Before retirement, fashion designer Valentino Garavani made a name for himself internationally for constructing exquisitely beautiful gowns and couture dresses for society ladies, actresses, and political women alike. Born in the northern Italian city of Voghera, Italy, the young Garavani made up his mind to design clothing for women at the age of nine, so fascinated was he by the movie Zeigfeld Girl.
When he visited Barcelona as a teen, he again encountered a woman who would mould his entire design philosophy at the opera, wearing a red velvet gown. “She was unique, isolated, fiery — the perfect heroine,” he told Vogue. “I told myself that if I were ever going to become a designer, I would do lots of red.”
And so he did. ‘Valentino red,’ a striking crimson shade, would become of his design signatures, as would gowns. After studying at the École Des Beaux-Arts in Paris and apprenticing under noted couturiers Balenciaga, Jean Dèsses, and Guy Laroche, he returned to Rome in 1959 to set up his own studio in the fashionable Via Condotti with the help of his father. That next year, he met Giancarlo Giammetti, his future business and personal partner, at the Café de Paris.
So well-received was Garavani’s debut in 1962 in Florence that international orders and interest flooded in. He also received very favourable reviews in the press. His client list grew to include influential society ladies, and by the mid-‘60s he was considered the top dressmaker to women like Jackie O, Elizabeth Taylor, Gloria Guinness, and Princess Margaret, among many others. Jackie O was so enthralled by his designs that she commissioned the black mourning dresses she wore in the year following President Kennedy’s assassination, as well as her white wedding dress when she married Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
In 1998, Garavani and Giammetti sold the brand to Gianni Agnelli for $300 million, after which it was sold again, this time to the Marzotto Group, at a loss. After Garavani’s retirement in 2007, the brand set up various memorial exhibits, including a virtual museum displaying his seminal works and a couture exhibit in London’s Somerset House. To this day, Garavani’s legacy lives on through his brand, by now a well-known international luxury brand, and through the media pieces done on his life, most notably ‘The Last Emperor,’ a popular documentary about his career.
He has been honoured by the French Legion of Honour and has multiple other civic and design-related awards.