VALENTINO: The last emperor of couture

For MANY, the closest you will ever get to a couture outfit are the images you see in magazines. That is, of course, if you’re not amongst the handful of women whose pockets are deep enough to meet the £50,000 starting price for a dress. But this year in particular, the upper echelon of fashion has become a lot more accessible, thanks to the rise of the fashion exhibition, which continues to dominate the arts calendar.

Paul Bernstock and Thelma Spiers, the legendary milliners behind Bernstock Spiers, celebrated 30 years in the business with a big exhibition at Fred; Chanel brought its hugely successful exhibition Little Black Jacket to the capital; the V&A played host to one of the biggest of the year, Hollywood Costume; and now it’s Valentino’s turn. Today, Somerset House will open its doors to the highly anticipated Valentino: Master of Couture exhibition, dedicated to the life and work of the label’s founder Valentino Garavani, most commonly referred to as Valentino. “Mr Valentino and Mr Giametti wanted to stage an exhibition in London and they came to Somerset House because they liked the fact that fashion week is here and they’ve seen some of the exhibitions we’ve staged here to date,” says Alistair O’Neil, one of the three curators responsible for bringing their vision to life.

With the economy as it is, you would be forgiven for questioning the relevance of couture but it’s an industry that’s thriving. This year Versace joined the couture schedule after an eight-year hiatus and Armani reported a 50 per cent growth in sales in 2011 compared to the same time the previous year. The painstaking attention to detail and exquisite level of craftsmanship found in couture seems to tap into the spirit of escapism and need for fantasy in fashion that has emerged in response to the recession, making the timing perfect for an exhibition of this kind.

The presentation, which will run from 29 November – 3 March showcases more than 130 of his most celebrated creations from a career that has spanned five decades, including dresses worn by the likes of Grace Kelly and Gwyneth Paltrow. “Each of these designs has a beautiful story. The atelier [where the pieces are made] crafted each so diligently by hand, taking hours, sometimes days to complete,” says Garavani. “The details are incredibly intricate, though outside the runway shows and events, the dresses have rarely been seen, so to be able to showcase these designs at Somerset House, where they can be seen in great detail by the public, is very unique.”

Much of the exhibition focuses on showcasing this. “Couture designs are done completely by hand without machines. To see that kind of craftsmanship is extremely humbling and it’s important that we continue to support that culture,” says O’Neil. “In this exhibition we are going to be demonstrating some of the specialised couture techniques that underpin these amazing dresses.”

And that’s not all. Visitors can also expect to see unseen private photographs of the designer alongside a series of the label’s extravagant couture show invitations from over the years. Ziegfeld Girl and La Dolce Vita – two films that have inspired his work – will be screened alongside his documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor, which documents a year of his life at work before his retirement.

But it’s not all about Garavani. Since his departure, the brand’s new creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli have helped usher in a new era for couture. The incredible craftsmanship and romantic heritage of the brand is there, but now the designs infuse a discretion that feels very now. Orders for dresses under their direction has far exceeded the numbers before Garavani resigned, so three of their designs will be on show too. It’s a must see.

Valentino: Master of Couture opens today at the Embankment Galleries, Somerset House, Strand, WC1R 1LA.