Valentino A/W 2005 by Krister Selin
A recent viewing of the documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, a film dedicated to the infamous fashion editor’s pioneering feats, highlighted that going to a gallery to view exhibitions of living fashion designers is a relatively new concept. When Vreeland launched an Yves Saint Laurent retrospective in 1983 at the Costume Institute, she set a precedent for a legion of future fashion fairs.
In the modern era, fashion fans have no qualms about trading their hard-earned cash to gaze at frocks on mannequins and fashion retrospectives have dominated galleries with record-breaking visitor numbers. Presenting these exhibitions comes as a challenge to curators: no longer is it a case of whacking a few frocks on mannequins like you’re assembling a high street window display. A quick look at Viktor & Rolf at the Barbican, McQueen at the Met or Louis Vuitton/Marc Jacobs at Les Arts Decoratifs shows the dedication and commitment necessary to present fashion as art.
Valentino A/W 2002 and Natalia Vodianova by Cathleen Naundorf
What better way, then, to present Emperor of Couture Valentino Garavani‘s illustrious history than on one long catwalk? Avoid temptation to sashay past the tableaux as mannequins appear amongst elegant white chairs on either side of a runway, on which you’re the model. The Embankment Galleries at Somerset House have been transformed; no longer tiny catacombs, but brought together for dramatic effect.
Valentino A/W 2002 by Maya Beus
The lower floor showcases a number artefacts appearing in glass cabinets at the start of the exhibition. Letters from prominent designers and magazine editors celebrate Valentino‘s last milestone, his 45th anniversary as King of Couture, showering the Italian with praise for his record-breaking anniversary couture show at the Santo Spirito in Sassia in Rome. Glorious fashion sketches line other cabinets, but as was with Margiela and other exhibitions here, I found myself skimming past these in order to get to the main event upstairs.
Photographs courtesy of Somerset House/Peter MacDiarmid
And so the catwalk comes alive on the upper level, with a breathtaking 130 haute couture creations on models appearing as guests. They are arranged pretty haphazardly amongst the aforementioned white chairs, almost with abandon, without any rigid chronological order. Empty seats bear the names of the great and the good that have worn Valentino and attended countless shows: Princess Margaret, Elizabeth Taylor, Carla Bruni, Diane Kruger, Iman; Diana Vreeland herself.
Valentino S/S 1998 by Annie Rickard Straus
Valentino A/W 1992 by Sandra Contreras
La dolce vita comes alive as you make your way along the displays, featuring floor-sweeping gowns, kaftans, trouser suits and capes. I particularly enjoyed the 1990s section – creations designed with the decadent abandon of an era when the supermodel ruled fashion and Valentino, Gianni Versace and pals were bending over backwards knee-deep in gold chains to appease them. These pieces were without doubt the height of fashion, but have dated the most. Compare these to some numbers from the 1960s: they’re indistinguishable from the output of Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccoli, heading Valentino, over recent seasons.
Valentino S/S 2005 by Jamie Wignall
Valentino S/S 1969 by Maya Beus
The show’s dramatic finale sees Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece‘s wedding dress come to life on a dramatic platform. This pearl-encrusted ivory silk gown features a 4.5m train and 12 kinds of lace. Sure.
While I wouldn’t wear it, it’s one of the greatest examples of dressmaking in history and this presentation allows you to see the astonishing detail in the flesh.
Valentino S/S 2004 by Krister Selin
I particularly enjoyed a personal tribute to le regazze – the girls – the loyal atelier that have produced innumerable tulles, mock-ups and eventual red-carpet-ready frocks for the Grand Master’s enormous following. They’re the stars of groundbreaking documentary film Valentino: The Last Emperor, bickering as they lovingly stitch the last couture collection by the man himself. In the exhibition we’re spoiled with an education of Italian atelier terms – such beauties as ‘Incrostazioni‘ ‘Drappeggio‘ and ‘Budellini‘, a couture technique specific to Valentino where double charmeuse silk is rolled and sewn around a looped length of wool. Each term has a visual representation, occupying a glass box and highlighting the important role that these individual processes have played in Valentino‘s roaring success.
Valentino A/W 2002 by Jamie Wignall
Valentino S/S 1998 by Sandra Contreras
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