A double width of red silk almost as emblematic of Valentino as the man himself is unfurled across a table in the designer's hushed atelier, attended to by a half-dozen women in white lab coats, setting out to realize another handmade high-fashion creation, one stitch at a time.
Although he's now a pillar of Rome, Valentino Garavani was hardly greeted as a hometown hero in 1959, when he decamped from Jean Dessès in Paris and set up his own couture house on the Via Condotti.
"At the time, the Roman aristocracy were all shocked and quite snobbish, looking at this very young designer showing extravagant cuts with a very French allure," said Valentino's business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti. "I don't think sales were great afterward."
But it wasn't long before Valentino's blend of elegance and sexiness began attracting a steady stream of nobles, royals and Hollywood stars, including Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren.
"I loved the Fifties and the Sixties, when women went to dressmakers and the wealthy ones only wore haute couture," Valentino reminisced. "Women didn't work like they do today, so all they thought about was their makeup, coifs and clothes. I would spend my entire day doing fittings on the third floor [of the Piazza Mignanelli palazzo] and watch these incredible women. They talked to me, asked advice. It was a great period."
The advent of ready-to-wear in the early Seventies opened up the Valentino brand to a much wider audience, but couture has remained a vital ingredient in the company's success and the pinnacle of the designer's creative expression.
"For Valentino, it's his most important activity," Giammetti said, drawing on a long, thin cigarette in his palatial office. "For the house, it gives that prestige that allows you to do other lines and still stay very high in the niche of luxury. Coming from the couture is an enormous asset. And now there's couture for the red carpet. It doesn't bring money or real sales, but it brings a lot of exposure and it's something we put a lot of effort into."
Valentino noted couture is now demanded by all the Hollywood actresses, and interest in his show has spiraled."I'm lucky because I still sell a lot, but it's not like years ago when I would show 190 exits — today 40 suffice," the designer said. "In the Eighties, with all the flashy parties, couture did well. I remember that some clients would order 28 to 30 exits; today it's already a lot if they order four."
Valentino currently employs some 90 workers in its ateliers, most of them based at Piazza Mignanelli, realizing about 160 pieces per year. Despite prices that can top $130,000 for an evening dress and $50,000 for a suit, the couture house itself loses money, according to Giammetti. "Although not an enormous amount," he hastened to add.
Yet with increased wealth emerging around the globe, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Valentino is flush with new clients, and big ones at that. "I really believe that in the future we can really increase enormously thanks to all this new wealth," Giammetti said.
Today, Valentino representatives and seamstresses pay house calls to important clients in such places as Dubai, Jordan, Argentina, Russia and India, said Giammetti, estimating Middle Eastern clients now account for some 60 percent of business.
Observing couture's strict code of client confidentiality, Giammetti declined to give names, but said one of Valentino's newer clients orders between 25 and 30 dresses a season. "She is already a good percentage of our production," he noted. "There's a queen who orders about the same."
Gabriella Battiti, the house's couture director since 1967, said demand has spiked for elaborately embroidered dresses. In some cases, the clients provide diamonds and other precious stones to sew onto the clothes.
"The dresses almost become jewelry, really," marveled Battiti, the V logos on the temples of her eyeglasses glinting from the midday sun pouring through the windows.
Ensuring such valuable bling is attached to the right panels on a custom dress can be nerve-wracking, but Battiti said Valentino's seamstresses, some of whom have been with him for decades, are up to the task.
Typically, wedding dresses are the most elaborate couture undertaking, and Battiti said the work will often spread to three or four of the giant tables in the all-white workrooms peopled with mannequins built for such clients as Anna Wintour and Oprah Winfrey. "Often, the veil is more difficult than the dress," she noted.Indeed, for the 1995 wedding of Marie-Chantal Miller to Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece, the house toiled for two months to realize a tulle headdress trailing an endless veil embroidered with appliquéd lace flowers and butterflies.
Countless famous women have chosen Valentino couture for their most important occasions, and not always happy ones. Empress Farah Pahlavi, who welcomed Valentino in Tehran in the early Seventies and wore his designs on numerous official and social occasions, also turned to his talents on Jan. 16, 1979, when she accompanied her husband, the Shah of Iran, into exile, dressed in a Valentino coat and matching hat.
"All my Iranian dresses I left in Iran because I felt they belonged to Iran," she said. "It was such a terrible day, but still, I wanted to look elegant and hold my head up high."
Pahlavi said she admires Valentino "because he followed his dream. Everything he touches has taste and elegance, from the beautiful dresses he makes to his homes and gardens. When he receives people, the setting is always perfect. He is a person of a lot of kindness."
Couture has long been a moveable feast at Valentino. The early shows were held in its couture salons in Rome, featuring famous French models like Lucky and Jacqui, Giammetti recalled. But in 1962, fearing Rome was losing its luster as a capital, Valentino decamped to Florence, which was then becoming an important fashion center. As a newcomer, Valentino was given the last time slot on the last day.
"At the time, it didn't sound very good," Giammetti said. "But everyone stayed, all the big buyers from I. Magnin, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale's. We sold 100 dresses, which was really a huge amount. That's the moment Valentino became super important."
The house continued to show in Florence for four more years, ultimately returning to Rome, where a Valentino couture show was among the most important events in the city's cultural life, attended by the likes of filmmaker Luchino Visconti.
Valentino also liked to experiment with different ways of showing, and in 1968, added music into the mix. It was a charity show at the Savoy in London at the invitation of Princess Margaret. "I remember the girls had to dance on the runway and at one point, the music got stuck," Giammetti recalled with a chuckle. "It was a mess."Georgina Brandolini, who worked with Valentino from 1975 to 1995, recalled one open-air show on Rome's famous Spanish Steps. "It was great fun," she said.
For more than 15 years, Valentino also operated a couture atelier in Milan, employing some 50 people, to satisfy a strong clientele there. And from the early days, Valentino dispatched his couture collection to various points on the globe to capture far-flung clients. Landmark American retailer Martha Phillips would bring it over every six months to show her clients in New York and Palm Beach, Fla., at a time when Valentino faithfuls included the likes of Babe Paley, Princess Grace and the Duchess of Windsor. In 1968, the designer became a household name in America, when Jacqueline Kennedy wore a lace Valentino dress for her wedding to Aristotle Onassis.
But the designer's biggest rite of passage came in 1989 when he joined couture week in Paris as an invited member. "The reaction to couture was immediately good," Brandolini said. "Of course, Valentino's couture is exceptional."
Such success can make it difficult to select the highlights of 45 years of creation. "Fashion is so much about projecting the future. We have to move on. We have no time to look back," Giammetti mused. "For us, it's more important what will happen next season than two seasons ago."
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