Fashion's Last Emperor

By Zoe Walker

An exhibition celebrating the work of Valentino opens in Brisbane - Viva was there.

Production still from Valentino: The Last Emperor. Photo / Supplied
Production still from Valentino: The Last Emperor. Photo / Supplied

The hardest part is not reaching out to touch them. One hundred exquisite gowns; an amazing collection of haute couture, new and old. There's a blush pink empire dress with a stunning organdy petal cape from 2007. A blue and white satin evening gown, from 1968, with stand-out ornamental print. An Audrey Hepburn approved outfit; a beaded white bodice and skirt intricately embroidered with pearls and "floweretes" (also from 1968). These are the beautifully crafted pieces of art displayed throughout two large rooms as part of Valentino Retrospective: Past/Present/Future; with a giant red neon V greeting you as you walk in and opera bellowing throughout the exhibition space, it's quite the powerful experience.

A celebration of one of fashion's greats, the exhibition opened in Brisbane over the weekend to much fanfare and extravagance (it is the first time the collection has been seen outside Paris, so it is a rather big deal). It is all rather fitting for a designer who has been dubbed the Last Emperor; a man as famous for his elegant designs as he is for his flamboyant lifestyle.

Want proof of his fabulousness? Watch Valentino: The Last Emperor, one of the best fashion documentaries of recent times, which follows the perma-tanned designer as he celebrates 40 years and makes the difficult decision to retire. Some scenes from the film - Valentino draping red fabric on a fit model to create a gown, his hilariously grumpy seamstresses working on a couture dress - are projected on walls throughout the exhibition.

Valentino and celebrity go hand in hand, so there are, of course, many dresses on display here made famous by his celebrity friends and clients: Cate Blanchett's yellow Oscars gown, Julia Roberts' black velvet Oscars dress with tulle train, a few pieces from the Audrey Hepburn collection. This red carpet connection does make you "shop" the collection of couture; if you were going to an awards ceremony, what dress would you pick to wear? It's interesting to see the wide array of choices - a reflection of the wide appeal of Valentino perhaps, and definitely a reflection of the distinctive themes that appear throughout his archives - one person in our group chooses a red floor-length number once worn by Brooke Shields, another is fascinated by a pink and orange dress with ostrich feather fringing. I can't remove myself from the white-themed area of the exhibition, with several pieces from his landmark and very famous 1968 "White Collection". Here there is the aforementioned Audrey Hepburn flower applique ensemble, a dramatic cream coloured wool circular cape worn with white knee-high boots, a pleated chiffon gown with ostrich feather trim worn by Elizabeth Taylor, and my favourite outfit of the entire exhibition, Jackie Kennedy Onassis' dress for her marriage to Aristotle Onassis - a high-necked, long-sleeved blouse with lace appliques worn with a short pleated skirt. So simple, yet so stunning. There is also, of course, a section dedicated to Valentino's trademark (literally) Russo Red; simple dresses that pack a massive punch - especially when grouped together, something Valentino knew well when he sent out 30 models in Valentino Red gowns for his final show in 2008. There is a selection of gowns from the new Valentino creative directors, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, although this is more a celebration of Valentino the man and designer rather than Valentino, the multimillion-dollar fashion brand.

Curator Pamela Golbin, from Les Arts Decoratifs, Paris, was at the official opening on Friday night (dress code: cocktail with a "dash of red"; she wore Valentino of course), where she read out a message from Valentino. "He asked me to read you a very special and personal note that he wanted to share with you today, with a sense of humour that he always has. 'Australia is a fascinating place where I went several times - with my fantasy alas, never in reality. I hope that my clothes will talk to you and tell you a little about me and my work... I hope you like my work. Thank you, and arrivederci."' Charming, even in a note read by a softly spoken curator. Golbin, who previously curated an exhibition on Balenciaga, also told of the first time she met Valentino.

"I think respect is a word that fits Mr Valentino quite well. It made me think of the first time I met him in Rome in his office. There were three or four doors, all the doors opened, one assistant came in, another went out, the phone rang, another door opened, someone came in, someone went out. I finally sat down and he said, "Pamela. You're a fashion curator; I'm a designer. You do your job, and I shall do mine. If you need me, you will call me whenever you'd like.' He didn't come to see my work until it opened in Paris, and it was with complete and utter respect... Perfection, beauty, and respect are words that came to mind when thinking of Mr Valentino."

Perfection, exquisite, divine, beautiful: these are some of the most overused, overblown words in fashion writing, but here in Brisbane standing among 100 pieces of couture art, they seem truly fitting.

* Valentino Retrospective: Past/Present/Future, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia, until Nov 14.

- NZ Herald

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