London Fashion Umbrella: Valentino Master of Couture

Installation view of Valentino Master of Couture at Somerset House

Following Couture Week Spring 2013, through which I watched the looks and the commentary via and Showstudio, I declared Valentino’s collection, designed by current creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli to by my favourite of the season. The show took place at the Grand Palais turned enchanted forest populated by a species of couture clad fairy tale protagonists. Sadly, I wasn’t anywhere near the edge of Valentino’s forest for couture week, but it seemed like a perfectly fitting time to reflect on the House of Valentino’s couture back catalog at Somerset House. The exhibition Valentino: Master of Couture opened in splendour back in November, and showcases 130 couture ensembles in a clever and captivating installation that recreates the atmosphere and allure of a couture catwalk show. The next best thing to being there? Or something slightly even better?

Exhibition title wall and gorgeous logo design!

The whole experience of visiting the exhibition is truly grand. The Embankment Galleries at Somerset House are a challenging space, although frequently host to fashion exhibitions. For Valentino, the exhibition design perfectly fits the space and achieves its goal of evoking the rarefied world Italian couture. It also, whether intentionally or not, evokes the world of the museum, and the traditional display of spectacular clothing on mannequins, but with intelligent details and design choices.

Valentino invitations and press material on view in the exhibition.

From the moment I received my exhibition brochure- which daringly served as the only labels to the dresses on display, I felt I was suddenly a true invitee to a special event. The second-level gallery of gowns was preceded by introductory displays that included a video montage of Valentino imagery and a timeline gallery outlining his career. The timeline room was embellished by a giant sculpted rose as canvas to a series of video projections. This grand gesture was visually appealing, but the real design triumph to my eye was the exquisite graphic design and typography. Instead of a linear timeline, the milestone years and events in Valentino’s career were painted high and large on the walls, in the form of a web instead of a line. This layout created excitement and inspired looking up and around. On the ground level, a series of wonderfully curated vitrines displayed invitations, correspondence, clippings and sketches related to Valentino’s life and work.

These vitrines were designed to sit aloft elegant chairs, and were a first clue to the scenography of the fashion show which dominated the garment displays to come.

Installation view of Valentino Master of Couture

Entering the corridor of gowns, you could feel the energy of visitors realsising they were not just viewing and exhibition but essentially walking a runway. An elevated platform took viewers through an “audience” of mannequins dressed in Valentino, waiting for the show to begin. The mannequins each wore a card with a number around their wrists, some sitting, some standing, all in a pose fitting to the dress being modelled. The numbers corresponded to the captions in the brochure, which named the wearer, collection and other notable information about the ensemble. Physically, this caused visitors to meander rather more slowly down the catwalk – but fittingly so! Couture is not “fast fashion” and taking the time to read the captions in your hand brings a deeper act of looking. Coneptually, the numbered outfits heark to the practice of models carrying numbers in couture salons, in order for clients to note which looks to order.

The mannequins were painted in matt pastel colours, and curiously all of them had straw blonde hair arranged in styles that replicated that of the celebrity wearer, or were appropriate to the period of the dress’s design. I wondered why they were all blonde – and even worried that this was a message saying brunettes were not welcome in Valentino’s world. Surely not – as many of the gowns on display were worn by notable dark haired ladies.

The blonde bob reigned as the look for Valentino’s mannequins!

The blonde wigs weren’y my favourite part of the exhibition design, but it was amusing to feel constantly that Anna Wintour was just there with her back turned to you!

On the rows of chairs unoccupied by Valentino muses frozen in time were hand written place cards bearing the names of his great and good clients. Without bombarding us with celebrity photos, the exhibition subtly suggested the company with whom we are keeping when we are near Valentino dresses. As if these women are about to arrive, the chairs sit, conjuring in our imagination the sparkle of the dresses in motion – how they looked before they were here in a realm of stillness; dresses as monuments to their craftsmanship and the lives lived in them.

Valentino Master of Couture Look 32: S/S 1992 Blue, yellow, purple and green chiffon evening dress with tappeto di ruches technique detailing

The dresses are stunning it hardly seems worth saying. Like most visitors who scrambled the pages of their pamphlets, I had clear favourites among the dresses. There is something for every affinity – every imaginable fantasy of a dress one might dream of. Dresses familiar to the masses, like the one Julia Roberts famously wore to the Oscars in 2001 -(which was at the time already “Vintage” birthing no doubt a greater awareness and respect for vintage occasionwear!) shared space with ensembles personally resonant for me, such as Diana Vreeland’s red satin batwing tunic and black silk trousers of 1981 shared space in exhibition sections arranged not chronologically, but thematically across the  decades of Valentino’s reign.

Installation view of Marie Chantal of Greece’s Valentino couture wedding gown

As can be predicted, the parade of couture dresses concluded with a wedding gown – that of Princess Marie Chantal of Greece.  The dress is displayed alone, spectacularly viewable from above and at slightly below so the total effect as well as the details of workmanship can be appreciated. At this point I felt a strong desire to know more about the techniques and labour behind couture. I was frankly a little tired of seeing all the “magic” that the rich and famous have access to, enchanting as it may be.

Couture sewing artistry sample on view at Valentino Master of Couture

Fortunately, the excellent curation of the exhibition, provided just what I was craving. The exhibit’s final gallery is devoted to the craft of couture at Valentino. The display consists of stitching samples by Valentino’s “petits mains” as well as videos of the talented artisans at work. I was exceptionally pleased to see a group of exemplary fashion design students enraptured by the displays, taking notes and making drawings in the gallery.

After all the extravagance, I was glad that the exhibition ended with a vision of the work behind couture, which is the cornerstone of both its value and its beauty.

The exhibition also showcases the comprehensive Valentino virtual museum which launched in 2011. The highly navigable and informing website is a pioneer or the total digital museum dedicated to one designer or brand. I have spent a good deal of time previously looking over the site and siting it as a model for digital inteactive design and fashion exhibitions. However, I declined to revisit the virtual museum while visiting the real one! When given a choice to view the real coutire gowns or their image onscreen, there is no contest. Couture comes alive in the flesh – and while I don’t necessarily anticipate ever wearing a Valentino Couture gown, it was nice to be up close and personal with them at Somerset House.

Installation view of Valentino Master of Couture


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