Valentino: The Last Emperor

Valentino sourrounded by his work and pugs.

The Matt Tyrnauer-directed documentary, Valentino: The Last Emperor, which is currently playing at Film Forum, is rather touching, as it shows the swan song of the Italian designer. Most poignant is its depiction of Valentino’s relation with his life and business companion Giancarlo Giammetti, who seems to have patiently supported the designer throughout his career.

From a fashion historical point of view, the film remarks on the end of an era of finely hand-made couture gowns. One of the most interesting parts of the movie shows the highly skilled seamstresses draping and constructing the garments entirely by hand. It’s also significant to hear Valentino recount how his interest in fashion stemmed from watching Hollywood films such as the highly choreographed Busby Berkeley extravaganzas and the 1946 musical the Ziegfeld Follies—which was, in fact, a precursor to the fashion show as spectacle. Valentino, like many Italian designers of the post-war era, was thoroughly inspired by Hollywood glamour, especially by way of Via Veneto, which was famously immortalized by Fellini in La Dolce Vita. In the case of Valentino, this fascination with Hollywood met with an interest and a thorough knowledge of the Parisian haute couture.

Ultimately, the designer’s fondness for the art of dress-making, his attention to the details of the craft combined with his love of an opulent over-the-top lifestyle, put him at odds with the market forces at hand. His 45-year career, however, has extended an influence on generations of designers and consumers alike, while the man himself, in his studied mannerism, has certainly left a strong impression. As a kid, I remember my father recounting how in the early ’70s he shopped in Valentino’s menswear boutique, which was then in Rome’s Via Condotti, and was greatly flattered that the designer himself advised him on what to buy—a fact that to this day my father considers an undeniable stamp of approval on his style.

Valentino and his head seamstress at work in his atelier