Valentino @ Somerset House

137 garments designed by Valentino Garavani are currently on display at Somerset House. A space well regarded for its support of fashion has been transformed into an Italian showroom, presenting us with the work of the master of couture’s fifty year career.

As with many of the world’s greats: Twiggy, Madonna and Iman to name a few; Valentino is known by his first name only. A true testament to his expertise and skill in an industry in which he has excelled for half a century. The exhibition at Somerset House focuses on his haute couture creations and reminds us that there is more to the designer than his infamous red dresses, in fact, very little red is on show.

The display, which is on two floors begins with cases full of couture invitations which then lead us, quite fittingly up to the runway upstairs. Just before this however, we are shown the designers sketches, beautiful illustrations showing the thought processes behind the gowns before needle is put to fabric. Then we are guided upstairs to ‘the catwalk.’ This encompasses a 60 metre runway which the viewer walks down in place of the models. Where the audience would normally be sitting are dozens upon dozens of mannequins dressed in Valentino couture. While this is a nice idea in theory, in practice, it does not work. The catwalk is too narrow. It becomes overcrowded with visitors and it is difficult to see all the clothes in such a tightly confined space meaning the visitor ends up going down the aisle multiple times and the space becomes stuffy and overheated. Furthermore, annotations to the designs are given in a separate brochure which is fiddly and quite honestly a nuisance when the curators could have more than easily labelled the dummies. The lifeless mannequin audience are not organised chronologically either, instead they are grouped by colour, showing where the designer refers back to his earlier designs time and time again and the timelessness of his work. Among these models are empty cream seats with the names of the glamorous women who have been lucky enough to wear his designs from Grace Kelly to Sophia Loren.

After leaving the ‘fashion show’ we are given a post performance treat in the form of Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece’s 1995 wedding dress. A truly breath taking gown composed of more than ten different kinds of lace and a 4.5m train. Just as we think we have seen too much beauty in such a short space of time, we are given one last insight into the designer’s workshop in a room full with examples of needlework from ‘le ragazze’, the atelier girls who make samples for the master. Here we are shown videos explaining techniques such as budellini and incrostazioni as well as examples of needlework from Rome.

Despite the cramped runway, Valentino shines. As the saying goes, beauty is pain, and so is fashion, so anyone with a serious love affair with clothes will be able to put up with the lack of breathing space in order to get a glimpse of these italian jewels.

Valentino: Master of Couture is on display at Somerset House until 3 March

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy is also curator of Arab Women Artists Now - AWAN 2018 (London).

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