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A Visual History of Valentino’s Gorgeous Couture

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New exhibit "Valentino: Master of Couture" opens in London today at Somerset House, focusing solely on the designer's impressive haute couture archive. To closely examine the 130 gowns, many on display for the first time, visitors to the museum's vaultlike Embankment Galleries must strut down a central hall laid out like a fashion-show runway. It's fun. The looks themselves adorn mannequins seated and posed around plush seats making up arguably the most A-list front row ever, with "empty" chairs reserved for Elizabeth Taylor, Lady Gaga, Iman, Grace Kelly, and others. (Other rooms showcase letters, sketches, and more from Valentino's personal archive, as well as behind-the-scenes access into the atelier's design processes.)

Speaking at the exhibition's launch, Garavani described the "beautiful story" that's behind each outfit (his first time meeting Jackie O left him giddy, for example) and the rationale behind his choosing each for display — "clothes that [despite their age] look current." It's deliberately both an inspirational and aspirational collection, it would seem, as the designer noted there's just too much going on nowadays for women to re-create "the true sixties elegance, when you could change three or four times a day." But he's ready to inspire you, too, Kate Middleton — just give him a call. "In my career," he continued, with a knowing grin, "I like to think that I made nice dresses." See proof that "nice" is quite the understatement in our slideshow.

Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/2012 Getty Images

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