PARIS Fighting back tears, Valentino waved goodbye to the fashion world on Wednesday with a haute couture show brimming with the glamour that made him a favorite with Hollywood stars, socialites and royalty for half a century.
Lipstick red, the color that defined Valentino's career, engulfed his final turn as the designer streamed models down the runway in his signature shade, creating a flame-hued tunnel.
"He is parting in happiness but the fashion world is in mourning," said front row guest David Furnish who, together with his partner singer Elton John, is one of Valentino's friends.
In the grounds of the Rodin Museum, Valentino, considered one of the most influential designers of the late 20th century, was joined by actress Uma Thurman, European royalty and the New York socialites who have worn his floor-sweeping gowns since his breakthrough show in 1962.
Day suits in soft cashmere worn with long white gloves recalled the fashions Valentino created for his earliest fans Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Audrey Hepburn.
Dresses in shimmering sorbet pinks and oranges heavy with his signature bows, lace and ruffles were fit for the Hollywood stars he dresses today.
"I am so sad, we're witnessing the end of an era of great Italian fashion couturiers. When he is gone there is no one to replace him," said Italian television celebrity Simona Ventura, blinking away tears.
Valentino, whose couture house was bought by private equity firm Permira last year, is ranked alongside Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld as the last of the great designers from an era before fashion became a global, highly commercial industry.
END OF AN ERA
His retirement is being seen as the ending of that earlier fashion world with the modern industry's focus on profits providing little room to foster such a larger-than-life personality.
Valentino's rise to fame coincided with the start of Italy's film heyday, immortalized by Federico Fellini's 1960 film "La Dolce Vita", and his extravagant parties and jet set lifestyle meant his life as well as his designs made the headlines.
His houses alone span some of the world's most sought-after locations from a villa on Rome's Appia Antica, to a chalet in Gstaad, a castle outside Paris and an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York.
But fashion's growth into a $127 billion (65 billion pound) industry is slowly making the old guard extinct and ushering in a new breed of relatively anonymous designers who often have more in common with brand managers than couturiers.
Valentino Garavani, always known by only his first name, is replaced at his couture house by Alessandra Facchinetti, a former Gucci designer who is considered better suited to lead the group's expansion into new markets and product lines.
Just days before his final show, the group Valentino founded announced it was already making those inroads opening its first boutique in a hotel in Beijing to tap the fast-growing demand among Chinese shoppers for luxury goods.
Valentino has made clear how he feels about the fading of a world he helped to create.
"The world of fashion has now been ruined," he told Rome's Il Messaggero newspaper this week. "I became rather bored of continuing in a world which doesn't say anything to me. There is little creativity and too much business."