Review: ‘Valentino: The Last Emperor’

Famed fashion designer Valentino is the subject of the new documentary, "Valentino: The Last Emperor."
(Lorenzo Agius/Getty Images)
Film Critic

“Valentino: The Last Emperor,” the title of a new documentary about the icon of haute couture, may sound like canny hyperbole, but once you’ve seen this smart and incisive film, it will seem like a simple statement of fact.

For one thing, Valentino Garavani, a fashion designer so celebrated only his first name is necessary, certainly lives like an emperor. When he travels, it’s by private jet with his six pugs always in attendance, or on his 152-foot yacht with a full-time staff of 11. When he sleeps, it might be in his 17th century chateau outside of Paris, his villa in Rome, his ski retreat in Switzerland, the town house in London or his apartment in Manhattan. Truly, it is good to be the king.

Yet as “Valentino,” directed by Vanity Fair writer and editor Matt Tyrnauer, demonstrates, all this affluence flows from the prodigious gifts -- even watching the man pencil-sketch a gown is impressive -- of someone who decided on this profession in childhood and has been at the top of the designer game for 45 years.


In all that time, he has dressed everyone who mattered, including Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy and Princess Diana. Never forget, he tells someone, that “I make dresses for women who actually wear them.” He also makes dresses of such surpassing beauty they actually make people weep.

Blessed with unusual access, “Valentino” takes you inside the designer’s world, showing you his legendary iron will in action as he and his crack team of approximately 70 seamstresses, all of whom work only by hand, prepare the 2006 spring/summer collection for its Paris debut. But there is more.

For “Valentino” also offers entree to the key relationship of the designer’s personal and professional life, his half-century partnership with Giancarlo Giammetti, the combination of a creative dreamer with a practical man of business that led to the fashion firm’s unprecedented success.

Matteo Marzotto, whose family took control of the company in 2002, says, “I don’t think Valentino would have been the same without Giancarlo. Not even half and not even one-third of it.”

With cinematographer Tom Hurwitz shadowing the men so closely that the designer periodically loses his patience, we get to see all sides of this intense and complex connection, the spats as well as the intense emotional bond between individuals who estimate they’ve spent perhaps two months apart in a half a century together.

“Valentino,” for which 250 hours of footage was shot from June 2005 to July 2007, had the good fortune to be made during a pivotal moment in the designer’s career, when changes in the financial end of the world of fashion lead to the possibility of new corporate owners and a threat to Valentino’s traditional way of working.

In the face of all this, Giammetti decides to mount a drop-dead 45th-anniversary Valentino celebration in Rome, a three-day career retrospective culminating in a party at the Temple of Venus in the Roman Forum.

It’s a celebration worthy of the Sun King and a fitting way for both the designer and this unexpectedly involving documentary to literally and metaphorically bring it all back home.