Now in London until March, this exhibition on the master of couture examines much more than his creations, says Zinah Nur Sharif.
We all know him as the master of couture, the last emperor and the lover of all things beautiful. The work of Valentino Garavani is familiar to his fans around the world, and now we have the chance to see his most exquisite haute couture designs up-close and personal at London’s Somerset House.
This major exhibition celebrates not only the work but also the life of Valentino. One of his remarkable signatures, a large metallic flower, greets visitors at the entrance. It instantly heightens your anticipation of the exquisite haute couture pieces within; a swarm of chiffon, lace and glitter.
Is that what you have in mind? That’s what I had in mind as well – before I entered the venue. My expectations were proven wrong – but not in a bad way.
When I entered, a member of staff warmly welcomed me and briefly explained how the exhibition was laid out and how it is intended to be viewed. The first part is very personal and intimate; it almost feels like entering a private room full of personal items. Included are letters from famous admirers, invitation cards to the most prestigious of fashion shows, floor plans of past events, photographs from his personal album and old press cuttings. Valentino did what any of us would do: collect little treasures of achievements to serve as a humble reminder of where it all started. It’s heart-warming to see one of the greatest designers sharing his career timeline and personal story of his adventurous life.
This is followed by a room full of mannequins dressed in the most marvellous Valentino haute couture gowns from the past, all numbered and colour-coordinated by era and season. The room was set up to resemble a catwalk. Ironically, visitors walk along the path usually reserved for models, while the ‘models’ (mannequins) are placed on both sides, some seated and others standing. There are some empty seats, with name labels of celebrities and public figures. All the celebrities included, from Charlize Theron to Jackie Kennedy Onassis, had been a part of Valentino’s fashion shows. I marvelled at the dresses and could see them up close, and also got to learn more about the fabrics, couture techniques, and the details of each piece.
One-hundred-thirty haute couture designs to soak in and still I wanted more. Luckily, that’s not where the exhibition ends: a room with a large glass table, containing several boxes, comes next. Some of the glass boxes contained pieces of beautiful materials that appeared on certain couture designs. I wondered what they meant and whether the fabric pieces just served as a detailed version of the gowns. A looping video shows nothing more than two hands, demonstrating how each couture technique is hand-cut, sewn and stitched. I was in awe of how much time it took to create these pieces; how much precision, detail and care each piece carried.
Starry-eyed, I walked into the last part of the exhibition – the gift shop! Oddly enough, it’s exclusively for exhibition ticket holders only, meaning you can’t cheat and just go directly to purchase goodies. It includes clothes from the 50th anniversary of Valentino, elite books, perfumes, shawls and handbags. Finally, there are postcards and a book specially designed and made for the exhibition. I couldn’t resist and picked up few goodies for myself.
Next, I went to see the movie, which was screened only for one day, as it’s readily available on DVD. I won’t go into details because I think it’s best appreciated to see it for yourself. But I will tell you few things: you’ll get insight on Valentino’s personal life, you’ll get to know his characteristics, his sense of humour and persona, you’ll get a view of his atelier in Rome and find new respect for not only his work, but also the man himself. You’ll learn that fashion houses aren’t what they seem: they aren’t run by designers and aren’t as exclusive as most people believe. Rather, they are owned and operated by larger corporations that either control the fashion house entirely – including its creative direction – or have a fair say on the business direction. You will learn a lot.
Try to watch the film before viewing the exhibition. That way, you’ll know more about Valentino, his work and what it takes to design and make gowns.
This exhibition serves up more than just admiration; it teaches visitors about couture, about the hard work put into each gown, and about the personal life of one man and his career. It is worthy to note that Valentino opened this exhibition not to have people admire his work, but to give visitors a glimpse at the paths he has taken and to bring some knowledge of couture home with them.
What Valentino set out to do was make beautiful creations that make women look beautiful. In the end, he gave the world much more than that.
If you’re in London or are planning to visit London between December and March the 3rd, 2013, visit the exhibition. You’ll learn that fashion isn’t as shallow as it appears! And if you want to start a fashion business, here’s a start: examine the footsteps of a legendary designer.