Film celebrates 45 years of fashion for Valentino

by Kathryn Wexler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

11 March 2009


The chiffon is exquisite, the 17th century Paris chateau grandiose in a new documentary about fashion designer Valentino Garavani.

But not all is well in the House of Valentino.

“Valentino: The Last Emperor” kicked off the Miami International Film Festival Monday. A treat of a film, it captures the Italian designer at the end of his spectacular 45-year career, which ended with equally spectacular fanfare in 2007.

When director Matt Tyrnauer began filming in 2005, financier Matteo Marzotto was already pulling the purse strings at the Rome-based company, his family having bought a controlling share in 2002.

At first an uneasy detente exists between the money man and the creative genius. But as the camera rolls, and Marzotto exerts more control, relations sour.

“The market is asking us to make different things,” Marzotto says at one point. “We need to change ... And I’m not really sure Valentino wants to change.”

No, Valentino emphatically does not want to change.

He wants to do what he has always done, which is to make fluttery creations with old-world handiwork and Old Hollywood appeal at a cost of up to $100,000 for aristocrats, socialites and stars, spreadsheets be damned.

Valentino, in a telephone interview from Aspen where he was skiing and attending a viewing of the film along with Tyrnauer, said overall he felt good about the portrayal.

“My most favorite part is when they describe my work in the right way - but to get into the struggle that is behind a ruffle, a seam, I thought was boring,” he said. “My least favorite is when I start to scream.”

Valentino’s life is as much a study in sumptuousness as his dresses, with homes in Rome, Paris, London, Gstaad, Tuscany and New York. Happily, the camera lingers there.

We see Valentino - perpetually pinstriped and overly spray-tanned - chatting up royalty and smiling tightly at devotees such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Elton John, Joan Collins, Liz Hurley, Anna Wintour. We watch him in Venice aboard his 152-foot yacht, the “TM Blue One,” as gondolas bob by.

We follow his five lucky pugs as they have their teeth brushed and travel by private jet. And we learn what constitutes a $20-million, three-day shindig worthy of Valentino’s retirement at the age of 75.

It will entail a retrospective of gowns at a Rome museum, a ball at the Villa Borghese and a gala at the Temple of Venus, overlooking the Colisseum, which is to be illuminated in Valentino Red.

Tyrnauer, who was given free reign with the film, is a longtime feature writer at Vanity Fair. He sees the film as a love story between Valentino and longtime partner Giancarlo Giammetti, with fashion merely as a backdrop.

“I’ve never seen two people so close,” Tyrnauer said in a phone interview also from Aspen. “It’s more than a marriage. I think it’s an almost supernatural friendship and relationship.”

In the film, the glue of the relationship appears to be Giammetti’s bottomless admiration for and capacity to serve the fashion maestro. But it’s not their interaction so much as the tension underlying the company’s finances that makes the film riveting.

Giammetti finds it insulting that Valentino should take direction from anyone other than himself, sniffing that Valentino “doesn’t have partners.”

Alas, yes he does. And, in May, 2007, the Marzotto clan starts to unload its shares to a private equity firm Permira.

“It’s a different way of thinking,” Giammetti laments. “It’s more about what is the bottom line. I never thought this was the way to do business.”

Indeed, the business is not what it was. As Cathy Horyn, The New York Times fashion critic, says on-camera, the role of haute couture today is brand recognition. Lavish galas are no longer the bread and butter of couturiers. Purses and perfumes are what keep fashion houses afloat.

The film never deeply delves into Marzotto’s and Valentino’s differences. Dissecting the nitty-gritty of what it means to cheapen a luxury brand would have made the film more gratifyingly tragic to fashion-type viewers.

Does Marzotto want Valentino to downsize his aging seamstresses? Outsource to India? Make a line for Kmart?

Marzotto ends up refering to the designer brutally as “an old lion who tries to roar but nothing comes out.” But it’s already clear by then that fashion is moving forward, and the legend will be left behind.

In that sense, Valentino stands in sharp contrast to his peer Karl Lagerfeld. The longtime director of Chanel has electrified that brand with collections that totter coyly between the serious and the saucy. Far from being sidelined, Lagerfeld is the most sought-after designer in the world today.

He may also be one of the few whose ego is vast enough to rival Valentino’s. The German designer is heard sniping to Valentino: “Compared to us, the rest are making rags.”

One could assume that retirement for Valentino is painful, that perhaps it came too early for his liking. Such is not the case, Valentino said in the telephone interview.

Calling this period “a chapter of freedom, a chapter of distance from fashion,” Valentino said he plans to design costumes for opera and ballet. And the film’s exposure has broadened his social circles, he said, to include people “who maybe don’t go to fashion shows.”

The years of over-scheduling are over, he said. And he is glad for it.

“Sometimes I wake up and say, ‘What do I do today?’ I love it.”

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