Valentino Garavani was claiming his place in the sun.
In Beverly Hills last week to discuss his 45-year run as founder, figurehead and creative visionary behind the $1-billion-plus fashion empire bearing his name -- Valentino -- the Italian designer resisted a valet's efforts to move him beneath a rooftop pool cabana at a Beverly Hills hotel, preferring to remain in the hard glare of afternoon sunlight. He looked impeccable in a silk blazer and slacks, his skin self-bronzed to a lustrous cinnamon hue. "I had such an unbelievable fashion life," Valentino said in heavily accented English. "I achieved the maximum. And I stopped at the right moment also."
But asked about his initial reaction to "Valentino: The Last Emperor," the documentary about him that premiered to a string of sold-out engagements at New York's Film Forum on March 18, the designer recalled the shock -- no, dismay -- he felt at seeing his personal life laid bare on screen. "I was in my little shoes when I first saw the film," Valentino said, seizing the nearest fashion metaphor -- never mind that it doesn't quite make sense. "I was always a very, very low-profile person."
Chronicling his fashion empire's final two years culminating in Valentino's decision to retire in 2007 after a corporate takeover, the film captures a bygone era -- a time before conspicuous consumption became anathema, when fashionistas could still be moved to tears by a collection of beautiful gowns rather than, say, global recession.
You see Valentino's gilded lifestyle: the private jet, yacht travel, butlers and manor homes. Famous faces such as Elton John, Gwyneth Paltrow and Vogue's Anna Wintour traipse in and out of his opulent parties. And the designer throws a couple of diva-worthy hissy fits.
Produced and directed by Vanity Fair special correspondent Matt Tyrnauer, the film arrived at Laemmle's Sunset 5 last Friday. This weekend, the $1.2-million fashion film platforms out to 14 more cities across the country, its buzz spurred by Valentino's recent appearance on "Oprah."
Tyrnauer said his impetus was to tell a love story. To illuminate Valentino's symbiotic relationship with Giancarlo Giammetti, his onetime boyfriend and longtime consigliere. The director, who has a film degree from Wesleyan University but knew nothing of fashion going into the project, decided to shoot his debut feature after writing about the pair's unique life partnership for a Vanity Fair profile in 2004. "There's an intuitive brilliance to their relationship," Tyrnauer said over tea at Chateau Marmont. "In the Proposition 8 era, what they have really is a marriage but they would never call it a marriage. It's two people who have become the same person."
Giammetti was Valentino's boyfriend from 1960 to 1972 and is now the person who literally completes the self-described "terrible businessman." Giammetti is most responsible for growing the Valentino brand into a global presence but also for buffering Valentino, 76, from the outside world while perpetuating his public image as one of Italy's national living treasures. For his part, Giammetti frames his position vis-a-vis the designer in Chinese philosophical terms: "Confucius said that when two people ride the same horse, one has to be in the back. That was my position."
Tyrnauer was granted unprecedented access to the designer's most private sanctums. Working with a small crew, he shot about 270 hours of footage over two years, shuttling between Valentino's French chateau, his Roman atelier and various runway shows.
About a year into filming, however, it became clear that a secondary narrative was developing. Faced with greater interference from the corporation that had bought a controlling interest in Valentino SpA, the designer was looking to make a dignified exit. So in addition to providing an overview of his storied career outfitting such luminaries as Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy and Julia Roberts, "The Last Emperor" serves as Valentino's swan song.
"He was the last person doing couture in the manner it was done in the '50s," Tyrnauer said. "The economics of fashion have entirely changed. And now with the economic crisis, the light on the world of couture was extinguished."
Still, goodwill toward his subjects and amazing timing weren't enough to shield the filmmaker -- who began studying film theory as a teen at Santa Monica's Crossroads School -- from a pervasive insecurity that is part and parcel of the fashion world. During filming, Giammetti and Valentino threatened to pull the plug on the film "on a daily basis," Tyrnauer, 39, said. Especially in the aftermath of the designer's emotional outbursts such as the tantrum Valentino throws after he sees a retrospective of his dresses being installed at Rome's Ara Pacis Museum.
"He yells at the camera and quits," the director said. "He was mad at a bad situation for him. His life was flashing before his eyes. His life's work is being put on display at a museum and it wasn't looking good. There are echoes of mortality there."
Giammetti acknowledged being taken aback when he first saw "The Last Emperor." "When we arrived in the screening room, Matt said, 'This is not about glamour. It's not about being famous,' " he recalled. "Of course we were surprised. We asked Matt to change some moments. We were angry because he refused."
But the pair embraced the film after receiving standing ovations for the movie at the Venice Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival and at "The Last Emperor's" West Coast premiere at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
In town last week for the movie's premiere and to receive a star on Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive Walk of Style, the designer seemed pleased by the positive reaction the film has been getting. But he disputed the notion that "The Last Emperor" would fundamentally alter perceptions of what is most important: his fashion legacy.
"My dear, the people, they understand me already," Valentino said. "They had plenty of time to judge my talent as a designer. You achieve certain things and they are untouchable."