PARIS (Reuters) - Valentino, who retired on Wednesday after staging his last haute couture show, became a by-word for glamour during nearly half a century dressing stars and royalty in his lipstick-red gowns.
The dapper Italian, who first tasted international fame when Jacqueline Kennedy asked him to design the dress for her marriage to Aristotle Onassis, is considered one of the last great designers alongside Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani.
His farewell show in the grounds of the Rodin Museum in Paris was a more subdued affair than a three-day extravaganza held in Rome last July celebrating 45 years at the top of his trade and widely considered a prelude to his retirement.
While a cast of stars and heiresses including actress Uma Thurman and Mick Jagger partied among Rome’s ruins and palaces, Valentino recalled what set him on the path to being considered one of the late 20th century’s most influential designers.
“I’m a disaster in everything else, but dress designing I can do,” he said.
Famous as much for his extravagant lifestyle and decadent parties as his show-stopping gowns, Valentino was born to a more simple life in 1932 in Voghera, northern Italy, where he credited his mother for giving him a taste for fashion.
Valentino left Italy’s industrial north for Paris when only 17 to learn the trade of haute couture and never looked back thanks to an aim to make women look beautiful.
“I love women. I’ve always tried to make them look very sexy, very glamorous,” he once said.
Valentino’s rise to fame coincided with the start of Italy’s film heyday, immortalized by Federico Fellini’s 1960 film “La Dolce Vita”, when the comings and goings of actors were chronicled by motorcycle-riding paparazzi and Rome earned the sobriquet of “Hollywood on the Tiber”.
His gowns and skirt suits with wasp-waists perfectly suited the glamorous mood and were snapped up by the stars. By 1962, he was being called the maestro of Italian haute couture.
Although criticized by some for his conservatism and penchant for bows and ruffles, Valentino held sway as Hollywood’s choice for the red carpet from Audrey Hepburn to Julia Roberts, and as a beau monde favorite for charity balls.
Together with his business partner Giancarlo Giammetti, he escaped bankruptcy on several occasions and saw the ownership of his business change hands three times. He also received armfuls of awards, including fashion’s equivalent of an Oscar and the French Legion of Honor.
To fill the days of his retirement, Valentino has said he would like to design opera costumes and develop a museum of his clothes in Rome.
He told an Italian newspaper last week he may also consider more earthly pursuits after his years in the limelight.
“Maybe I will dedicate myself to gardening. I have never tried putting my hands in the earth but I love flowers.”
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