A romantic Valentino Red HC taffeta evening gown from a/w 2002

A new exhibition hails half a century of the master designer’s work. Rebecca Gonsalves joins in with the haute couture celebrations

Few of the inhabitants of the rarefied world of fashion have the character and charisma to challenge Valentino Clemente Ludovico Garavani, best known simply as Valentino, one of the last of the great couturiers. In a career that has spanned five decades, Valentino has dressed royalty – political, Hollywood and literal – but it is for the red evening gown that the 80-year-old is best known.

To celebrate half a century since the first  presentation of Valentino’s couture label, at the Pitti Palace in Florence no less, a new exhibition opens in London’s Somerset House later this week. It focuses entirely on the couture creations of the house the output of which now includes ready-to-wear, accessories and fragrances.

Through the work of  Valentino himself and that of his successors, creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, three curators chart half a century of  beauty, wealth and style.

One of the team of three responsible for realising a grand plan that includes 130 archive pieces of couture is fashion academic Alistair O’Neill. “Mr Valentino and Mr Giammetti [Valentino’s business partner and companion] wanted to stage a project in London that would help raise awareness of what Valentino stands for,” says O’Neill. “Very little of his work has been seen in this country.” Valentino’s work has been the subject of many exhibitions in recent years, while a 2008 documentary, Valentino: The Last Emperor, shared the designer’s larger than life persona with an extended audience.

However, O’Neill wants to put a singularly English spin on the Roman house, and  “address the concerns of a London audience”.

“Firstly, I want to explore the Italian couture process rather than that of the French, that the preoccupations of collections are rooted in the craft skills of the atelier, of le ragazze – the dressmakers who after 30 years of work are still called ‘the girls’,” he says. This craftsmanship is explored in a series of films which show le ragazze at work, as well as original samples of their handiwork the intricacy of which has to be seen to be believed. O’Neill and fellow curators Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfredo were granted access to the house’s archive in Rome, as well as Valentino’s personal archive.

Although the red evening gown may be Valentino’s signature, it would be wrong to suggest that his work is formal only. “We wanted to show the full range, it was important to me to show day wear, it’s a fundamental facet to the people who can afford couture.”

Indeed, those who can afford bespoke are buying not only a new wardrobe but entry to an exclusive world. “Valentino lived his life in couture,” says O’Neill. “And that is something clients aspire to be a part of.”

Couture of course means different things to different people, to some it is a status symbol, to others a beautiful fantasy. And to Valentino? “Couture for me is the maximum freedom of real creation,” he says. “No limit to creativity, to beauty. No boring numbers but pure imagination. I hope it still represents the same for my fellow designers who work in couture.”

It is this passion and imagination that propelled a lengthy career, “Each decade was the source of great inspiration and profound changes,” says the designer. “The 1960s were for me the discovery: opening my fashion house, the first success, the encounter with women who help me creating my style. The 1970s meant establishment, the creation of ready to wear, the branding of my “V”, the fashion inspiration of the freedom. The 1980s were the commercial years, the big diffusion, the important business deals, the building of an empire.”

It has of course not all been plain sailing: “The 1990s were interesting, but the most depressing in a certain sense, I don’t like to remember the fashion of these years. The 2000s have been the big change in fashion. The creation of the big conglomerates, the bottom-line importance. And for me the beautiful, unforgettable, touching moment of quitting. But for me a woman has always had the desire to look her best. Beauty does not change, style does.”

It is a testament to the designer’s legacy that since his departure the Valentino collections have remained faithful to his romantic aesthetic in a way that is at once modern and nostalgic, and with the master’s approval. Indeed, creative directors Chiuri and Piccioli were first appointed by Valentino himself, to launch an accessories line in 1999. They later started the successful younger line Red Valentino in 2003, but despite Valentino’s backing were not chosen to replace him on his retirement. Instead that role went to Alessandra Facchinetti who parted ways with the company after just two seasons.

With Chiuri and Piccioli as creative directors the company has flourished creatively and commercially. In July of this year the Valentino Fashion Group was sold to Mayhoola For Investments, a group backed by the Qatari royal family, for a reported $858m (£538m). At the time, a Mayhoola spokesman told Women’s Wear Daily: “Valentino has always been a brand of unique  creativity and undisputed prestige... Their ability to blend the aesthetic values of the founder, Valentino Garavani, with a contemporary and sophisticated vision, has been instrumental in enhancing the brand’s relevance and establishing a platform with significant future potential.”

Being able to look to the future with an eye on the past is a skill that Valentino was in possession of. Asked to name his favourite design his answer is perhaps surprising: “Probably the dress Julia Roberts wore to the Oscars in 2001. That was the most sensational dress seen on a celebrity. It created the new fashion item, the vintage. It was great fun to watch it on TV for me.”

For most, an image of an actress on a red carpet or from a catwalk report is the closest they will come to couture creations such as these, and a rare opportunity to see these great works up close explains the appeal of the modern fashion exhibition. Although a big fashion name is by no means a guarantee of success there is a voracious appetite for exhibitions rooted in couture and costume that reflects the idealism and escapism of fashion’s current mood. In London, the V&A’s current shows, Hollywood Costume and Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, similarly tap into the fantasy world of fashion. “Staggering” advance sales at Somerset House indicate that the Master of Couture has still got it – and we all want it.

Valentino: Master of Couture: 29 November 2012 – 3 March 2013, Embankment Galleries, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA; admission £12.50; somersethouse.org.uk