My friend Ben, who has been working as a preparator at the new Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco and who is known to make a corset or two in his spare time, recommended Valentino: The Last Emperor to me when last we met, probably when we were talking about our mutual Project Runway love. What the PR contestants make wild stabs at, Valentino has been doing for the last 45 years and the glimpses into the process of making his collection that this documentary provides are so fun. I can’t say I have ever liked Valentino’s clothes (his dresses can make even a young starlet look like a nipped-and-tucked Euro heiress, his “muses”) but his vision of Woman comes across loud and clear.
I found myself wishing we could spend more time spent with the pinched, sassy seamstresses in their white room and less at Valentino’s various yachts and villas, seeing how it is really done. The one dress we follow through the documentary (desultory as a piece of film-making), is a pleated column of white, with a flat, ribbon-like bodice. This dress is beautiful in all its incarnations, from that ultra-modern base, to a version with just two added vertical ruffles, to the ultimate full skirt of frills, to sequins on the edge of each wave. Valentino being Valentino he had to add and add, but these sequences show the trick is in getting the structure right so the sequins are merely icing, not the whole cake.
The secondary pleasure of Valentino was watching architecture so firmly put in its place. In Valentino’s world there’s no difference between the Romans, Richard Meier and dunes of semolina sand. A 45th anniversary exhibition of Valentino gowns takes place in the Ara Pacis Museum, the controversial contemporary Meier structure in the heart of Rome. Valentino’s partner Giancarlo Giammetti scouts it and you can see him looking right past the august contents and even the glass-and-travertine frame and seeing the vanilla-hued space as backdrop. The same way inhabitants of Meier houses try to warm them up with cushions and plants, Valentino warms up the museum with dresses. The mannequins and the people who love them are the population necessary to make the architecture come alive. The Colosseum, too, looks refreshed by its encounter with Valentino’s fairies of fashion.