Valentino: The Last Emperor, produced and directed by Matt Tyrnauer, Special Correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine, is an intimate and engaging fly-on-the-wall exploration of the singular world of one of Italy's most famous men. The film documents the colorful and dramatic closing act of Valentino's celebrated career, tells the story of his extraordinary life, and explores the larger themes affecting the fashion business today. At the heart of the film is the unique relationship between Valentino and his business partner and companion of 50 years, Giancarlo Giammetti.

Exit, runway left.

I don’t know what the collective noun is for a group of fashionistas – A flourish? A bustle? An ostentation? – but whatever you call them, they’re proving a popular topic for filmmakers of late, and I for one, am loving every minute of it.

The trend began inauspiciously, with a middling biography of Coco Chanel, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s commercially unsuccessful attempt to upstage an industry that thrives on upstaging itself. Things improved recently, when a towering personality in the fashion world gave unprecedented access to the hallowed halls of Vogue, though that endeavour was mostly a surface portrait. The latest addition to the collection – Valentino: The Last Emperor – is the best of the bunch.

When the Italian couturier clocks up 45 years in the rag trade in 2007, it leads to speculation that abdication is imminent at the house of Valentino: Will he retire? Won’t he? If not, why not? If not now, when? At the Paris prêt-a-porter shows, the fashion press forgets the frocks and persists with the same line of questioning, in bilingual stereo. It’s unlikely that anyone seriously expects that such a master of pomp and ceremony would deign to give that kind of scoop in a doorstop interview. Yet still they persist and duly he plays along, feeding the innuendo with nudge-nudge-wink-wink non-committals.

Valentino’s mentors in the '50s were the artisans of the Art Deco period so when he goes, it will complete the generational change in European fashion. Vanity Fair contributor-turned filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer captures the mood exquisitely. It’s easy to see how the idea for an editorial feature about the last man standing from a defining era of post-war fashion proved too epic for VF’s pages.

In his five decades at the top, Valentino Garavani has accumulated the expected trappings of success and to be sure, the film features Ab-Fab-like cameos by pampered pooches and air-kissing A-listers. These and other moments of vanity play out hilariously but Tyrnauer avoids caricature in favour of a gripping depiction of the End of Empire, and of the strange bedfellows created by the corporatisation of couture.

Valentino: The Last Emperor stops short of full-scale biopic; the farthest we go back is some 50 years to the meeting between Valentino and his sometime lover and lifetime partner, Giancarlo Giametti. Though they bicker about the exact whereabouts of that meeting on the Via Veneto, the two have been virtually inseparable since that day, and they’ve forged their own dolce vita from Valentino’s strengths as a creative force and Giancarlo’s business smarts.

It’s been at least 20 years since premium fashion houses were first carved up by mergers and acquisitions and sure enough, the corporate vultures start circling Valentino’s parent company. Handcrafted haute couture may draw gasps and generate column inches but it doesn’t benefit a bottom line nearly as much as handbags, perfumes and bedazzled belt buckles. Giametti and Garavani know where things are going, and they want to get out while the going is good. They contemplate an exit strategy that enables the founder to quit before his name becomes synonymous with duty free booty.

Valentino makes a reluctant subject at times; more than once he threatens to pull the pin on the documentary, but his agitation is understandable given we only witness him at times of heightened stress – finalising his collection weeks out from a show, besieged by the relentless press pack, fretting (with good reason) about the most O.T.T. elements of his anniversary bash.

Valentino: The Last Emperor is an excellent depiction of the creative process and it’s a treat to witness the evolution of the 2007 collection under Valentino’s formidable head seamstress (let’s just say that you wouldn’t want to pucker a seam in her presence). Even if you can’t distinguish Valentino from Vinnies, there’s enough to sustain its running time. Seek it out.

Watch this film above or at SBS On Demand



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