A fly-on-the-wall documentary shows the legendary Italian designer's last two years in charge of his fashion house.
It’s recently become clear that two industries - fashion and movies - make compatible bedfellows. Fashionistas flocked to see The September Issue, a documentary about Vogue magazine and its formidable editor Anna Wintour. The Devil Wears Prada, a knowing account of fashion biz machinations, was a big hit. The Sex and the City films derive part of their appeal from the chance they offer their target audience to ogle the clothes worn by its lead characters.
Next in line is Valentino: The Last Emperor, which can be seen next week on BBC Four prior to a DVD release in September, during London Fashion Week.
It’s a waspishly entertaining fly-on-the-wall glimpse behind the scenes that shows how the great Italian couturier designs his gowns, often rides roughshod over his employees, throws tantrums and gets into bitchy squabbles with his long-time professional and personal partner, Giancarlo Giammetti.
Even for those who care little about haute couture it exerts real fascination. This documentary about the legendary Italian designer was shot during the two years before he relinquished control of the fashion house over which he presided for 45 years.
It culminates in a lavish tribute to his career in Rome, a celebration, as someone says, ’worthy of the Sun King.’ When you see the style in which Valentino and Giammetti live, the comment doesn’t seem exaggerated.
The film shows their many luxury homes, in Rome, Paris, London, Gstaad, Tuscany and New York, apparently custom-built to contain Valentino’s oversized ego. He also has a 150-foot yacht, in which he sails the Mediterranean each summer. And wherever the two men go, they are accompanied by their five pet pugs, which provide comic relief in the film.
Valentino is astonishingly rich and well-connected, as befits a man whose international breakthrough was dressing Jacqueline Kennedy back in the 1960s.
The Venice Film Festival, where he arrived to promote the film and proved himself a star attraction. Valentino: The Last Emperor, at $1.2 million, is only a low-budget documentary. So it was staggering to watch the designer, by his very presence in Venice, effectively take over the festival for the day, hijacking it from real movie stars who were also in town, including George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron.
Everywhere he went, this dapper little man, now 78 and with a leathery, alarmingly orange tan, was cheered, applauded and screamed at by fans, just like a movie idol.
An Italian journalist watched all this, rolling his eyes. “Here in Italy, there’s the Pope,” he said, “and then there’s Valentino.”
Then there was the official screening and party for the Valentino film, a gathering that for sheer star power and glamour easily outclassed any other in the festival. It brought together the worlds of high art, fashion, movies and Venetian history. The red-carpet screening was held in the city’s legendary opera house Teatro La Fenice, while the post-screening party was held at the Guggenheim Museum. Guests turned out in a manner appropriate for such opulent venues.
Valentino, in an elegant white tuxedo, presided over proceedings. But it was his stellar guest list, including actresses and supermodels all done up to the nines, that caught the eye.
Elizabeth Hurley (who briefly appears in the film) arrived in a plunging satin gown; guess who designed it. Theron, Claire Danes and Diane Kruger were among the movie actresses strutting their stuff, while Eva Herzigova and Natalia Vodianova headed the sisterhood of models on display.
The film was directed by Vanity Fair journalist Matt Tyrnauer, who offers a largely sympathetic portrait of these two men, though not to the extent of shutting off his cameras when they go into hissy-fit mode - which is often.
Still, the film seems a fitting climax to a remarkable career. “I felt very excited about a documentary of my life being made,” Valentino told me. He was even relaxed about the sequences that showed him being short-tempered: “There were moments of anger, but I was completely myself from beginning to end. That’s how I am. I wanted to show who I am, because I couldn’t care less.”
Tyrnauer confirmed as much, recalling he met the two men through writing a well-received 7,500 word piece on Valentino for Vanity Fair: “But the movie’s not based on that piece. It was the first time they have submitted to an in-depth analysis. It wasn’t easy. They’re private.”
It was a remarkable experience, Tyrnauer added, to live in effect with Valentino for two years: “He was wired for sound throughout the movie. They screamed at us [the crew] occasionally, and most of it is on screen.”
Giametti added: “We didn’t want it to look corporate or sponsored by us. But there were moments we would have preferred not to go in the documentary.”
It’s a film, then, of real treats, not least of which is watching Telegraph fashion editor Hilary Alexander grilling Valentino in an interview. As a child, she asks sweetly, did he ever want to be anything but a fashion designer? A train driver, perhaps? Valentino never did. No surprise there, then.
Yet for many, Giammetti steals the picture. It doesn’t hurt a bit that he is handsome enough to be a film star in his own right. His relationship with the legendary designer, as portrayed in the film, is intriguing; while Valentino may be the creative genius, Giammetti’s brilliant business brain has clearly helped his fashion house become an empire.
Valentino agrees that the world he inhabits is almost like a fantasy: “The world of fashion is a particular one,” he said. “It’s the subject of great interest. Shows of new collections are always full. It’s a world of dreams. I don’t think haute couture will ever die.”
And he should know. He has dressed many of the world’s most famous, beautiful and glamorous women.
He singles out Jackie Kennedy: “She was the lady who made Valentino, and I made hundreds of dresses for her.”
Yet his favourite dress was the elegant vintage black-and white gown which Julia Roberts wore to accept her Oscar for Erin Brockovich.
“I saw it on TV,” he beamed. “If movie stars love your clothes, that’s very important to me.”