“Après moi, le déluge.”

April 11th, 2009 § 0 comments

valentino-the-last-emperorMatt Tyrnauer: “There are a lot of people who say no one could replace you.”
Valentino Garavani: “Après moi, le déluge. Do you know what that means?”

I wondered as he said it if a king of France, Napoleon, or another figure of wealth and power had been the author of such a sentiment—it was Louis XV who said, “after me, the flood.” Valentino: The Last Emperor is an indulgent documentary about the Italian couturier Valentino Garavani. The film has shown with unsurprising popularity for the past few weeks at one of Gotham’s independent film houses. The screenings have been coupled with a Q & A with the director Matt Tyrnauer, and the editor at large for Vogue, André Leon Talley. Though the film itself does not address any aspect of the couturier’s life—his role in fashion history, his style, or his notions of beauty—in a deep or terribly engaging manner, Valentino’s life seems to be about two things; beauty and excess, and in that order.

Valentino’s sense of beauty reminded me of visiting Europe. I remember traveling through Italy with M, and her amazement at the obsessive and undeniably extravagant effort that went into creating the works of art, architecture, and ornament that were gloriously scattered from city to city. Watching Valentino fuss over his designs I thought of the different colored marble lining the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. Every stitch, seam, and embellishment on a Valentino dress is done carefully and thoroughly by hand. It is a certain kind of beauty that Valentino fell in love with as a young man, a certain ideal he evokes with his garments, and it is a beauty that transcends the ordinary, it is an ageless, timeless beauty. Despite his tantrums, his ego, his fussing and frustrations, it is undeniable that his dresses sometimes resemble works of art rather than new pieces of runway fashion. “I love beauty,” he says, “it’s not my fault.” But it is not simply beauty that Valentino loves, he loves a certain class, glamour, and character to go along with his sense of beauty. What do women want? “They want to be beautiful,” says Valentino, stressing all the syllables of the last word.

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The problem with his beauty, the dark underside that I find difficult to justify, is the excess associated with this kind of beauty. Historically speaking, extravagance seems only achieved at the expensive of others. Many great works of art, architecture, fashion, and so on, have distasteful implications and associations behind their creation. Who built the old Cathedrals, the White House, the royal Castles? Who made the garments for the Kings and Queens? The inequality of a royal lifestyle, and the privilege Valentino’s kind of beauty speaks of seems problematic at best. Valentino himself lives in a Chateau outside of Versailles with sixty servants, and behaves like a temperamental monarch. I find myself suspicious of the social class Valentino endorses, and the kind of celebrity, more royal than tabloid, that he lavishly clothes.

The Q & A session following the film, though entertaining, didn’t help my clouded reaction to the film. Both the director and the Vogue editor seemed to criticize Valentino on the one hand for being the imperial man he is, and on the other they praised his garments without hesitation. The contradiction caused me to wonder if it would be possible to have the dresses without the extravagance. While not all beauty should be, or is, reliant on inequality, this kind of beauty does, and to ask it to be fair and democratic would be asking it not to exist. I teeter on the brink of admiring Valentino for his sense of purpose and devotion to his craft, as he says, “I am a disaster in everything else.” A times fashion critic states, “if you didn’t learn dressmaking in the 50’s and 60’s from the dressmakers of the 20’s and 30’s, you can’t make clothes like Valentino.” His retirement from fashion after 45 years, and the takeover of his brand seems a shameful loss. There is something disturbing about a Valentino dress no longer being a real Valentino dress. In the same way we are culturally drawn toward idealizing the wealthy few, I wonder if we will always be drawn in by the beauty created by this eccentric and masterful couturier.

“Valentino is above control, he does what he wants. Valentino is Valentino.”

valentino

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