I continue to thank the Lord because everything has been a very special gift."

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