By  on June 27, 2007

When asked to list the strengths and weaknesses of Giancarlo Giammetti, his longtime business partner and former companion, Valentino takes a deep breath, followed by a long pause. "He looks tough, but he's sweet and good. He's a workaholic and, I need to stress this, he has allowed me to always work in a box lined with cotton wool. Giammetti has always taken any financial burden off my shoulders."

His one fault? "People can convince him easily on important matters, but if someone close to him advises him differently, he changes his mind, and that's not good."

Maybe Giammetti is occasionally malleable, but he's also a determined man whose knack for facts, figures and balance sheets has allowed Valentino to only think about fashion. Witty, savvy and full of Roman charm, the two have facing offices, share a love of pugs and even dress similarly. And, in terms of company vision, it's two souls, one heart.

"I've never had identity issues. I never looked for glory because that belonged to Valentino," said Giammetti in his Rome offices. "But he's always listened to me, and we've always shared everything. So this, for me, is our anniversary, and people know that."

Here, Giammetti reflects on four decades and more of living in Valentino's world.

WWD: Meryl Streep, Caroline of Monaco, Kate Winslet, Scarlett Johansson, Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece and Gwyneth Paltrow are all expected to attend the celebration in July. It's been a while since Rome witnessed an event this big.

Giancarlo Giammetti: When we do things, we do them well. This is an extraordinary moment for Valentino and I think this shows people's love and respect for him, even on Rome's behalf. Someone recently told me that we're the only example of people who have continued to work hard regardless of the sales. Maybe it's because our contracts are very protective of us because we sold to grow, not out of need. So I had room to negotiate and didn't feel obliged to accept their conditions, but made them accept ours.

WWD: What accomplishment are you most proud of?G.G.: My vision of ad campaigns in the late Sixties, when I created what I call the first 'groupage.' Before then, textile mills invested in ads usually by pulling a designer runway shot with their [logo] beneath.

So I asked the mills to give us the money, and we organized a 14-page spread by Gian Paolo Barbieri. We bought tons of semolina flour to re-create dunes because Valentino's collection was inspired by North Africa and Arabia. The sky was lit to change color and the model was Mirella Petteni. It was hilarious.

The year after, Mila Schön did the same thing and later even, Versace. It changed the whole outlook of magazines, too.

WWD: What are your memories of the early stages?

G.G.: We had so much fun — we were young and fearless. We could invent what we wanted because there was nothing in fashion. In 1963, a tall and elegant buyer from Bloomingdale's came to us and ordered 60 coats. We were ecstatic until Consuelo Crespi, a friend and Vogue contributor, came in a tizzy to tell us they were being sold in [the department store's] basement. I asked what the basement was and she exclaimed, "It's where they sell home detergents."

We learned our lesson, but continued to work with them, the way we did with Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman. Those were the pre-ready-to-wear years, when we used to design lines for these department stores.

WWD: Who was more of a party animal, you or Valentino?

G.G.: Me. Valentino never did weird stuff, he doesn't even know what a joint looks like, even during the Studio 54 years. But we had lots of fun. We both loved to go out, to watch people and to learn from others with no financial restrictions. We always self-financed both our personal needs and the company.

WWD: How did you divide your roles in the beginning?

G.G.: Well, it was never "you do that and I'll do this," because I had no experience or know-how. I come from a bourgeois family, but had no idea how to plan, so I started inventing and, gradually, Valentino moved away from the things he didn't like. Our roles divided naturally.Today it's different because young people are more prepared, they study more and competition is fierce.

WWD: How pivotal were you in the HdP spin-off?

G.G.: Very, even though it wasn't easy. We sold to one of Italy's greatest groups and sat through meetings with Gianni Agnelli and Cesare Romiti. It was amazing to see all these industrialist board members who wanted a slice of luxury. They didn't really care about fashion and, little by little, they became disenchanted.

But, thank the Lord, we had our contracts and no one could touch Valentino, so the collections carried on but never developed.

WWD: And with Marzotto and now Permira?

G.G.: Marzotto is a different story, but I can't say too much, save that we kept our contracts. Clearly, though, they weren't forward thinkers. But they didn't cut the budgets, so we had free rein when it came to spending on jewelry, fabrics, photographers, embroidery and furs. No one has the right to say, "Excuse me, you spent too much money on a shoe." I knew I had to keep Valentino at the top, so sometimes they were going behind our backs.

Permira's acquisition, instead, strengthened the brand because of all the photos published with the news. Ninety-nine were of Valentino or of one of his dresses. He's the face behind the brand.

We are much bigger than our business, and people talk about us the way they talk about competitors that have many more millions to invest and many more stores.

WWD: Where is Valentino's growth potential?

G.G.: I think we could do more sportswear and more daywear. We're known for clothes more than accessories. We're not Gucci or Hermès.

Actually, even accessories houses that have pushed apparel, such as Gucci and Prada, still have a small clothing business. I think big fashion houses should stick to clothes.

Couture for us is still important, especially in Hollywood. Actually, I call it "nouvelle couture," because actresses and celebrities want everything immediately regardless of the fact that certain embroidery takes months to do. But it's all great publicity."

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