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
Above the hat of the toy gibbon, artist Mark Roscoe included a ‘ghost of a bird’ and a hidden message
art
Arts and Entertainment
Alien: Resurrection, Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder
film
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
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.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable