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MILAN — Adieu.

That was the simple title on the surprising statement issued Tuesday afternoon by the House of Valentino announcing the retirement of the designer and his longtime business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, come January. The statement confirmed a report on that morning.

The announcement caught observers off guard, since only two months ago sources indicated the duo was close to sealing a three-year contract with the house’s new owners, private equity firm Permira. Those talks appear to have broken down, since Valentino, 75, will now do only one more ready-to-wear collection, for spring 2008, and one more couture show, in Paris in January. Valentino and Giammetti are renowned for their tough bargaining, as well as their fondness for the high life.

The designer made no reference to any successor. Sources said this is likely to be Alessandra Facchinetti, the former women’s wear designer at Gucci, who has been spotted working in Valentino’s headquarters in Rome. Her contract with sportswear maker Moncler expires with the fall-winter 2008-09 collection. Facchinetti was not available for comment Tuesday.

A successor to Valentino was just one of the many questions left unanswered by the designer’s statement. While speculation had swirled for the last nine months that Valentino would use the extravagant celebrations in July of the 45th anniversary of the founding of his house as his swan song, both the designer and Giammetti vehemently denied it at every occasion. At that time, sources indicated the two, far from retiring, were instead zeroing in on new contracts with Permira, which acquired the fashion house’s parent, Valentino Fashion Group, in May.

Permira and Valentino executives declined to comment. Permira said it would put out a release today, although officials declined to discuss its subject.

One source said Valentino “is really upset,” while another said that, under Permira, the designer thought he could act more as a dictator, but that “no one would spend a lot of money on a company and then delegate carte blanche to someone else.”

A source well acquainted with Valentino’s personality said he was struck by the wording of the company’s press release and the fact that it did not identify or endorse a successor for the house. “That’s what I noticed,” the source said of the statement. “[Valentino] sent out a strong signal of his disapproval.”

This story first appeared in the September 5, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Neither Valentino nor Giammetti returned calls seeking additional comment.

But the designer portrayed his retirement as being spurred by his 45th anniversary. At the July celebrations marking the event, Valentino rejoiced in his King of Rome and fashion role, feted by the crème de la crème of fashion, Hollywood and society. Among the 1,000 guests were Uma Thurman, Sienna Miller, Anne Hathaway, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford, Princess Caroline of Monaco and Princess Marie Chantal of Greece. The festivities were said to have cost north of $10 million — most of it paid by Valentino Fashion Group.

“The great event that celebrated my 45 years of work in Rome in July was a magical and unrepeatable moment,” said Valentino. “It would be impossible to match the emotion and the joy for the friendship and consideration that the whole world expressed. Thus, I have decided that this is the perfect moment to say goodbye to the fashion world.”

He added that he likes to think, “As the English say, of leaving the party when it’s still full.”

Valentino said, “I realize that the maison that bears my name will change, but I hope that the creative team that will design the various lines where my assistants work will know how to continue my work in a way that will make me proud.

“I was lucky to be able to turn my teenage passion into a job that has always given me joy and recognition, and of having kept my style regardless of all major changes fashion underwent,” the designer said.

As for the future of the house, Armando Branchini, president of Milan-based luxury goods consultancy Intercorporate, stressed it will be critical for the company to update its image and aesthetic sensibility gradually.

“If you do something too dramatic, you run the risk of both losing the customers you already have and not gaining any new ones,” he said.

In July, Valentino Fashion Group acquired a 45 percent stake in Proenza Schouler, which stirred speculation the company was grooming that label’s two designers, Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough, to take over for Valentino. But Facchinetti now seems to be the likely candidate. Branchini deemed her a sound choice in terms of updating the brand’s image.

“I think that it will be easier for her to take on Valentino’s ready-to-wear than it was to take over from Tom Ford at Gucci,” said Branchini. “The challenge at Gucci was to strip away the Tom Ford influence and create a whole new aesthetic for the ready-to-wear. At Valentino, it’s a question of gradually updating the image, and not just in two seasons.”

Another Milan-based consultant was less bullish about the transition ahead, since the Valentino brand is so intricately linked with the couturier himself, much like Yves Saint Laurent and even Gianfranco Ferré.

“It’s not an easy situation,” he said. As for Facchinetti, he said she seems like a reliable pick, but it’s hard to predict the future. “When John Galliano took over Dior, everyone said he was the wrong choice,” he pointed out.

Until now, Permira has been mum on its overall strategy for Valentino Fashion Group, which also owns Hugo Boss AG, citing its ongoing tender offer for outstanding shares in the fashion company. Permira subsidiary Red & Black currently holds just over 60 percent of VFG and has launched an offer for the remainder, with the goal of delisting VFG from the Milan Stock Exchange. The offer wraps up on Friday.

As for his future, Valentino promises it will be full of new commitments and interests, some of which will be linked to fashion. “It is my intention to create and support institutions that promote design and that preserve the art of fashion. I think this would be the best continuation of this wonderful adventure that I had the privilege of living,” he said.

Giammetti underlined how the story of work and friendship with Valentino has been lifelong. “I feel honored and endlessly grateful to have worked with one of the greatest couturiers of all time in affirming an international and prestigious brand. And, starting from now, we will share new interests and challenges,” said Giammetti.

Giorgio Armani, reacting to the news, said: “Valentino, a man of the utmost finesse and sensitivity, has decided to leave the stage when his star is shining more brightly than ever, as everyone saw at the recent celebration of his 45 years of achievement in Rome, during which he was able to gather around him the most beautiful women, the most distinguished men and the most famous actors. This brings to an end a remarkable era that leaves a lasting imprint.

“Valentino’s style is a classic, in the purest sense of the word, and has made women beautiful for generations. Whoever will be his heir will have the responsibility to continue this great tradition when expressing their own individuality,” Armani added.

Valentino struck out on his own in 1962 after having cut his teeth at Jean Dessès and Guy Laroche in Paris.

Dubbed by WWD “The Chic,” the couturier dressed some of the most stylish women in the world, from Jackie Onassis to Audrey Hepburn to Elizabeth Taylor to Babe Paley.

“My thanks go to the thousands of people in fashion, who have followed me in these years and to all of those who have supported my work and to my collaborators that have helped turn my career into a success,” Valentino’s statement concluded.

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