Brisbane showcases a couture great

By Alice Neville

A Valentino Evening Ensemble, from the Autumn/Winter 2007-08 Haute Couture collection. Photo / Supplied
A Valentino Evening Ensemble, from the Autumn/Winter 2007-08 Haute Couture collection. Photo / Supplied

A major exhibition of the work of celebrated designer Valentino opened in Brisbane this weekend, showcasing 100 haute couture designs from the past 50 years.

From Jacqui O's 1968 wedding gown to Julia Roberts' 2001 Oscars frock, each of the intricate ensembles featuring at Valentino Retrospective: Past/Present/Future at the Queensland's Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) has been entirely handmade.

The result is a display of such impressive workmanship that a love of fashion isn't a prerequisite to enjoy the show - although it would be hard to come away from the exhibition without a newfound appreciation for the artform of haute couture.

The exhibition is based on the major retrospective of Valentino's work that showed at Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 2008 and coincided with the designer's retirement.

The lead-up to the show and the inimitable Valentino Garavani's decision to finally conclude his incredible career, was documented in the film Valentino: The Last Emperor, which showed at the New Zealand Film Festival last year.

Each of the garments was housed in a specially made wooden box to be transported from Paris to the somewhat unlikely location of Brisbane.

So how did such an important exhibition end up in that most Aussie of Aussie cities rather than Milan, New York, Tokyo or even Melbourne? As Queensland Art Gallery director Tony Ellwood put it, "We had the gall to ask."

The Paris exhibition was never conceived to tour, Ellwood explains, but he was interested in showing a couture exhibition at the gallery.

"I wanted to do something new, something that hadn't been done in Brisbane - I felt that would be a good way of developing a new audience," he says.

"It just happened that we were all aware of Valentino's retrospective and we thought 'there's a couturier who connects to people'."

So the gallery approached the House of Valentino and, amazingly, they agreed.

Although Queensland - usually equated more with sun and sand than culture by Kiwis - may seem an unlikely location for a major exhibition of haute couture, GoMA is an impressive gallery and in the past few years Australia's third-largest city has really come into its own.

Brisbane's riverside area South Bank houses not only the gallery, museum and performing arts centre but also some excellent cafes, bars and restaurants.

It brings to mind London's Bankside with the Tate galleries, the Globe and the Borough Market, but the fact there's a man-made beach - and that the mid-winter temperature usually tops 20 degrees - means it's hard to forget you're well and truly in Queensland.

This weekend's opening of the exhibition coincided with the city's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival, also based at South Bank, but the exhibition itself runs until November 14 and there are a number of talks and guided tours taking place during the three-month run.

* Valentino Retrospective: Past/Present/Future, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia, 7 August - 14 November 2010.

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