‘What I do is simply make a woman as beautiful as she can be’ is the understated tenet of Valentino Garavani, the man whose first name is synonymous with old-world couture glamour and polished femininity. And while Garavani may have bowed out (as gracefully as ever) from designing for his namesake house in 2008, the label’s collections, now under the stewardship of Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, have recently wowed on red carpets, thanks to a new generation of stars who are snapping up the beautifully crafted gowns.
The flashbulbs picked up the glints on the label’s flowing evening dresses at this year’s Academy Awards and at the Cannes Film Festival – stardom and Valentino have gone hand-in-hand for decades. Elizabeth Taylor’s long romance with the brand (perhaps more enduring than any of her marriages) began on the set of Cleopatra in 1960. She wore a Valentino dress to the premiere of the movie and was seen frequently in Valentino throughout her life. Valentino pieces have been worn by Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, and the gown that Julia Roberts wore in 2001 to collect her Oscar has joined the firmament of iconic garments. Not bad for a boy from Lombardy who grew up copying his dressmaker aunt. ‘With women like that,’ he told me, referring to his friendships with Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor, ‘one gets close to the very essence of femininity.’
The designer’s mythical status as one of the last great couturiers, living like a European noble of days gone by, was celebrated to grand effect in 2008 documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor, which revealed his splendid homes and his fondness for his pug dogs, who travel strapped into their own seats on his private jet. The man himself may have retired from fashion, but that doesn’t mean he has hung up his impeccably pressed suits and retired with slippers and a pipe. He recently launched the Valentino Garavani Museum, a ‘virtual museum’ that offers a 3D tour of his gowns. In 2012/2013, the Valentino: Master of Couture exhibition was held in London, to great acclaim.
Such a legacy of showmanship and fame is hard to follow. But designers Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli have managed with aplomb. The Valentino DNA has always been about timeless, impeccable style – the flowing kaftans, the scarlet column gowns, the incredible embroidery and beadwork. As Suzy Menkes, renowned fashion editor of The International Herald Tribune attests: ‘Valentino has never betrayed his mantra, to make a woman the most flawless version of herself.’ Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli have risen to the challenge of this mantra. ‘What they have done at Valentino is so on-point,’ says Laura Brown, executive editor at Harper’s Bazaar US. ‘This is how a step forward for a house should be taken.’
The designers have harnessed the skills of the Valentino ateliers, which have been passed on through generations of craftsmen, and re-interpreted them for a 21st-century customer. Gowns still come in red lace, but are cropped at the knee to achieve a sharp silhouette. Other collections have drawn on folkloric and fairytale elements, or added cropped leather jackets to flowing gowns, and a new roster of stars has become enchanted with the Valentino label – Anne Hathaway, Daphne Guinness, Sarah Jessica Parker and British singer Adele are avid supporters.
Of his style and his signature aesthetic, Valentino once said: ‘I am like a freight train. Working on the details, twisting them and playing with them over the years, but always staying on the same track.’ As the label powers on into the 21st century, Valentino still remains firmly on that track.