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Luxe Life

Doc on designer Valentino is a fashion do


Valentino: The Last Emperor

Director:Matt Tyrnauer
Release Date:2009

Opens May 1 at the Charles Theatre

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/29/2009

In a documentary spiced with unimaginable glamour--arriving to Venice by yacht; dinner parties at a palatial residence outside Paris with Joan Collins, Elizabeth Berkley, and Michael Caine on the guest list; a midweek ski getaway to Gstaad; glimpses of the couture atelier where everything is still made by hand; and, perhaps still the dream-factory apex of a lifestyle most people will never know, the La Dolce Vita clip featuring the pneumatically untouchable Anita Ekberg gaily traipsing into Rome's Trevi fountain--no single image speaks to wealth's fantasy land on earth quite as powerfully as the sight of a pack of five pugs being led onto a private jet. These pampered pets proceed to take up two seats on the plane, compelling the flight crew to politely ask couturier Valentino Garavani if the dogs can be moved to make room for human passengers.

Valentino--the single name has branded his image, line, and lifestyle since 1960--doesn't comply himself, but the situation is handled. And, as captured in Vanity Fair special correspondent Matt Tyrnauer's documentary debut, Valentino: The Last Emperor, it is the strategy by which most of the Italian designer's life and career has been maintained. Somebody attends to the worrisome details of business, travel, and life, leaving Valentino free to do the one thing for which he was born: design dresses that make women feel beautiful.

A great deal of the handling has fallen to Valentino's life and business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, a trim, casually handsome gentleman who must possess more patience than Job. They met in 1960--they differ over at which Rome café this meeting occurred--and have been together ever since, from Valentino's 1960s rise to clothing the era's glamour queenpin, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, to today. Giammetti, although he helps orchestrate and plan runway shows and events, is the business side of the Valentino brand, shrewdly steering it through the tumultuous fashion industry from the '60s through the 1970s and '80s, and into the ready-to-wear and accessory-branding 1990s and current day.

Not that Valentino lays that story out in any narrative fashion. In fact, Valentino barely touches on the trajectory of Valentino's career, what set him apart from other designers, or even the details of Valentino's life. Instead, Tyrnauer--who was granted unprecedented access to his subject from 2005 to 2007--follows instead the preparation and planning of Valentino's July 2007 45th anniversary collection gala in Rome, a three-day blowout that includes a retrospective at the Ara Pacis Museum, a ball at the Villa Borghese, and a soiree right next to the Colosseum. It's a mammoth, lavish celebration, and Valentino peeks into all the preparation and nail-biting that went into its realization. At the same time, Permira, a private equity firm, was in the process of buying leveraged shares of the company that owned the Valentino Fashion Group, a situation that threatened to make the 45th anniversary celebration feel more like a retirement party.

And it's these background sagas that give Valentino its compelling drive. The man himself is a bit of an enigma--during the two solid years with a camera following him, he's always magnificently shrewd at knowing he's being watched--but the people surrounding him are fabulously full of life. Giammetti, especially, emerges as a figure of monumental sensitivity, able to juggle about 500 tasks at a time, gallantly offer candid responses to on-camera interviews, and take Valentino's nit-picking with a calm resolve. Their few moments of needling each other--Giammetti telling Valentino his belly is sticking out or that he looks too tan, Valentino scoffing at Giammetti's "three layers" of a sport coat, Oxford shirt, and turtleneck--offer some of the documentary's few moments of humor. But these are merely the badgering of the beyond-close: Giammetti confesses that since they first met in 1960, the days on which he's not seen Valentino number only about two months.

By far, the best moments in the documentary come in the form of the tireless, rambunctious, and just plain cool seamstresses who make each and every one of Valentino's couture designs by hand. They're all over middle-aged and his head seamstress is one of the few people who verbally spars with Valentino. And it's their skill and work that sticks to the brain after the designer's opulent grand fete in Rome: the knowledge that behind every grand illusion of an evening gown, it's the expertise of human hands that turn a two-dimensional idea into a gorgeous reality.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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