Valentino Garavani: The man who turned fashion into an art form

Christina Patterson is wowed by a Valentino show but hates his world

Audrey Hepburn wore them. Elizabeth Taylor wore them. So did Grace Kelly and Jackie O. It seems, in fact, when you go to the exhibition at Somerset House, that anyone who was anyone, and who was beautiful, and glamorous, and famous, and chic, wore Valentino clothes. And the clothes, it seems, weren’t just clothes. The clothes, it seems, from the way they’ve been displayed, in a new exhibition marking the 50-year career of Valentino Garavani, were art.

When you walk into the main gallery, and down what you’re probably meant to call a “runway”, the clothes certainly look like art. The clothes are on mannequins where the audience would usually be, mannequins which look as if they’re looking at you looking at them. And the clothes, which are arranged in clusters of colour – of cream, and orange, and red, and, of course, black – are amazing. Some of them, and particularly some of the clothes from the 1970s and the 1980s, are quite strange. The shorts and cape, for example, and the bat-sleeved sequined dress. But most of them are beautiful. Even to someone like me, who buys clothes as cheaply as I can, these clothes are beautiful.

You can see the work in them. Sometimes, it’s just in the cut, but it isn’t “just” a cut, because the cut, like a line in a Picasso, is the mark of the master’s art. Sometimes, it’s in the beadwork, or the edging, or the stitching of a piece of cord. Sometimes, it’s in a piece of silk that’s been cut to make a rose. When you leave the gallery, and go into the room that has cabinets showing close-up examples of the craft, it almost makes you gasp. It makes you think of those medieval artists who carved whole worlds on tiny bits of ivory.

It is art. Even to me, it’s art. The exhibition, which is presented in white rooms with, apart from the one with the mannequins, very little in them, is a portrait not just of a master craftsman, but of an artist. But it isn’t just a portrait of an artist. It’s a portrait  of a court.

Before you go up to the gallery with the runway, there’s a room with those gilded chairs you get at banquets,  glass cabinets and a giant rose. In the cabinets, there are magazines, with front covers of people wearing Valentino, and signed photos, letters and cards from people thanking him  for designing clothes – people such as Julia Roberts, Jacqueline Onassis, Princess Diana, Anna Wintour and Meryl Streep. The letters say things like, “Thank you for a magical weekend.”

And there’s a room that makes you think of a real court. This is a room with a wedding dress that was made for Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece. The dress, apparently, took 25 seamstresses four months. Like, perhaps, the dresses of Marie-Antoinette. But at least the seamstresses are called seamstresses. What Valentino calls his seamstresses (or used to, before he sold the business on) is “le ragazze”. “Le ragazze” means “the girls”. It must be quite strange to be a 60-year old woman and called a “girl”. It must make you think of those Brits who called their adult male African servants “boy”.

“To dress stars or empresses is very pleasant,” says Valentino, “because their concept of high fashion remains so pure.” He isn’t joking. He really seems to think that the world he  displays, of money, celebrity, flattery, name-dropping, and, of course, an all-consuming obsession with appearance, is something to flaunt. Nice frocks, caro mio, but as for your world, you can keep it.

‘Valentino: Master of Couture’ is at Somerset House, London WC2 (somersethouse.org.uk) to  3 March 2013

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific