Anachronistic yet timeless, the end of Valentino
Talon heels, cocktail dresses and clutch bags were out in force at the Paris collections yesterday – and it wasn't yet lunchtime.
The reason for such a flagrant display of classic, European chic? The swan-song ready-to-wear collection of the great Roman couturier, Valentino Garavani. This was nothing if not a flashback to more well-mannered times, to a world where one truly could never be too rich or too thin.
Right from the first outfit the agenda was set. There are only very few people today, after all, with a lifestyle rarefied enough they require a slender, knee-length coat in rose-coloured cashmere over a matching pink silk dress with Parma violet trim. If pink is not to madam's taste, aquamarine, primrose and ivory were also all on offer as well they might be, these being just the sort of pale and utterly impractical shade that lends itself well to the finest fabrics and the first-class cabin of the most upmarket airline.
For 45 years now the couturier – who is known in fashion circles by his first name, Valentino, or simply as "the chic" – has dressed the international jet-set. Jackie Onassis owed her iconic style to Valentino. Elizabeth Taylor, who ordered her first piece of Valentino while on the set of Spartacus, has since been a supporter, as has Ivana Trump and any number of European princesses one might care to mention.
The problem is that the Valentino customer is ageing. True, when Julia Roberts received the best actress Oscar for Erin Brockovich in a vintage black and white Valentino gown, the label enjoyed a renaissance with the Hollywood A-list. The couturier's floor-sweeping column dresses, slender as an exclamation mark, continue to impress on the red carpet. Having said that, it is hard to see how any bright young thing worth her fashion credentials could carry off any of his designs in less obviously status-driven circumstances.
That is perhaps a shame. Valentino's audience has long accepted there is nothing much new on this particular catwalk but his collections remain among the most refined, elegant and perfectly executed in designer fashion. Next season will be no exception, with delicious crystal-edged silk frills, insets of jewel-encrusted lace and petals of chiffon in black, white and Valentino red all very much in evidence along with polka dots, a girlish flourish in an otherwise womanly world.
So what of the future? Suffice it to say that eyebrows were raised when it was announced, only 24 hours after Valentino said he would be stepping down, that Alessandra Facchinetti, whose claim to fame is a short-lived and critically ill-received stint at Gucci, will take his place as creative director of Valentino women's wear. It is thought Valentino's retirement coincides with the acquisition of the Valentino Fashion Group by the private equity group, Permira. Although all eyes were on Valentino throughout his 45th anniversary celebrations in Rome in July, the 75-year-old vigorously denied that he was planning his exit. Later that month, however, Permira upped its stake in the company to around 60 per cent and then last month to 97 per cent only days after the designer admitted he was going.
According to Women's Wear Daily, at least one industry insider has argued that Facchinetti, who has worked behind the scenes at Valentino for some time now, will have an easier time there because rather than having to eradicate the impact of one high-profile designer and replace it with her own signature, this new position requires the gradual evolution of an already well-established brand.
This seems hugely optimistic, however. If Ford was at Gucci for 15 years, Valentino has dressed some of the world's grandest women for almost half a century. Valentino's last haute couture collection is due in Paris in January and with that one of the 20th century's last great fashion protagonists will take his final bows, leaving behind him a legacy that nobody, Ms Facchinetti included, is ever likely to match.