By  on June 16, 2008

PARIS — Some designers take years to define a signature look: Valentino Garavani had his practically out of fashion's starting blocks.

That's one of the key messages of "Valentino: Themes and Variations," an exhibition that opens here today and runs until Sept. 21 at Les Arts Decoratifs. The exhibit features 225 high-fashion creations by the Roman couturier, who hung up his scissors last January. Claudia Schiffer, Charlotte Casiraghi, Georgina Brandolini, Natalia Vodianova and Alessandra Facchinetti are among those expected at the opening this evening.

"We're in detox from fashion," Valentino told curator Pamela Golbin when she asked him and longtime business partner Giancarlo Giammetti how they were adjusting to retirement. In fact, he granted Golbin free rein with an exhibition she describes as "a real analysis of his career from 1959 all the way through his last collection."

It's the first time the French fashion museum has devoted a solo exhibition to a living Italian designer, and it highlights an approach to couture often distinct from the French in its colors, embellishment and technical details like budellini, a painstaking process of rolling fabric into tubes and applying them to tulle.

"The French will really be surprised by the sophistication and the refinement of the designs he put out for almost 50 years," Golbin said. "There's a certain lightness that's much more Italian: the way he mixes embroideries with feathers, the mix of colors....I think the Roman light has a lot to do with it."

Golbin said Valentino's oeuvre melds Italian industry, American sportswear and French couture. "He brought these together and refined them for an international design style and business style," she said. "It's very labor-intensive Italian couture."

The first floor of the exhibition is graphic, mostly in black and white, devoted to variations on line, volumes and surface treatments, while the second floor portrays various decorative themes, including flowers, feathers, animal prints and fur.

The clothes are displayed on long-necked silver mannequins on a minimalist terrain of cement gray beads, a set design by Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfreda, who were behind Valentino's 45th anniversary exhibition last year in Rome.In an interview, the designer said the reality of retirement has yet to really sink in, given immediate projects like the Arts Decoratifs showcase and the Matt Tyrnauer documentary, now being readied for release at the Venice Film Festival in August.

"I have the feeling that I've taken a little vacation and am waiting to do my next collection," the designer said, Carla Bruni staring at him from a black-and-white portrait on the wall opposite. "I'm perfectly all right. I'm very relaxed and very happy."

Golbin said Valentino, ever the perfectionist, trudged through the display cases to ensure the right positioning for all the dresses, which include the one Jacqueline Kennedy wore to wed Aristotle Onassis in 1968, propelling him to international stardom, and the ribbon-backed gown Julia Roberts wore to the 2001 Oscars, igniting the trend to vintage on the red carpet.

"One thing I never was in all my career was a pretentious designer," Valentino said. "When I look at my dresses, even though they were done over many decades, they are all very wearable now, and I am very proud of this."

That Valentino found his groove of "sophisticated elegance" almost from the start is no surprise, given that he was in contact early in his career with royals and wives of shipping magnates from Greece and Egypt, Golbin noted.

The designer honed his skills in fashion illustration at the Chambre Syndicale de la Mode as an 18-year-old, and then cut his teeth working for French couturiers Jean Desses and Guy Laroche before starting his own collection.

"He was already aware of this elitist clientele that had very specific needs," Golbin said. "He always knew how to integrate the contemporary trends in fashion, but always staying with his own vocabulary, and I think that's where the timelessness comes from. He's extremely interested in the now and the next."

But he did pass on a few major trends, notably grunge and minimalism. "I never liked this. It was to offend a lady to dress like this," he said. "Do you remember the Academy Awards that year they all arrived looking like nuns? They were horribly criticized. The year after, they arrived with trains, with tiaras –— back at the top of glamour."I loved to put new details, but I never destroyed the proportions," he continued. "I followed my ideas all the time, and I pursued my collections with great joy. I did the maximum to please."

In tandem with the exhibition is a 300-page book, published in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.

While the designer devotes energies to his forthcoming foundation in Rome, and costume projects for opera and ballet, Valentino said he would steer clear of fashion weeks, including next month's Paris couture, when his successor Facchinetti will make her couture debut.

"I leave them free, without being there, without showing my face," he said.

Asked if he's formed any opinion on the house's new direction, Valentino replied, "I've not seen so much." But he asserted that the current brand stewards, the private equity firm Permira, have plenty of archives and documentation to guide them.

"I am impatient, and I am worried because it is my name," he said. "I would love that the name goes on and on, to be top quality."

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