A man who clearly loves women can dress women well. In an exhibition that showcased some of the world’s most memorable dresses worn by equally memorable women, Valentino Garavani’s love for the fairer sex shines through. During an interview with The Independent about the exhibition, he revealed how “couture for me is the maximum freedom of real creation…no limit to creativity, to beauty”. The lack of creative boundaries couldn’t be more obvious in the dresses on show here and in a stunning showcase of couture, the labours of love of the designers career stand in their splendour, hailing both his creative genius and the women that inspire him.
After being led down a staircase, cascading with chiffon in Valentino red, the introductory segment of the exhibition established the depth of Valentino’s achievements. The walls were adorned with a giant rose, coloured by hologram and a time-line of the designer’s career, from the beginning in 1950 to to his latest achievements in 2012. Below, four modest glass cabinets lined the walls, sorted into four categories; invitations to past shows, personal notes and letters, magazine cutting and covers and past sketches, swatches and designs by Valentino himself. Some of the sweetest words by the industry’s most feared and admired congratulated and flattered the work of the designer. Jacqueline Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn and Diana Vreeland were some of many who wrote to thank the designer for the lend, customisation and celebration of the couture they wore. Dated covers of Time and Vogue, newspaper cuttings and magazine pull-outs featuring the likes of Linda Evangelista were faded in colour and old in their graphic dated in their format, an artistic contrast to the lasting designs.
Upon first entering the main body of the exhibition, I notice something different. A platform of cream carpet stretches down a corridor, with rows of elegant chairs either side. For one of the most anticipated exhibitions of the year, the tables have been turned. In a creative twist of the usual fashion show format, the audience is in fact made up of mannequins dressed in the priceless couture we have all flocked to see and the viewer is on the runway. Perhaps this set-up a clever method of reflection, on the retirement of the sensational designer; the dresses are not in cabinets, on stands nor are they subtly lit to highlight their best features. They are sitting where we usually would, on the sidelines. However, it is this artistic licence that really speaks to me as a writer; the dresses may not be positioned to be the centre of attention but their position on the side of the runway does not distract from their beauty, diversity or exceptional craftsmanship – undeniable features that embody the work and creative vision of Valentino.
If variety is the ‘spice of life’, then Valentino’s designers were a melting pot, adding an intense dose of flavour to the personal style of those who wore them. The gowns in question were something out of a dream. What made this exhibition so special was the close, personal nature of it, enabling real appreciation of something so exclusive and unobtainable. Without such exhibitions, seeing haute couture in its pure, unadulterated form would be next to impossible – leaning in, inches away from some of the finest materials, embroidery is a dream for former textiles student, let alone someone who is less acquainted with fashion. Some of the key dresses displayed included the dress worn by Jacqueline Kennedy when she wed Aristotle Onassis in 1968 and the black and white silk-insert gown worn by Julia Roberts at the 2001 Oscars, in which she won Best Actress, notes as a personal favourite of the designer.
Although a career spanning beyond 50 years comes with assumptions, the scope of creativity and appeal that Valentino has achieved is staggering. Alongside a numbered tag on each mannequin wrist, each gown stood or sat next to a chair with a personalised Valentino name card, displaying the name of the ‘Mademoiselle’ who had the privilege of wearing the outfit, attending his show or wearing a more recent creation. The names that sat alongside the gown flourished in their celebrity status and splendour of their chosen industry, including Elizabeth Taylor and Keira Knightly, front row with Grace Kelly and Sophia Lauren. The ‘Master of Couture’ exhibition painted a picture of diversity and understanding for Valentino and his creative vision. His designs are classic in their elegance and femininity and they moved with the changing trends flawlessly, appealing to a range of different famous names. Evidently, this was something that helped establish his long-term influence.
The finale of the show sent the exhibition off in appropriate style. The wedding dress and veil of Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece stood alone, breathtaking in it’s splendour. Worn to her wedding to Prince Pavlos in 1995, the ivory silver gown was handmade by more than 25 seamstresses with 12 different kinds of lace and a four and a half metre train. Comparable to the gown worn by the Duchess of Cambridge, Garavani told ELLE.com how his designs always aimed to span the lifetime of the wearer; “Today I look at those clothes and they look as if I finished them last season” Garavani told ELLE.com, “They look like today”. As the show drew to a close with videos of the sewing process and decoration details, the extortionate process of couture heightens the appreciation for the time and effort involved in making each outfit. Thoroughly satisfied and with a glowing sense of awe, I left with then words of a letter from Manolo Blahnik, to Valentino, engrained in my mind; “Your work and you will be here forever”.