As my airport-bound cab barrelled out of Rome on a blisteringly hot Monday morning in July, it was impossible to miss the spectral white columns lined up on the elevated ground in front of the Colosseum. In the sunlight, they could have been a glistening alien intrusion, a shrine on Mars, but they were actually Oscar-winning set designer Dante Ferretti’s recreation of the second-century Temple of Venus, one of Ancient Rome’s most magnificent monuments. And the structure had been erected for the opening-night party of a weekend of celebrations to mark the 45th year in business of another Roman monument, the designer Valentino.
The fusion of classic and contemporary has always been Valentino’s signature, so it made perfect sense that his anniversary used some of Rome’s traditional glories as backdrops for his celebrations. It was a breathtaking match. Ferretti outdid himself on the second night with the biggest tent I’ve ever seen (it comfortably seated 1,000 for a black-tie dinner and ball), kitted out like a Shanghai sin palace from the 1920s. But how could he not rise to the challenge of the event’s location? The tent was in the gardens of the Villa Borghese and, to reach it, we walked through the art-filled villa itself. You usually need to reserve tickets to see Renaissance splendours such as the sculptures by Bernini and Canova, yet here we were casually dropping by on the way to dinner. Thank you, Val!
And that’s just one more reason to be grateful to a designer whose work has, for more than four decades, embodied sophisticated Euro-chic. American sweetheart Jackie Kennedy signposted her transmogrification into the world’s Jackie O in Valentino. Julia Roberts went from down-home cute to drop-dead gorgeous when she picked up her Oscar in vintage Val. Iconic glamour? Nobody has done it better than Valentino Garavani. And the fact he turned 75 this year is all the more reason to wonder whether anyone will ever be able to improve upon his blueprint.
That slightly triste thought hovered over the anniversary. Valentino’s imminent retirement has been such a hot topic that the smart money was on some kind of announcement during that July weekend. Which just goes to prove that sometimes the smart money knows nuttin’. Val’s right hand, Giancarlo Giammetti, was scornful of the very idea, and to see the designer himself still going strong at 3:30 on Sunday morning—holding his own with discoing Casiraghis, Santo Domingos, Dellals and assorted jeunesse dorée, all of them easily half a century younger-was enough to persuade a body that perma-tan must bestow some kind of superpower.
I know I’ll be sorry to see Valentino hang up his designer jacket. Never mind his unbeatable perspective on the golden years of 20th-century fashion, he’s also wickedly funny. Still, he and Karl Lagerfeld are the last of their couturier species, so, even though there was no retirement announcement, Valentino’s celebration couldn’t help but spark reflection on what the fashion world will look like without men like them-or Giorgio Armani or Ralph Lauren, for that matter. There was a blog-ish furor about the rumoured cost of Val’s do, but if it takes a $20-million bash to under-line (and record for history) the enduring value of his particular marriage of creativity, culture and curiosity, I say: Spend, spend, spend. Besides, what else would you expect from a Roman emperor?