Valentino: Master of Couture

I had the pleasure of visiting Somerset House’s amazing Valentino exhibit a couple weeks back. Here are my thoughts. If you’re in London by chance, you’ve got two days left to catch it!

Few names conjure images like Valentino: ethereal beaded gowns floating down the runway, striking black and white ensembles on the red carpet, and the signature shade of red fashion enthusiasts associate with luxury.

Valentino Garavani’s glamorous world has long been accessible only to A-listers, but Somerset House’s exhibition Valentino: Master of Couture invites the public to walk through his exclusive empire.

Visitors first lay eyes not on a gown, but on a gargantuan 3-d white flower that hangs over the displays. A projector gives the illusion of it blooming into a “Valentino Red” flower before small crimson buds and vines, à la S/S 1998, sprawl across its petals.

The impressive sight makes the perfect prologue to the exhibition curated by Alistair O’Neil and designed by the Kinmonth Monfreda team; a trip through the show celebrates the blossoming of fashion’s last emperor.

First displayed are some of Valentino’s personal artifacts. He shares notes from the likes of Anna Wintour (whose handwriting is big, loopy and playful), Donatella Versace and Meryl Streep. Photographs of Valentino with Jacqueline Kennedy charmingly contrast polaroids of the man and his beloved pugs.

A collection of sketches demonstrates Valentino’s visionary talent. A drawing on Copa Cabana Palace headed paper indicates inspiration struck all over. One can imagine Valentino rifling through his hotel room in search of paper on which he could record his idea.

The most anticipated part of the show is the catwalk. Set up like a fashion show, guests make their way down a runway lined with chairs reserved for everyone from Lady Gaga to Princess Margaret and mannequins modeling 130 of Valentino’s most iconic looks.

Designs from Valentino’s five-decade long career are represented and the curator’s decision to show them not chronologically, but by style is intelligent. Visitors see the breadth and variation of Valentino’s work as well as how his house is built on signature styles that recur decade after decade.

The featured black and white gowns, including the velvet and tulle dress Julia Roberts wore to the 2001 Academy Awards, are some of Valentino’s most iconic pieces and dramatic up lighting do the ensembles justice.

In an eye-catching group of orange and pink pieces catch, an A/W 1966/67 beaded peach silk crepe dress is striking.

It wouldn’t be a Valentino show without red. Several crimson beauties made the curator’s cut including the taffeta gown Anne Hathaway donned at the 2011 Oscars and a 1996 chiffon and tulle gown with point d’esprit paneling.

Down a staircase at the end of the catwalk the wedding dress of Marie Chantal Miller, Crown Princess of Greece, stands on a platform like the finale of an haute couture show.

The exhibition might have culminated here, but finally an atelier table displays the painstaking techniques Valentino’s seamstresses have mastered.

The team behind his creations undoubtedly deserves tribute, however the finale should have been a pièce de résistance that celebrates the career of visionary Valentino.

Nonetheless, Somerset House’s exhibition leaves fashion lovers dreaming of Valentino. If the show makes one thing certain, it’s that Valentino’s work is truly timeless and his talent unmatched; he is the master of couture.


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