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They Do It Over There, But We Don’t Do It Here

By Guest Critic Jenny Niese | Film | April 14, 2009 |

By Guest Critic Jenny Niese | Film | April 14, 2009 |

I’m not a big fashionista. I don’t own anything that small hands in India didn’t make, but I could name quite a few designers off the top of my head if needed for bar trivia. I was a loyal “Project Runway” fan, but after watching Valentino: The Last Emperor, I may never go back. Legends of industry, artists who have spent lifetimes honing their magic, are being melted down for brand names to slap on magazine spreads — this is the beautifully tragic message of the Valentino documentary. Part comedy, part love story The Last Emperor was not the fashion retrospective I feared, but a timeless snapshot into the life of a master of his craft.

The movie was filmed over two years and opens with Valentino preparing for his Fall 2006 show, which is three days away. He has finished sketching a signature Valentino Red evening dress when a naked model comes into the viewing room. Like a slightly overbaked Oompa Loompa, he effortlessly twirls yards of sheer fabric around her and in seconds has created an amazing likeness to what he had drawn. His head seamstress is in the room, taking notes and placing pins, before heading back to the workroom where hundreds of middle aged Italian women, like a sea of grandmas urging me to another helping of cannolis, are lovingly hand sewing every piece of clothing for Valentino. Not a sewing machine in the place.

Most of the movie is told through the eyes of Valentino’s one-time boyfriend and business partner of 45 years Giancarlo Giammetti. Their witty banter and playful insults are indistinguishable from an old married couple. Giancarlo reminisces about how he met Valentino at a little cafe and offered him a ride home. Valentino waits until Giancarlo leaves and tells the camera he thought they met at the bar across the street. As Valentino’s business manager, Giancarlo’s financial wizardry made the company millions of dollars and a household name, all the while shielding Valentino in his quest to express his creativity. Giancarlo was Valentino’s white knight clad in a silk suit with matching cravat. Valentino seems oblivious to how his fashion shows are put together, how much things cost, or even how famous he is.

After his 2006 show, the only question people wanted to know was when he will be retiring. The media buzzards circle, hungry for the scoop of his inevitable decline. The movie takes an ominous turn as Valentino genuinely says he never wants to retire. And unlike most aged artists, Valentino’s star has yet to lose its shimmer. Giancarlo explains that a European investment firm has just bought a major stake in Valentino’s company and may or may not renew his contract. To lighten the mood, the company plans an enormous four-day celebration for the 45th anniversary of Valentino. As the movie shows the lavish details and displays of vintage Valentino clothes, we see the investment firm snatch more and more of the company until they hostilely claim the entire soul. It’s heart-breaking to watch Valentino become suddenly aware of what Giancarlo has tried to protect him from all these years.

At the 45th anniversary celebration, while the famous designers are heaping Valentino with congratulations, Tom Ford pulls him aside, expresses his hope Valentino doesn’t retire, and points out “compared to us, the rest are making rags.” As Valentino contemplates whether to get out while the getting is good, the movie laments the decline of luxury labels into licensing their names for belt buckle, oversized bags, and dog carriers just to make their investors money. All the while quality garments get shoved to the back of the closet. Throughout the entire film, I was flanked on both sides by two different sets of fashion whores “ohhing” and “ahhing” at every single solitary fucking garment that appeared on screen and gushing with star-struck-fuckery any time a celebrity appeared. They were completely oblivious to the fact they were the idiots contributing to the cheapening and diluting of a brand name just so they could have a logo on their sunglasses. They praised Valentino as they were sticking Chanel daggers into his corpse.

I went into the Last Emperor expecting a retrospective of Valentino’s whole career and didn’t expect to be quite as entertained as I was. I went from laughing out loud to getting misty eyed. Valentino is hilarious, fascinating, and a one of a kind. While others in his company were flaring with diva-like tantrums that you’d expect from Valentino, he simply shrugs, “I don’t care about the collection. My dogs are much more important.” With that, Valentino saunters off, his five pugs in tow.

This movie was more about a dying art form than one notable designer. Even people who could care less about fashion should remember the words of The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly:

I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? … And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

Jenny Niese spends most her time whipping both Prisco and his insane ramblings into a less awkward shape. She works magic with whole grains, and is learning kitchen alchemy to turn simple cakes into fantastic creatures.

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