In Valentino: The Last Emperor, legendary Italian haute couture fashion designer Valentino pronounces that he knows what women want – women want to be beautiful. After watching a documentary filled with Valentino’s jaw-droppingly glamourous dresses, I confess I think this short perma-tanned gay man might just be right. Stuff paid maternity leave and workplace equality – let me swan around in a hand-sewn, hand-embroidered Valentino red goddess gown!
The film follows Valentino and his business partner and companion of almost fifty years, Giancarlo Giammetti, into the inner sanctum of Valentino’s workshops, offices and palatial homes. We see Valentino sketching beautiful gowns, assessing intricate embroidery and dismissing sets as ‘a desert just waiting for the lion and the rifle to come next’ and ideas for his anniversary celebrations as ‘like a circus’. Meanwhile, the very patient Giammetti juggles Valentino’s head-tossing artistic temperament and with the thankless headaches and politics of running the large business – he says himself that he keeps the good things for Valentino and the problems for himself. When he’s publicly acknowledged for his contribution in Valentino’s Legion d’Honneur speech (apparently Valentino rarely demonstrates appreciation for what others do for him) Giammetti is obviously moved. Their old-married-couple bickering are the funniest parts of the film – they argue about where they met, they argue about the sand dunes in a catwalk show, they argue about whether Valentino is too tanned.
The film is also an exploration of the lost genteel world of haute couture and the new world of fashion as a cut throat business. While flawless beauty is appearing on the catwalk, we become aware of machinations in the boardroom with rumours of ownership changes, Valentino being ousted and power play moves.
The film’s finale is also the curtain drawing on Valentino’s forty-five year career. Returning to Rome, he produces one last haute couture show to coincide with a spectacular retrospective exhibition and grand party at the Colosseum filled with his friends and celebrities. As Valentino accepted his standing ovation, I thought this was the most poignant, most human moment in the film about a fabulous, vainglorious world that I’ll never be part of. As the tears welled up in his eyes, I wondered what it felt like for a man to see his life’s work on display, adored by others, and to retire from a business that bares his name but was no longer his own.
Read The Age’s review on the film here.