Clothes That Made The Man

Valentino Garavani points at a pretty black shift with an ostrich-plume hem in a display case at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. "This was a dress [I designed] for the actress Monica Vitti for 'La Notte' in 1963," says the Roman couturier. "But it's very modern, no? Every young woman would like to have it." No doubt. And that is exactly the strength of "Valentino: Themes and Variations," a terrific retrospective of nearly 50 years of his work at the museum in the Louvre (through Sept. 21). "I am like a freight train," says Valentino during an exclusive preview tour of the exhibit. "Working on the details, twisting them and playing with them over the years, but always staying on the same track. For me, the greatest compliment when you look at this dress from 1965," he says, pointing to a slim black cocktail number, "is telling me that it would be perfect for tomorrow night."

Viewers will find themselves wishing they had someplace to wear such fabulous frocks. The show is not chronological but broken into subjects: silhouette; prints such as floral, animal or geometric; materials such as fur; techniques like pleating or embroidery; colors including white, black and, of course, Valentino red. The way the clothes are lit and displayed recalls Valentino's fashion shows: light, airy, colorful, deeply elegant, understated and, above all, joyful—like the designer himself. Viewed as a whole, it is a fascinating cultural history of the latter part of the 20th century, prominently displaying such items as the white toga-like gown Elizabeth Taylor wore to the Rome premiere of "Spartacus" and the white lace blouse and crepe-georgette skirt ensemble in which Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis.

The show came together rather quickly. Pamela Golbin, head curator of the decorative-arts museum, knew Valentino was approaching the end of his long career and wanted his input in developing an exhibit. So she spent a year poring over his archives and traveling with him to his homes in London, New York and Rome to interview and observe him. "He established his stylistic vocabulary early on, and over 49 years he refined it," Golbin says. He soon became the preferred couturier of the jet set, creating smart tailored suits and liquid gowns in rich tones for his socialite friends like Gianni Agnelli's widow, Marella, and Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece.

Despite Valentino's talent for both living and creating clothes for the über-luxurious lifestyle, he came from humble beginnings. He was born in 1932 in Voghera, south of Milan, to an electrical-supply businessman and his wife, who named her son after the silent-film star Rudolph Valentino. Early in his youth, he developed an interest in fashion, and at 18 he moved to Paris to attend the same design school where Yves Saint Laurent had studied. While there, Valentino scored a job at the grand couture house of Jean Dessès, and then with Guy Laroche. He spent his spare time hanging out in cafés with his aspiring designer friends Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. After Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld became the heads of Christian Dior and Jean Patou respectively, Valentino returned to Italy and settled in Rome to launch his own label.

He presented his debut collection, called Ibis, in 1959, backed by his father and his father's business partner. It included the first Valentino red cocktail dress, with a fitted, strapless bodice and a bell skirt covered with full-blown fabric roses, which is on display early in the show. Valentino later said that the collection "was full of ideas, but it had no personality … Gradually everything I did became softer and more elegant."

Not long afterward, he met a young Roman named Giancarlo Giammetti, who quit his studies to help reorganize the company after Valentino's father's partner pulled out. They moved into an 18th-century palazzo on the via Gregoriana, a stone's throw from the Spanish Steps. Soon Valentino was making dresses for the most glamorous movie stars of the era. Along with the Monica Vitti shift, there are several pretty minidresses from Audrey Hepburn's closet on display.

But Valentino was still not well known outside Italy. That all changed in 1962, when he presented his collection at the prestigious Sala Bianca in Florence, a trade show attended by major international retailers. They went wild for him, ordering racks of clothes. In 1968 he made headlines for his innovative white-on-white collection of mod minidresses and gowns. That's when Jackie O became not only an ambassador and muse for Valentino but also a great friend. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Valentino dressed the jet set as well as befriended them. His designs embodied their lifestyle—rich, chic, always appropriate. But there was one thing missing: the glory of being a "grand couturier" in the French fashion. In 1989 he decided to rectify that by showing his haute couture collection not in Rome, as he had for 30 years, but in Paris. "For Italy this is treason," declared the veteran journalist Janie Samet in Le Figaro.

But it worked. During the takeover period of the 1990s, when publicly traded corporations such as LVMH gobbled up small family- or founder-run couture houses, Valentino resisted and remained independent. The show exhibits several masterpieces from this period, including the 1992 black gown with strands of white ribbon falling down in his signature V that Julia Roberts wore when she accepted the best-actress Oscar in 2001. Facing retirement age and having no heirs, Valentino eventually gave in, selling the business in 1998 for $330 million. The company has since changed hands several times, with Valentino and Giammetti remaining in their respective roles as designer and CEO. The pair finally retired this January following Valentino's haute couture show.

In the past 15 years, Valentino has seen many of his peers retire, among them Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro and Hanae Mori, some watching hopelessly as their couture ateliers were shuttered by their new owners. And Valentino was profoundly moved by the recent death of his old chum Saint Laurent. But judging from the exhibit, he has plenty of creative energy left. His last runway show was a mere six months ago, and much of it—including a white jersey column trimmed in silver baubles—is on display. And his contributions to the show, such as the parade-like display of red gowns and the giant light panels brightening the galleries, make it feel vibrant and modern. When asked what his legacy might be, he thought for a moment and then responded, "I hope people will say, 'Mr. Valentino, he did something for fashion, no?' " Indeed, he did.