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The Last Emperor: Inside the crazy world of Valentino

The couture of Valentino goes on show in London from Thursday. What better time, then, to examine and marvel at this remote figure's many extravagances

To his fashion disciples, he's the Last Emperor. Others know him as the maestro of Italian couture. But there is far more to the celebrated designer Valentino than the masterful creations on display from Thursday at a new exhibition at Somerset House, in central London, might suggest. As the legend surrounding Valentino's collections grows, so too do the myths about the man himself. Let The Independent on Sunday guide you through some of his infamous eccentricities.

The spoilt brat

Born in 1932, in Voghera, near Milan, Italy, Valentino Clemente Ludovico Garavani was named after the silent movie star Rudolph Valentino. The son of an affluent electrical supplier, Valentino readily admits he was the archetypal spoilt brat. His mother, who was no clotheshorse herself but like all good Italians recognised the value of a well-made garment, queried how she could have "produced a son who will only accept the most expensive things". Attributes included refusing to share his cutlery with anyone, demanding to have his sweaters and blazers custom-made to his own specifications: down to the width of the stripe, the colours and the buttons.

Does he suffer OCD?

The couturier's notorious attention to detail borders on the neurotic. Certainly, he has a compulsive need for perfection. But it's his memory that really stands out. How many stinking rich people can be said to know the whereabouts of each of their possessions? Michael Kelly, the man in charge of Château de Wideville, Valentino's home near Paris, remembered the designer quizzing him about a certain set of crockery. He told Vanity Fair that Valentino asked: "'Michael, do you remember those blue and white plates?' Now, he knows exactly what he's talking about, and he knows exactly where they are, but it's a little test to see if I know. And a reminder. You know: 'No matter how good you are, I'm still number one'."

Three colours: all red

With Valentino, it isn't just the fact that he splashes his cash, but how he chooses to do so that stands out. No house is too expensive, no style too bold, or shade of colour too, er, red. Witness his response to the terrorism waged by the Red Brigades in Rome: a friend recalled how the designer chose none other than a bright red bullet-proof Mercedes to drive around in. "Red. My God, I thought you must want to get blown up," the friend said. Those houses, naturally, have the world's most fashionable addresses, from his chalet in Switzerland, to his mansion in London, the villa in Rome, the Manhattan apartment and the Louis XIII château near Paris. Not forgetting his 152-foot yacht.

He likes a lock-in

Despite revelling in the adulation of his admirers, the fashion mogul is obsessed with privacy. His partner, in life and business, Giancarlo Giammetti is one of just seven people to whom Valentino is said to have ever got close. Then there's his love of locked doors. His assistant Bruce Hoeksema remembered one trip to the Seychelles, in an interview with Vanity Fair. "There were bungalows, all open. That totally freaked Valentino out. He piled chairs up in front of the windows and doors and set out bottles so that if anybody moved anything the bottles would fall over and wake him up. Maybe he has this fear that somebody's going to come in while he's sleeping and do something to him. Or just look at him."

A man's best friend

You could be forgiven for thinking that fashion was everything to Valentino but you'd be wrong. Very wrong. That honour belongs to his dogs. "I don't care about the collection. My dogs are much more important," he has said. Valentino once named a collection after his late pug Oliver. His other dogs Milton, Maggie, Maude, Monty, Margot, and Molly often travel with him in his 14-seat jet, with each dog getting their own seat. Getting to the airport requires three cars: one for Valentino and Giammetti; another for their luggage and the staff; and a third for the five of the six pugs. The sixth, Maude, always travels with Valentino.

His China syndrome

Not for nothing was he known as the Last Emperor: the fashion designer cites seeing a collection of old Chinese costumes on a trip to Beijing in the 1990s as "one of the great emotional moments of my life". A three-floor Asian-style pigeonnier next to his French château, once used to house doves, has been transformed into a shrine to Chinese culture. Then there's that 2008 documentary following the designer. Valentino: The Last Emperor laid bare how his lifestyle apes those of ancient Chinese rulers. He owns an extensive collection of Chinese porcelain, statues, decorations and clothes. Indeed, one of his friends, Carlos Souza, once joked: "To fall asleep at night, instead of counting sheep, he counts porcelain."