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Valentino: Master of Couture

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Valentino: Master Of Couture

When the American actress Anne Hathaway got married this Autumn naturally the first question on everyone’s lips was who made the dress? The frothy, playful full-skirted concoction in the softest, palest pink complete with matching headband was by Valentino, the elegant, Rome-based fashion house.

It wasn’t the first time the Italian label had been behind a much talked about wedding gown – when America’s sweetheart and former first lady Jackie Kennedy married Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis in 1968 she too was decked out in Valentino.

Valentino Garavani and Natalia Vodianova

These nuptials were some forty years apart, and that Valentino was the choice of both the high-profile brides proves its enduring cultural relevance. Something cemented by a new exhibition at London Fashion Week home Somerset House. Valentino: Master Of Couture takes a closer look at the life and work of Valentino Garavani (he goes by his first name only, rock-star style) as he celebrates fifty years of business – his first show was in 1962.

Valentino Garavani and Natalia Vodianova at the Musée Nissim de Camodo in Paris, 2011. Photo by Kevin Tachman

He had founded his eponymous label a couple of years earlier, in 1959, in Rome, modelling his atelier on the ones he had seen in Paris (where he studied), with lots of grandeur and models flown in from the French capital for his first show. Valentino soon had so many hit red dresses that they became his signature piece, and the vibrant hue he favoured became known in the industry as ‘Valentino red’, and he began racking up a clientele of jet-setters and Hollywood elite that were as varied as Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor and Princess Margaret.

One of the couture dresses in the exhibit

Now eighty, Valentino bowed out at the top of his game several years ago, retiring from designing in 2008 with a tearful farewell at his haute couture show in January of that year. The label is now in the capable hands of creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli who have carried on his striking, romantic aesthetic.

The exhibit showcases 130 of Valentino’s haute couture designs, some of which were worn by icons such as Jackie O, Grace Kelly and Sophia Lauren, as well as modern stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts, and is divided into three sections.

A previously unseen picture of Valentino Garavani at his Wideville estate from his own archives

First up is a tour of his private world through personal photos sourced from his own archive, followed by a reverse fashion show, where visitors walk down a catwalk to see the aforementioned couture pieces by the Italian designer.

Dresses on show at the exhibit, including Julia Roberts' Oscar gown the year she won Best Actress for Erin Brokovich on the left

The last section unpicks the crafting process of Valentino’s collections, illustrating the creative journey via a series of samples and several specially commissioned films that show behind the scenes at the Valentino Spa atelier. It all culminates with the presentation of the hand-made wedding dress of Princess Marie Chantal of Greece.

Dresses on show at the exhibit

There is also a calendar of talks and events accompanying the exhibit, including a screening of the critically lauded 2008 documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor.

Valentino: Master of Couture is on at Somerset House from 29th November 2012 – 3rd March 2013

by Hollie Moat

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