Arrivederla, Valentino

The legend says farewell with a magnificent swansong.


So what does a Roman couture legend who has worked day in, day out sketching beautiful dresses for almost half a century do the day after his retirement show?

“Certainly I am not the sort of person to be sitting all day long watching television,” Valentino says, pursing his lips extra tightly.

An iris-detailed spring couture evening look.

Instead, the morning after an army of models in red gowns streamed down the runway in his farewell show, held in a cathedral-like tent at the Musée Rodin, the designer was strolling into the soaring, neo-Renaissance splendor of the Salon des Arcades at Paris’s City Hall. Karl Lagerfeld was at his side, and after he received a medal of the city from a fawning Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who addressed him affectionately as “cher maestro,” Valentino quoted a song made famous by Josephine Baker.

“I have two loves, my country and Paris,” Valentino said in Italian-accented French as a thunderstorm of flashbulbs erupted before him.

A page of fashion history definitely turned when Valentino became only the second, after Yves Saint Laurent, of a batch of seventy-something design greats—Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani and Oscar de la Renta are among the others—to hang up his seasoned scissors. If it seemed an occasion that called for emotions of the moist variety, Valentino and his longtime business partner and alter ego, Giancarlo Giammetti, would have none of it.

“Happy, happy! Not sad at all! It is not a collection with tears in between,” Valentino insists when asked about his swan-song show, chockablock with frothy summer dresses worn with big hats or matching gloves handpainted with floral fantasies. “I leave with great joy in a certain way, because I leave after 45 years on top of my career.”

“It was exactly what we wanted: a grand and very nice retirement and not a funeral,” is Giammetti’s take on the January evening, which concluded with a private dinner at the designer’s château, the 17th-century Domaine de Wideville, marked by boozy but not overly sentimental speeches. There were about 130 guests, Valentino’s usual mix of actresses, royals, jetsetters and assorted family members.

Rumbles about Valentino’s retirement started last year, when three unfathomably glamorous days in Rome were devoted to celebrating the 45th anniversary of his fashion house. That meant everything from aerial acrobatics and fireworks at the foot of the Colosseum to a lavish black-tie dinner on the grounds of the Villa Borghese, where guests were treated to views of rare Caravaggios and Canovas, as well as a surprise concert by Annie Lennox. Closing the circle, Lennox’s “No More I Love Yous” was the soundtrack in Paris for the designer’s final bow and signature stiff-armed, all-in-the-wrist wave.

Not that the man could very well disappear entirely from the fashion and social radar. First he headed to Rio with a gaggle of his intimates—Tamara Beckwith, Georgina Brandolini and Tim Jeffries among them—to celebrate Giammetti’s birthday and take in Carnaval’s delights. Then Valentino, who had a retrospective in Rome last July, plunged into his vast archive once more for another exhibition set to open in June, this time at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. He’ll also be facing the flashbulbs in May, if Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary, Valentino: The Last Emperor, makes its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. And after that another huge project awaits: a permanent Valentino fashion museum in Rome in a Twenties-era building that formerly housed a fish market.

Asked about other retirement plans at Valentino’s gilded Paris headquarters, a postcard-perfect view of Place Vendôme visible through its windows, the designer demurs: “It’s so brand-new, I cannot tell you…. Maybe when I’m in the Mediterranean on my boat, instead of three, four days, I can stay more.” Still, his list of possibilities goes far beyond leisure pursuits and includes a strong desire to design costumes for ballet and opera, about which he is passionate. “I would love to do La Traviata, I have to tell you,” he says enthusiastically. During a swing through Moscow in February, the designer met with Anatoly Iksanov, general director of the Bolshoi Theatre, about designing costumes for its productions.

Born in Rome in 1932, Valentino Garavani was obsessed with fashion and glamour from an early age. He moved to Paris at 17 to study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, going on to work for Jean Desses and Guy Laroche before returning to his hometown and founding a couture house on the Via Condotti that would ultimately become one of the most famous and luxurious in the world. In 1998 he and Giammetti sold their company, by then an empire of ready-to-wear and licensed products, to the Italian conglomerate HdP for $300 million.

Recent years, however, have been tumultuous ones for the Valentino company, which was later sold to Marzotto SpA and is now controlled by the European private equity firm Permira. And though Giammetti stresses that they have good relationships with the new owners, he acknowledges that it’s an opportune time for the designer and him to bow out. “Fashion is no longer such a challenge; it’s more about thinking about the bottom line,” he says, his swept-back shock of silver hair a perfect foil for his chalk-striped suit. “The choice of Mr. Valentino was right for him, and right for me, as well.”

Valentino’s current management appointed Alessandra Facchinetti, a Roman designer who cut her teeth under Tom Ford at Gucci and more recently heated up down-jacket specialist Moncler with her Gamme Rouge range, to be Valentino’s successor. To be sure, Facchinetti has big—not to mention bespoke and perfectly polished—shoes to fill. Beyond the unimpeachable elegance of Valentino’s fashion looms an impossibly extravagant lifestyle that fed the designer’s dream: his château with its million roses; art-stuffed apartments in Rome, London and New York; the chalet in Gstaad; the 152-foot yacht with a Peter Marino interior.

“There aren’t that many around like him,” notes Doris Brynner, the Chilean socialite who worked for Valentino early in his career and introduced him to some of his most famous clients, including Audrey Hepburn and the Empress Farah Pahlavi. “For 45 years, I’ve never seen Valentino with a hair out of place. He’s amazing.” In 1979, when Pahlavi accompanied her husband, the Shah of Iran, into exile, she chose a Valentino coat and matching fur hat so she could hold her head up high on a terrible day. “He has a good heart; he’s generous,” Pahlavi notes backstage at the farewell show, where she sat with the designer in a makeshift living room set up next to a flotilla of ironing boards waiting to steam any kinks out of his couture confections. While Valentino always surrounds himself with magnificent beauty and perfection—everything from his furniture and his gardens to his dinner table must be faultless—his intimates describe a playful, easygoing nature that somehow puts everyone at ease.

“People who have great qualities do not need to show off,” Pahlavi reasons.

“He’s so down-to-earth and tangible. What impresses me more than anything is his love for life,” says Lucy Liu, who joined Uma Thurman, Claudia Schiffer, Emanuel Ungaro and Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, among others, at the final show, which culminated in a tearless, but far from joyless, ovation. Brynner emphasizes Valentino’s unshakable positive streak, recalling, “If he’s hosting a dinner and suddenly it’s pissing with rain, he’ll say, ‘Just the weather I need for the roses in my garden.’”

Despite the fact that they’ve retired, Valentino and Giammetti plan to maintain an office in London to evaluate and manage future projects together. “I don’t see why we should stop working, doing something related to fashion like a school of fashion, a museum of fashion…theater, movies,” muses Giammetti. Although the two men are highly social and media savvy, one gets the sense that they will relish a reprieve from the fashion world’s hot glare. Backstage before the finale, a tense Giammetti paced the room and groused about Tyrnauer’s cameras, which had followed him and the designer for almost two years and were back to record “extras” for the DVD version of the documentary. “Relax a moment: Don’t break my balls!” he barked at the crew at one point.

Valentino jokes that the cameras whirred so much and for so long, heaven knows what they captured: “Going home in the evening in my car, maybe with my finger in my nose!” And while he might not miss the media attention, sketchpad-withdrawal syndrome is almost certain to afflict him. “I am a designer—all my life. Every single scarf, every single show, every single jewel, I draw it myself. I love to design. This is my only problem,” he confesses, shrugging the perfect shoulders of his perfect suit.

“Finishing [the last couture] collection, I handed all the drawings to the workrooms and, waiting for the fittings, I had nothing to do,” he continues. “Usually I’m drawing the future collection, maybe two future collections. And I was sitting there with my pencil doing nothing, and so I put it in the garbage. And this is what I think I will miss a lot.”

Valentino and Giammetti: Stefano Bianchi; runway: Giovanni Giannoni