Behind the scenes at Valentino: Master of Couture

Get an exclusive look at the preparations for the fashion exhibition at Somerset House

© Rob Greig

Maggie Davis gets an exclusive preview of Somerset House’s Master of Couture exhibition - the fashion show of the decade. Photos by Rob Greig.

A clothes conservator in blue surgical gloves is reverently caressing a layered tulle dress. ‘Just condition reporting: checking to see if there are any areas of damage,’ she says in hushed tones, as if holding a newborn baby. A team of dressers, archivists, seamstresses or ‘les petite mains’ as they are known in the haute couture trade, are preparing the dresses, many of them have flown over from Valentino’s Rome-based atelier.

It’s a couple of weeks before Somerset House hosts its biggest and most glamorous fashion exhibition to date. Curator Alistair O’Neill unwraps an exquisite lace gown, plastered with thousands of tiny beads. He’s spent the last year-and-a-half immersed in the fantastical world of Valentino couture, where a few dozen super-rich clients spend the price of a small flat on made-to-measure outfits. ‘The mind boggles at the man hours that went into this piece,’ he says. Not to mention the pennies.

© Rob Greig

Although he officially retired from the label in 2008, Mr Valentino Garavani, the enigmatic and enduringly tanned 80-year-old, popped in a couple of days ago unannounced to check up on proceedings. Did he like what he saw so far? ‘He was very enthusiastic,’ says O’Neill, looking a little relieved. Valentino, though becoming increasingly fragile, will be present for the princess-studded launch next week (we hear a rumour Kate Middy will be there) and the talk he is giving with fashion commentator Colin McDowell has already sold out.

The exhibition aims to reveal the beauty and craftwork behind a brand spanning the past five decades. Few designers have such enduring appeal – Valentino has designed wedding dresses for both Jackie O and J-Lo, and couture frocks for every glamorous celebrity from Grace Kelly to Gwyneth Paltrow.

All 140 outfits will be presented in themes either side of a spectacular catwalk which runs the length of the Embankment Galleries. Valentino’s key trends – Valentino red (a trademark shade of Hollywood scarlet), the figure-hugging column dresses, including one Julia Roberts wore to the Academy Awards in 2001, the exquisite chantilly lace and the rosettes – are all there. ‘The thing that really astounded me when we saw the Rome archive,’ says O’Neill, ‘was that there were certain preoccupations that Mr Valentino returns to over again – like the big bow of the ’70s that reappears in the ’90s. In some instances a piece of lace from the ’80s was cut by the same as the person who is doing the cut lace today.’

© Rob Greig

You can study the intricate couture techniques up-close too. All 11 of them – including pagine, in which discs of organza silk are piled to create a page effect, to rose di volanti, where lengths of organza silk are cut on the bias to form open roses – are on displayed behind a little glass cabinet with accompanying video clips taken in the atelier (a Rome workshop which creates the outfits). The show gives an insight to the designer’s world through a series of behind-the-scenes images, letters, sketches and photos including a picture of Valentino and Jackie Onassis that O’Neill spotted on the designer’s mantelpiece at his palatial home outside Paris. But the star item of the exhibition is Marie-Chantal, Crown Princess of Greece’s phenomenal wedding dress, spun from ten different kinds of lace with an impressive four-metre train. ‘A really important strand of this exhibition is to educate people about the amazing skills of the atelier. Couture is a fragile industry and it could disappear,’ says O’Neill.

The sheer beauty of what’s on display may well engage even the most hardened of couture critics – yes, they’re pieces you could never hope to buy, or even try on. But this is a celebration of techniques and workmanship, and one that visitors might find as strangely moving as an artwork by an old master, or a perfectly executed orchestral performance. Judging by other recent fashion successes including Christian Louboutin at the Design Museum and Hollywood Costume at the V&A, this elegant, beautifully executed show looks set to be a sellout success.

See the Valentino: Master of Couture exhibition

  • Nov 29-Mar 3 2013, Somerset House

    Fashion fans will find themselves living la dolce vita when this exhibition celebrating the life and work of Valentino opens at Somerset House.