Indeed, there is little to place this exhibition on the work of the now 80-year-old Italian fashion designer in time. Instead it opts to display a wealth of garments from across Valentino’s career - 138 to be exact - from a knee length minimalist navy blue cocktail dress from 1959, to the extravagant 1995 lace wedding dress of Marie-Chantal, Crown Princess of Greece.
The exhibition uses Somerset House’s long and narrow Embankment Gallery to its full effect. The room has been reimagined as a catwalk - designed by Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfreda - down which visitors walk. Sat on the rows of seats positioned at the side, mannequins have been posed wearing Valentino creations, dating from the 1950s until today.
A fortune has been spent on the mannequins and it shows. Even if their plastic bodies are rendered in unreal pastel colours, their posture is realistic. They bring life to the garments, and the subtle and sensitive lighting enhances this effect.
What is highlighted on this 60-metre long catwalk is that Valentino is a true master couturier, a figure who has dedicated his career to making beautiful and rare things. Valentino pushed techniques to their limits, but always with subtlety and always with consistency. It is difficult in fact, to see differences between garments Valentino made in the 1950s and 1980s and those created by the brand’s current creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaulo Piccioli, who joined the house in October 2008 following Valentino’s retirement earlier in the year.
Valentino Garavani was born in Voghera in Italy in 1932 and came to Paris in 1950 to study at École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. He quickly gained a position at the Greek couturier Jean Dessès’ Paris atelier and, in 1957, the French fashion designer Guy Laroche asked Valentino to join his couture salon. After almost a decade in the heartland of couture, he returned to Italy to set up the House of Valentino in 1959.
Since then Valentino has built a steady reputation for making feminine, flattering dresses that have been critically received, as well as a financial success for the designer and his business partner Giancarlo Giammetti.
From early on, Valentino had the opportunity of dressing celebrities, from Elizabeth Taylor to Jackie Kennedy. The glass cabinets in the first part of the exhibition are full of tokens of these people’s affection for Valentino as a designer - personal notes on correspondence cards and letters signed by the likes of Vogue editors past and present (Diana Vreeland and Anna Wintour).
This is a rarified world, one which highlights fashion’s elitism and escapism. It is also a world which is dying a slow death due to the fashion conglomorates insatiable appetite for more profit. Valentino was educated in the art of couture and made his name as a couturier, but his last couture show was staged in 2008. Earlier this year, the Valentino brand was purchased by an investment firm backed by the Qatari royal family, moving the brand outside of Italian ownership for the first time since its foundation.
The time, skill and capital needed to create haute couture in return for the exposure and capital gained is simply not worth it from a business point of view. Instead, putting Julia Roberts in a Valentino gown at the Oscars is a more efficient vehicle for exposure, albeit one that does not necessarily aid the survival of the unique art form in which Valentino was trained.
Testament to Valentino’s appreciation of his craft is found in the last room of the exhibition and in the glossary of the small brochure which accompanies it. Here, details of garments are displayed, next to videos of how these details are technically achieved. These techniques have names like Incrostazioni (cut lace is laid upon a tulle base) and Rose di Volant (lengths of organza silk are cut on the bias and shaped to form open roses). Valentino has even invented some techniques himself, such as Budellini, where double charmeuse silk is rolled and sewn around a looped length of wool, creating a rippled surface effect on the fabric.
Viewed in conjunction with the 2011 launch of the online Valentino museum, there is a sense of summing-up in this display: both of Valentino's career and the industry in which he worked that is now undergoing rapid change. Maybe that is why the context-less display is so refreshing - it forces the visitor to focus on the garment, and the garment alone. And from that, one stands to learn a lot. If you care to look.