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Roman Holiday

Mamma mia! With fireworks, aerial acrobats, a surprise Annie Lennox concert and enough bold-faced names to rival those of awards season, Valentino threw himself an anniversary party over the weekend that was almost as grand and impressive as the...

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ROME — Mamma mia! With fireworks, aerial acrobats, a surprise Annie Lennox concert and enough bold-faced names to rival those of awards season, Valentino threw himself an anniversary party over the weekend that was almost as grand and impressive as the Colosseum. The festivities, rumored to cost upward of $10 million, were not the swan song some were expecting. Far from it. On Sunday, sources indicated that the designer is zeroing in on a new three-year contract with the private equity fund Permira, the Italian firm’s new owner.

“Maybe,” Valentino’s business partner Giancarlo Giammetti demurred with a smile when asked if the designer had reached a deal.

Given the ovations and accolades the designer received over the weekend, it would appear that his global fan club is not ready to see the Roman couturier hang up his scissors.

“It’s amazing. I love that green one,” Eva Mendes cooed Friday as she surveyed the dozens of couture dresses arranged in alluring groups at the sun-filled Ara Pacis Museum, where a Valentino retrospective was held. (See related story, page 7.) The society fashions should put Mendes in the right frame of mind for her next role: She soon starts rehearsals for a remake of “The Women,” Clare Boothe Luce’s wicked comedy of manners.

The retrospective, showcasing 45 years of design, began three days of festivities flanking Valentino’s fall couture show and capped off a couture collections season chockablock with milestones, including Christian Lacroix’s 20th anniversary and Christian Dior’s 60th. Throughout the weekend, crowds of locals gathered in front of barricades to catch the arrival of Hollywood stars, models, royals and jet-setters, including the Empress Farah Pahlavi, Betty Lagardère, Princess Marie Chantal of Greece, Rosario of Bulgaria and Princess Caroline of Monaco with her children and their glamorously rowdy entourage in tow.

At the apex of the Friday night event that began the weekend’s festivities, Valentino plunged through thick crowds that rivaled those at the Vatican during tourist season to greet Karl Lagerfeld, one of scores of designers who came to salute Rome’s most famous couturier. Also descending on the city were Giorgio Armani, Donatella Versace, Diane von Furstenberg, Carolina Herrera, Christian Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik, Zac Posen and Philip Treacy, who led a standing ovation on Saturday beside a runway that spanned almost 400 feet.

Lagerfeld said his friendship with Valentino stretches back 52 years — no small achievement in a cutthroat, ego-driven industry. “He’s always been sweet to me,” Lagerfeld said, turning to embrace Elizabeth Hurley.

“Wow, this is like a reunion,” Elle Macpherson quipped as she encountered Tom Ford, who arrived at Friday’s party in a van packed with glamorous women in long gowns.

Photographer Astrid Muñoz, who plans to shoot Natalia Vodianova for an upcoming feature in Russian Vogue, confessed that Valentino’s designs were “one of the reasons I became a model.” Not that she was itching to resume her runway career. “I prefer to sit,” she said. “I leave that to the 15-year-olds.”

At a press conference on Friday, Valentino was emotional about the return to his hometown, especially since Mayor Walter Veltroni gave him unprecedented access to ancient historic sites, including the Temple of Venus and the Parco dei Daini within the Villa Borghese estate, site of Saturday’s black-tie gala. Sets for both dinners were created by Oscar-winning set designer Dante Ferretti. “Coming back to Rome is a great glory for me,” Valentino said. “Also, I wanted to show the beauty of the city.”

Guests took his advice to heart. Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy were busy taking in the ruins at the Forum and the Bernini statues at the Villa Borghese. “And stuffing our faces,” Dancy said.

“Good food,” agreed Maggie Chung, who said she’s focusing on modeling these days, doing ads for skin care, cars, banks and Chinese fashion brands.

Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband, Matthew Broderick, had a private tour of the Vatican Museums. Parker had to exit early for hair and makeup, leaving hubby behind to take in the endless rooms of art. “Even the tour guide admitted it’s too much,” Broderick said jokingly.

Not so with the retrospective, where Valentino told Parker she “could pick anything she liked” from the myriad of vintage dresses.

On Saturday, guests encountered another spectacular venue for the couture show: a restructured medieval building, the Complesso Monumentale of Santo Spirito in Sassia, its towering walls lined with a vast photo retrospective of black-and-white advertising and editorial images. Clearly Valentino wanted his collection to stand up to the rest of the festivities. After spring’s pared-down, all-white palette cleanser, he sent out a lineup as explosive as the fireworks the night before. By day, he worked the demonstrative side of lady dressing, putting pizzazz into sculpted, tailored looks delivered with plenty of grande-dame attitude. Evening was about one primary destination: the red carpet. Valentino knows his Hollywood girls love to work their curves, or lack thereof, in gorgeously lean, sexy gowns. He offered them plenty, done up with enough bows, beads, feathers and jewels to please any glorious goddess of the night. And if one or two frocks bordered on excess — well, was anyone expecting minimalism to crash this Roman holiday?

Afterward, Armani and Valentino had tears in their eyes backstage as Armani recalled attending an early Valentino couture show in Rome during the Seventies.

“I was young and came with [Nino] Cerruti,” Armani said. “I stood in the back. Now, I was invited to sit in the front row. It’s very gratifying.”

Versace revealed that the first people she saw and spoke to following her brother’s death, which was 10 years ago this month, were Valentino and Giammetti. “I was in Rome, and they met me at the airport,” she said before the show. “Valentino is a stupendous person, and Giancarlo is a very dear friend. It’s very emotional to be here today.”

Later, some 950 guests, including Mick Jagger, who was fresh from a sold-out concert in Rome the previous night, ogled Caravaggios, Canovas and breathtaking frescos at the Villa Borghese before filing through the gardens into a vast, Chinese-themed dining room built especially for the evening, complete with a tufted ceiling and decorative palms. Following a lavish dinner of avocado mousseline, lime-spiked fish and handmade semifreddo for dessert, Uma Thurman made a beeline for the dance floor, after changing into flats, while Sienna Miller grooved between the tables with Mario Testino. Even the Countess Jacqueline de Ribes got jiggy with it to Kool and the Gang.

“I love Valentino’s clothes,” Thurman said. “It’s a privilege to

wear them.”

Indeed. Joan Collins, who was wearing Valentino red, expressed hopes her new skin care line would generate enough profits for her “to be able to buy a few” of his fall couture looks. “There were so many beautiful dresses,” she said. “The whole weekend has been just amazing, the show, the dinner, everything.”

Given his reputation for flawless parties, Valentino had no doubt that his Rome bacchanal would become one of the most lavish events in recent memory, but the 75-year-old did confess to some jitters, particularly about the weather, which could have spoiled the outdoor party at the Temple of Venus. In the end, though, his only disappointment, he said, was that Meryl Streep couldn’t attend because she is gearing up to play a role in the film version of the hit Abba musical “Mamma Mia!” “I miss her,” he said. “She had to go to Stockholm to meet the group.”

The 48 hours of festivities proved momentous not only for Valentino, but also for the city of Rome. Veltroni was delighted that so many jet-setters had rediscovered the riches of the Eternal City via the designer’s hospitality. “The beauty of Valentino came together with the beauty of Rome, and it just multiplied,” Veltroni said.

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