The door to Valentino’s Fifth Avenue apartment is opened by a man familiar to anyone who has seen Valentino: The Last Emperor, the documentary about the designer that opens this week. The man is Paul, and he is the majordomo of Valentino’s many, exquisitely appointed homes. When Paul offers a glass of water, which he does right away, it appears in a heavy Baccarat tumbler, wrapped in a square napkin of starchy, ironed linen. And then, soundlessly, he disappears.
In the long living room facing Central Park are pairs of things: a pair of full-size zebra armchairs, as well as another pair of zebra armchairs that are much lower slung. There are two pink ultrasuede chairs, too, and matching love seats in ivory brocade. There are two Chinese statues, and four porcelain storks, but there is only one low bronze stool, covered with the skin of a lizard whose desiccated head hangs limply to one side, and it is on this stool that Valentino chooses to sit. “I don’t like the soft chairs,” he says softly, smiling.
Valentino is in town for the opening of the film, which he has been following on the festival circuit since his retirement from designing his label last year. “I have to tell you,” he says, crossing his legs, “that I am extremely happy to have quit from fashion.” His famously tan skin is, of course, epically tan, but it is also well-moisturized; his hair is a smooth, partless wave. The air is thick with spicy, masculine cologne, and Valentino is wearing butter-yellow thin-wale corduroy pants, a blue oxford shirt with a discreet monogram, and a tie with an Italian (big) knot. “With the recession, it is very sad. I would be very sad to see so many dresses not sell. And now, all of the designers are doing the eighties. I hate the eighties,” he says. “I did it, and I hate it. When I go to see my dresses of the eighties, I vomit.”
So much better, then, to fly from city to city promoting this film, directed by Matt Tyrnauer. It’s a surprisingly moving 90-minute snapshot of the end of an era, as Valentino prepares to step down, but mostly it is a love story, an intimate study of the relationship between Valentino and his partner—in business and, never mind the other inamoratos, in life—Giancarlo Giammetti. In the movie, Giammetti estimates that if one were to add up all of the moments the two men have spent apart over a half-century it would not amount to more than eight weeks.
“Newspapers say that I am like a sheep following Valentino, and I hate it,” says Giammetti. He has arrived in the apartment shortly after Valentino. He too is quite tan, with a thick shock of glamorous white hair. The only weather condition either man ever seems to have encountered is blazing Mediterranean sun.
“Confucius say, and I wrote this on my Facebook page,” Giammetti says, “that if two people ride a horse, one person must sit in back.” He chooses a plush pink chair; over his shoulder is a perfect view of the roof of the Met.
“I was never somebody to take care of business,” Valentino admits, “and I have to say, Mr. Giammetti takes care of all of the parts that are not really pleasant. I was working with peace, and he provided this. He knew that I was not to be disturbed.”
However Valentino chooses to spend his “retirement”—right now he’s thinking of designing for opera and ballet—Giammetti will be there. And Giammetti agrees that they exited fashion right in time: “For a man who does not know how much money is in his bank account, he does care very much about selling a dress.”
In the film, Giammetti tells Valentino when such a dress could use an extra ruffle, and even when his tan has, perhaps, become too intense. “If anything happened to Valentino, it also happened to me,” says Giammetti. “People say that I should have won the Légion d’honneur, but for me, I did. What is between Valentino and me, it is beyond words.”