Born on 11 May 1932 in the town of Voghera in Lombardy, Italy, Valentino Garavani inherited his love of fashion from his aunt Rosa, a local fashion designer who encouraged the young Garavani to apprentice both for herself and other neighbouring designers in the area.
Having found both a talent and a passion for the work, Garavani moved to Paris to complete his formal training at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, before gaining his first professional experience as an assistant to Jean Dessès and Guy Laroche.
Opening his own house
Valentino left Paris aged 27 and, in 1959, returned to Italy to open his own fashion house in Rome. However, despite his desire to found his business in his native country, the company was based on the grand houses he had worked for in Paris and his early shows quickly caught the attention of Italian high society. In fact, it was during these very early collections that the term ‘Valentino red’, a shade inspired by a woman Garavani had seen wearing a velvet dress at the opera in Barcelona as a teen, was coined. The hue remains a mainstay of the house to this day.
Gaining international fame
In 1960 Garavani met Giancarlo Giammetti - an architecture student who quickly became Garavani’s partner in business and romance. With Giammetti’s help, Garavani turned his house into an international brand, making his debut on the world stage at the Pitti Palace in Florence in 1962. Offered the last slot of the last day in the famed Sala Bianca, his audience was largely foreign buyers with contacts who had recommended they stick around to see the work of this hot new designer. His collection of elegant ballgowns, and pencil-skirted dresses with nipped waists and voluminous shoulders was an instant hit, with Bernadine Morris, fashion critic at the New York Times and author of the seminal book on Valentino, recalling, “Valentino was a huge discovery for them. The wide press coverage of his shows…soon put his name on a level with the great couture figures.”
Accordingly, Garavani quickly became the darling of socialites and aristocrats from around the world and a star of the Italian fashion scene. So great was his fame, in fact, that in the mid-1960s he felt secure enough to leave the established Florentine shows behind and move his presentations back to Rome, where he opened a new store on the Via Gregoriana. Attended by Hollywood actresses and the wives of prominent world leaders - all dressed in their finest eveningwear - these shows became social spectacles in their own right, offering glamour far beyond anything seen at modern fashion weeks and cementing the Valentino name in the wider public consciousness. By the time Garavani picked up the prestigious Neiman Marcus Fashion Award in 1967 he had a client list that included Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy (for whom he designed a wedding dress when she married Aristotle Onassis in 1968) and the Begum Aga Khan.
A successful, life-long career
Unlike many fashion designers, who are often forced to part ways with shares in their brand in order to grow, Valentino’s early success meant he and Giammetti retained sole ownership of Valentino SpA until 1998, when the company was sold for a reported $300 million to Italian conglomerate HdP. In 2002 it was sold again to Marzotto Apparel amid reports HdP had become unhappy with the expenses claimed by Garavani and Giammetti.
Although Giammetti bristled at the claim at the time, it is clear the couple had become used to a certain lifestyle during their years of success. Their private portfolio includes a superyacht and art-filled homes in Switzerland, Spain and France while the pair are known for their extravagant methods of travel. In a 2004 Vanity Fair profile, Matt Trynauer recounted how, for a trip to the airport, “Three buses are needed, one to move Valentino, Giammetti, and staff, another for luggage, and a third to transport five of Valentino’s six pugs—Milton, Maude, Monty, Margot, and Molly.”
After nearly five decades in the fashion business, Valentino Garavani announced he would be stepping down from the helm of the house after the January haute couture show in 2007. A spectacle to rival anything the house had done before, this final show was staged at the Musée Rodin in Paris and showcased many of the high profile models Garavani had worked with throughout his career, including Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Eva Herzigova.
Following his retirement, several exhibitions dedicated to Garavani’s designs, including a show at Somerset House in London, a virtual museum and a documentary called The Last Emperor, were held. The Valentino house, under subsequent creative directors Alessandra Faccinetti, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Picciolo, has remained one of the most important players on the international fashion scene and, in 2012, was sold to Qatar via investment firm Mayhoola for Investments for €700 million.
Now aged 88, Garavani continues to live a life of luxury with Giammetti, sharing glimpses inside their numerous homes, yachts and almost constant worldwide travel with fans via the pair’s sizeable Instagram followings (1.6m for Garavani and 465k for Giammetti at time of writing).