The Last Emperor’s Clothes – fashion and film

(Originally blogged July 11, 2009)

Valentino with some of his iconic red dresses and pug dogs

The fly-on-the-wall documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor was just released in Canada yesterday and Kenn and I made sure we saw the first showing at 10:30 a.m. It was mesmerizing! The film can induce laughter and tears but its insider expose of the fashion business is pure privilege for the viewer.

Valentino Garavani and his longtime companion and business partner Giancarlo Giammetti are products of La Dolce Vita – the early 60s in Italy when all things Italian, from Vespas and Pucci to Sophia Loren and Fellini, were the definition of chic. At the height of this second Italian Renaissance Valentino emerged as a couturier, becoming internationally known when he made Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress for her marriage to Aristotle Onassis in 1968. For the next thirty years the company grew, expanding into ready to wear, accessories, and licensing, until 1998 when the company was sold for 300 million. Four years later, the company was resold, bringing Matteo Marzotto, a handsome, shrewd businessman into the picture, who at times is an antagonist to Valentino and Giancarlo.

This film captures 2006/07, before Valentino, age 75, decided to retire after celebrating his 45th year in fashion. The film also captures the death of couture, as it was defined in the 1950s by couturiers who had been trained by masters of dressmaking from the 1920s; Lagerfeld whispers into Valentino’s ear, thinking the microphone can not capture his words, ‘You and I are the last two… everyone else makes rags.’ This may sound egotistical, but its not far from the truth. Couturiers are as rare as smokers these days; in place of the couturier is the designer, who makes a living branding accessories and scents while creating unwearable over-the-top creations intended as marketing opportunities for the fashion media.

This film also wryly captures the absurdity of fashion; a Fellini soundtrack plays while a string of fashion caricatures arrive at the finale dinner, from Donatella Versace and her perma-tanned skin and white-blonde hair to Karl Lagerfeld in his signature three inch tall collar and leather pants, to fan fluttering three hundred and fifty pound Andre Leon Talley. Valentino’s fashion world is full of extraordinary characters; aging European princesses with bosoms bulging over their couture necklines ride on the back of Vespas like its still 1962, while cut throat businessmen make deals behind the guise of flirting smiles for the camera. Valentino tries to appear calm and in control but easily succumbs to childish temper tantrums, befitting his artistic temperament, while Giancarlo, who yields more authority over Valentino than anyone knows, tries to keep everything on an even keel.

This film is worth seeing more than once and the DVD will definitely be making a permanent home in our library!