IoS exhibition review: Valentino: Master of Couture, Smoerset House, London

2.00

You'd settle for a frock or two, but without the frills

Asurname can be de trop in the world of fashion, rather like the accessory you are advised to take off before leaving the house. Attached to each of several dozen little Louis XV chairs which line one room of this exhibition is a label, inked in a flamboyant hand: "Gisele", "Iman", "Twiggy" ... oh yes, and "La Princesse de Bulgarie". All are audience regulars of the couture shows of Valentino, formerly plain old Valentino Garavani, whose 50-year career is celebrated in a rather over-produced display in the south wing of Somerset House.

The first thing you encounter is a giant lightbox, a reference to the smart magazines that adoringly keep faith with the designer, season after season. The trouble with this piece of kit – several metres square – is that, wherever you stand, you're ill-placed to read the outsize slogans projected on it. I think I saw the words (next to an image of a naked beauty tied up in red beads) "Without Valentino, Rome would be dead". But surely not.

Equally specious are the displays in glass cases, the cases supported by the same chic, painted chairs, affixed to the wall. One is full of thank-you notes and – barely more interesting – expressions of regret that the famous invitee, Meryl, or Liza, could not attend some lavish event. And who knew that Vogue editor Anna Wintour has such enormous unjoined-up writing that she can fit only 20 words on a page of A4? A handwritten fax from Karl Lagerfeld shows he is subject to a similar ego-to-ink ratio.

Any cynicism subsides, though, when you reach the upper floor, set out as a 60-metre red-carpeted catwalk on either side of which are mannequins, both standing and seated on those chairs, modelling couture. It's a pity the red-printed brochure is so hard to read (impossible under moody lighting) because it offers the only clue that the mannequins themselves are colour-coded by decade. "Mint" for the 1950s, "mustard" for the 1960s, "ice" and so on. This is crucial information since the clothes are otherwise grouped by theme: daywear here, cocktail dresses there. The randomness underlines the way Valentino's designs do not, on the whole, follow fashion. A neat, navy wool shift from 1959 or a sharply cut collarless coat in black georgette from 1971 are highly wearable today, with or without the "vintage" tag.

The unreadable brochure also tells you when an outfit has had a famous wearer: a velvet and tulle number was worn by Julia Roberts at the 2001 Oscars, while a white gown trimmed with lace appliqué was Jackie Kennedy's on the day she became Jackie Onassis, and from the same year, 1968, a cream organza ensemble bestrewn with tiny white daisies, each individually attached with a pearl, was made for Audrey Hepburn. Interestingly, the one thing that's never mentioned is the price.

More rewarding for the admirer of beautiful things is the element of high-end craftsmanship that goes into each piece of Valentino couture. A glossary is provided to help with such terms as "incrostazione" (the layering of cut lace over tulle) and "crinoline" (not what you'd think) but, alas, these explanations also fall prey to illegibility in the vermilion print of the brochure. A paucity of signage, too, means that the final two rooms in the exhibition risk being missed. Such shoddy attention to detail is not of a piece with the goods.

To 3 Mar (020-7845 4600)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
British musician Mark Ronson arrives for the UK premiere of the film 'Mortdecai'
music
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

    Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

    Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

    Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

    £15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

    Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us