What I know about high fashion you could write on the back of an envelope and still have room for a draft of the Gettysburg Address. My lack of interest in haute couture is painfully obvious to anyone who has seen my manner of dress during the last thirty years. I like to call my style après-lycée (post-high school). I’ve purchased only two suits as an adult: one for my 1993 wedding in Paris (a blue Kenzo suit from the Galéries Lafayette) and one in 2004 for my wedding to Kendall that I bought at Nordstrom’s. Our friends Deborah and Gary helped me pick that one out and fashion maven Gary kept telling the salesman that my ass didn’t look right and that they needed to adjust the pants and jacket. I apologized for my ass and insisted on taking the suit without alterations.
It’s a shame that I’m so clueless about clothes considering menswear was my family’s business for much of the 20th century. My grandfather and his brothers had a chain of clothing stores called Karoll’s Red Hanger Shops and, needless to say, they were all exquisite dressers. During Karoll’s heyday there were 11 stores, the flagship located in the landmark Reliance Building on Chicago’s State Street, right across from Marshall Field’s. I worked at Karoll’s during many summer and Christmas vacations and even served as a model in a Karoll’s TV commercial many years ago wearing…yes, it’s true…a purple leisure suit. If there are any YouTube videos floating around of that train wreck, I will pay top dollar for their destruction!
The only clothes designers I’ve ever been remotely interested in were the geniuses of the old studio system who clothed the movie stars of the 30s, 40s, and beyond. Names like Adrian, Walter Plunkett, Edith Head, Irene Sharaff, Jean-Louis, Helen Rose, and others. Kendall’s uncle Howard Shoup designed gowns for over a hundred movies during the Golden Era, from “Cabin in the Sky” and “House of Wax” to “Gypsy” and “Cool Hand Luke.” There was someone else who was greatly influenced by the costume designers of the glory days of the movies: the internationally famous designer Valentino Garavani.
We just saw the amazing documentary “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and liked it so much we saw it again two days later. It was produced and directed by our friend Matt Tyrnauer, a writer and editor for Vanity Fair. It's been a huge hit at film festivals around the world and last weekend had the highest-grossing debut for a documentary in years. Given my complete ignorance and borderline repulsion with haute couture, I was surprised to find myself glued to every frame and moved to tears on more than one occasion. I loved the character of Valentino, despite his healthy ego and the crazy surreal world in which he lives. I especially loved his longtime partner Giancarlo Giammetti. The two met at a café on Rome’s Via Veneto in 1960 and have been together ever since although they apparently have not been lovers for decades. Giammetti managed the business and turned it into an international success, something Valentino never would have been able to do on his own despite his brilliance.
I went to the film expecting to roll my eyes at Valentino’s opulent lifestyle and to learn that his fame was based on past successes that he parlayed into a crazy world of wealth and privilege. Instead, I saw an incredibly talented artist who was still intimately involved with every dress that had his name on it (the film was shot over two years just prior to his retirement in 2007). Trynauer’s documentary reveals the genius of this man. Every one of Valentino’s gowns is truly a work of art, and yet, unlike the work of many couture designers, they are ones you can imagine any woman you know wearing (provided she has recently robbed a bank and can afford the astronomically expensive creations). Yes, Valentino and Giammetti live insane lives of luxury and excess, but this was as fascinating to watch as it was to see his dresses take shape.
Among the heroes of the film are Antonietta de Angelis, Valentino’s head seamstress, who supervises a large team of white-coated women who make all of the couture dresses completely by hand. Antonietta is gifted beyond belief, but she does not suffer fools gladly, and she seems frequently exasperated by her staff, barking displeasure about any work she deems less-than-perfect. She’s a classic. If this were a feature film, I’d give her an Oscar nomination in a heartbeat. In one wonderful scene, she is irritated by the demand from the top brass to see one of the dresses they are working on before she feels it is ready. Her co-workers begin to pack up the dress up for transport to another part of the building but the frustrated Antonietta grabs it and huffs out of the room dragging the priceless gown across the floor and over furniture to Valentino’s office where she practically throws it in his face. There we also witness the bizarre role of the in-house models who stand there completely naked except for a thong while countless hands shove and pin dresses over their bodies without any acknowledgement that they are human beings.
The film shows many moments of High Drama in the dysfunctionally symbiotic relationship between Valentino and Giancarlo. You see fifty years of built-up “issues” between the couple and yet their partnership somehow works. During an awards presentation you can’t help but be moved as Valentino erupts in tears when he mentions Giammetti’s all-important role in his life and career. Valentino is capable of daily hissy fits and temper tantrums, but in the end his undeniable talent and soft emotional underbelly come through to make him a compelling and very sympathetic character.
Dotted throughout the film are the celebrities who are part of Valentino’s circle, everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Anne Hathaway to Elton John. They are not identified and it was fun trying to spot them. There’s Elizabeth Hurley droning on to Valentino at a lavish private party, there’s good-ol-gal Joan Collins responding to a reporter’s question that had something to do with how you tell the difference between class and trash. “Darling, I have NO idea!” was her reply, revealing an endearing self-awareness behind her designer sunglasses and pushed-up boobs. We see faded European royalty, former Valentino models who have not let go of their youth (and really should), and newsreel footage of Valentino’s old friends and loyal customers such as Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Princess Margaret.
Tyrnauer was allowed entry into Valentino’s gorgeous villas in Paris and Rome and had enough footage to make another documentary about the butler who’s seen it all as well as the designer’s beloved pugs, Maude, Margot, Monty, Molly, Milton, and Maggie. We see the dogs ferreted around the world on private jets and one scene in which servants are carefully brushing the dogs’ teeth with their own special toothbrushes.
All of these activities, including the lavish party in Rome marking Valentino’s 45th year in the business occur amidst the backdrop of corporate finagling that culminates with Valentino leaving his own business and being replaced by a 35-year-old designer. What stupidity on the part of the suits. There can’t be a Valentino without Valentino and apparently the company’s profits have plummeted since the changeover.
This remarkable film is a testament to a dying industry, a man who is the last of a specialized breed, and a beauty, elegance, and lifestyle the likes of which we may never see again. I cannot recommend the film more highly, even if I didn’t know the director and what a labor of love it was for him to make.
For those of you who’ve read Kendall’s wonderful book, “The Day I Became an Autodidact,” Matt Tyrnauer is the Matthew from her book, her childhood crush who did not know about his role in that book until it was published, God love him, and who remains a good friend. If you get a chance to see the film with Tyrnauer in attendance (he’s currently traveling around the country doing Q&A’s after the film), you should definitely do so. Matthew’s off-the-cuff commentary about what it was like to follow Valentino and Giammetti around for over two years (he collected 270 hours of footage!) is hysterical and revealing.
I have a hard time believing that someone like Valentino will be happy in retirement. Maybe he’ll come back with a line of couture menswear, perhaps a collection of retro leisure suits? If so, I’ll be sending in my resume—my days as a male model may not be over yet!