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Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008)

2009-09-08

His is a world few have or will ever know: a realm of high fashion, even higher expectations, and the royal treatment for achieving both. For over 45 years, he has remained steadfast in his haute couture designs, never once straying from his desire to make beautiful clothes for beautiful people. In a business that chews up even established names and spits them out with impunity, he’s endured. In fact, for the 75-year-old Valentino Garavani (whose brand remains his internationally known first name), he is literally the last man standing, a regal, refined presence within a playground that often embraces fad, commercial cultural shifts, and whatever’s hot in any given season.

And for the most part, he has lifetime business (and personal) partner Giancarlo Giammetti to thank for it. Meeting up with the future fashion icon when the two were young men in Rome, he provided the support, the common sense, and the behind the scene acumen that helped a failing designer (his first “house” ended in bankruptcy) become a nearly five decade old institution. Now, in the mid part of the 21st century, the tide is turning. Valentino faces pressure from the creepy corporate ownership shills who only pray to the bottom, not the hem, line while Giammetti wonders if his companion can survive the continuing commercial pressures presented by the label’s new investment-minded suits.

Thus we have the set up for Matt Tyrnauer marvelous, maddening documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor. Culled from nearly 250 hours of footage and extraordinary access into the inner sanctum of the designer’s domain, what we get is part retrospective, part stark realities of the fashion world circa 2006. Valentino is preparing his Spring collection for a Paris debut. On the horizon, an all encompassing three-day celebration of his entire 45 year career. In the middle is Giammetti – sounding board, cynic, critical eye, creative force, understanding friend, endearing lover, and all around rock to Valentino’s often stubborn, strident misgivings. As a team, they work well together. The king gets to rant and rave about the important of style and substance. His long suffering significant other manages and mops up.

It’s a startling study in contrasts: the man whose eye for form and feminine aesthetic has lead to some of the most startling outfits in the history of couture vs. the former architecture student who’s built the brand into a multimillion dollar enterprise. For Valentino, it’s all heart and soul. For Giammetti, it’s all head and strategizing. What they’ve created together has managed to survive the pop art penchant of the ’60s, the disco drone of the ’70s, the money mandates of the ’90s, and the media inspired hyperbole of the ’90s. When Giammetti finally sold the company in 1998, it was the start of a trend toward cash over creativity. Less than a decade later (and even more boardroom wrangling), Valentino is basically a ghost wandering his own haunted realm.

There are really two films at work here, one very personal, one that’s all professional. We see the devotion of the workers who’ve stayed with the designer for several years, capable of translating his often ambiguous ideas into sheer fabric fabulousness. Valentino beams early on, stating with pride that everything in his collection is hand sewn. “We bought a machine once,” he laughs, “and no one ever used it.” Watching these women work their nimble if frazzled fingers over layer after layer of sheer linen, you’ll understand why. For them, and their brooding boss, it’s about craftsmanship and art, not ready-to-wear or off-the-rack. It’s the same for Giammetti, really. He wants to please his partner while making sure that the Valentino name remains vibrant and vital.

Such a dedication and devotion has lead to extraordinary wealth, almost aristocratic in its old world ways, and an insularity that buffers the legend from the rest of his mainstream mythos. Many have complained that in this failing world economy where businesses are shuttering and people are suffering, such outward opulence is a crime. No man should have a private jet, a personal pet groomer (for his six spoiled pugs), a chalet in Switzerland and a massive chateau in France (among many, many locations). Somehow, his extravagance is an indictment of the cold, commercial criminality that led to the fiscal downfall in the first place. Of course, such arguments are very shortsighted indeed. Valentino didn’t look at the failing stock markets and plummeting property values of the last 18 months and decide “Hey! I’ll live like a Lord!” He’s been flaunting his fashion iconography for longer than some of these so-called critics have been alive.

The corporate story steps in when Giammetti prepares for the 45th anniversary show. Suddenly, smiling faces turn sour as price and scope are discussed, and several are quite frank in their position about Valentino’s possible importance to the overall business model. While he remains a name, and a known quantity, the profit margin is no longer served by his hand crafted works of wonder. Instead, it’s all about licensing and logos, something that their namesake no longer cares about. As the entire fashion community turns out for his massive celebration, as his entire productive lifetime is given a literal museum-like overview, we come to understand the shallowness of the executives’ position. Without his nearly five decades of hard work and inspiration, they’d have nothing to bank on. As with most dollar and cents decisions, what you’ve accomplished is less important than what you’ve accomplished lately.

Though the issue of his “retirement” is questioned throughout, Valentino: The Last Emperor makes it very clear that our subject is ready to walk off into the faked runaway sunset. He still has the flair and the showmanship, but he looks tired and takes out his obvious frustration on anyone around him – usually Giammetti. The best thing about this fascinating film is the unspoken love the two have for each other. When Valentino is given France’s highest award, the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, his smooth demeanor cracks when mentioning the contributions of his partner, and in a rare moment of emotion, Giammetti breaks down as well. With the connection established and illustrated, there is really no reason for more behind the bedroom door reveals.

Sure, he still lives in a sinfully excessive manner. Yes, he can be childish or even cruel in his condemnations. Perhaps he has outlived his usefulness, his dedication to couture no longer warranted in a slick high tech society. But Valentino will always remain an enduring figure of fascinating appeal. While it’s light on history, this stunning documentary is heavy on insight. It offers a window onto a world that will probably never pass this way again. Indeed, there will never be another Valentino. And there will definitely never be another partner like Giammetti. Together, they made magic. This fascination film explains how.

RATING 8 / 10
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