The world knows fashion icon Valentino Garavani by his first name alone. The couturier to the elite is known for his beguiling and intricately detailed gowns and sensational couture creations. Valentino revolutionized the fashion industry with his distinctive brand of glitterati chic, cultivating a signature style that is now a ubiquitous sight on red carpets. Inspired by old Hollywood glamour, Valentino's gowns are crafted of ultra-feminine materials like lace, silk and chiffon, and often feature delicate embroidery. He's known for his meticulous attention to detail and the use of fabrics dyed in his signature color, red.
It's a fresh era for Valentino. The designer officially retired in 2008, and one of his successors, Maria Grazia Chiuri, departed for Dior in 2016. Pierpaolo Piccioli has since settled into his role as sole creative director of Valentino, and a contemporary collection bearing his name – Red Valentino– allows a wider audience to access a taste of his signature style.
Despite an array of changes, the tone of the original fashion house – one of extraordinary drama – remains as set by the original designer. Periods of creative transition are prime for reexamining roots – in this case, of both the brand and the man behind the label.
Star Studded Crossbody Bag by Red Valentino
Valentino Before Valentino
Valentino Garavani was born on May 11, 1932 in Lombardy, Northern Italy. He adored fashion from a young age and especially delighted in attending the theatre and opera to see the opulent costumes. When Valentino was interviewed as part of the 2014 Fashion Icons series with Fern Mallis at the 92nd Street Y, he spoke affectionately of his memories of the theater. "I was so enchanted by all those evening gowns, those sequins, those shiny things. Then I realized that my way was to do design," said Valentino.
At the age of 17, with the help of his mother and father, Valentino moved to Paris to study fashion at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. After his graduation, he became an apprentice and honed his craft in couture at Jean Dessés and Guy Laroche. After a few years in Paris, Valentino relocated to Rome and in 1959, with the help of his father and business associate, opened his eponymous fashion house.
After a tumultuous single year in business Valentino found himself near bankruptcy, but soon met Giancarlo Giammetti, a young architecture student who would later become his company president. The two formed a lifelong partnership, and Giametti made the risky decision to quit school and become Valentino’s business partner.
"He asked if he could see the fashion house, and he said, 'What a boring life I have, to be an architect, to go home to study. I would love to come here and do something for the fashion house,'" Garavani recalled during his Fashion Icons interview. "He came and he took care of everything that was not part of the creation. Little by little we arrived at something quite solid."
With the help of Giametti, budding fashion icon Valentino Garavani made his international debut in 1962 – his first couture show held at Pitti Palace in Florence. Featuring a parade of dresses in his signature red hue, the show was an immense success and is considered Valentino's major breakthrough in the international fashion world.
Valentino Garavani, in his 45 years of work, has dressed more major dignitaries, first ladies, celebrities and socialites than any other working designer. Known affectionately as "Val’s Gals," this coterie of elegant women includes figures such as actress Elizabeth Taylor, Anne Hathaway and Marie-Chantal, Crown Princess of Greece, all of whom act as honorary ambassadors to the fashion house.
One of Valentino’s most influential clients, and a major instrument of his success was Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis. 'Jackie O' was also fond of couture designers such as Givenchy and Dior, but the First Lady was particularly taken with Valentino Garavani’s style. After the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, she ordered six black and white haute couture Valentino dresses to be worn during her year of mourning. The two became lifelong friends, and Jacqueline almost exclusively began to wear Valentino designs. He designed the now iconic dress for her wedding to Aristotle Onassis – the pleated, knee-length ivory creation with a mock turtleneck solidified Valentino's status as an international fashion figurehead.
Though designers like Versace, Elie Saab and Saint Laurent are also red carpet staples, Valentino is arguably responsible for some of the most memorable awards show moments in recent history. When actress Julia Roberts accepted her Oscar in 2001 clad in a vintage gown from the designer’s 1992 couture collection, it was a highlight of both her career and Valentino's. Designed to channel the spirit of Old Hollywood, the gown was constructed of dramatic black velvet, satin and tulle, with a modest v-shaped branded neckline and band of ivory satin down its center. The gown, which even has its own Wikipedia page, has consistently been named one of the most iconic Oscar fashion pieces of all time.
The couturier rarely designs commissioned gowns, but made an exception in 2012 to create a custom bridal dress for actress Anne Hathaway, whom he considers a daughter. The spectacular off-the-shoulder gown was meticulously crafted with ivory colored silk and d’esprit tulle, evoking fairy tale overtones with an opulent train hand-painted in shades of cotton candy pink and embroidered with delicate satin flowers.
A scarlet sendoff
In 2008, fashion icon Valentino Garavani presented his last haute couture show in Paris at the Musée Rodin. In the finale, models walked down in the runway draped in his signature shade of red – a fitting conclusion to his illustrious career, as seen above. Friends, like Alber Elbaz of Lanvin fame, and models such as Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, filled the seats, giving the designer a much-deserved standing ovation.
Impeccable and timeless, Valentino Garavani's legacy will forever impact the fashion world. The Spring/Summer '17 Valentino runway, for one, was as deliciously ruby red as ever.