The grand arched ceilings of the exhibition space at Somerset House provides a setting perfect for the presence Valentino's gowns exude. The first room with its double height ceiling holds a series of glass cases rested on elegant chairs each focusing on a different aspect of Valentino's status as 'Master of Couture'; one features correspondence between Valentino and his celebrity clients, friends, and admirers (Princess Diana, Anna Wintour, and Elizabeth Taylor to name a few). As the opening exhibit it seems this serves to highlight the adoration of Valentino before we view his pieces - perhaps a pointed reminder of his monopoly on couture. On the far wall a huge rose is mounted, another reminder of the brand status which the rose is synonymous with. So far the focus seems to be much more on the man than his dresses.
Up the stairs the tone changes. A beautiful runway scene spreads out before us either side of which stand the dresses, arranged amongst audience chairs, each with a famous attendee's name lavishly scribed on a tag. Despite the dim light we peer at the brochure provided as the only way to get any information about the pieces, each of which is numbered. Seems simple enough. That is until the numbers fall out of order and we are flipping back and forth through the booklet to identify the season and occasionally the famous wearer. Little else is given besides the briefest of descriptions about the outfit.
A seemingly good idea to categorise the garments by colour and theme doesn't pay off; the arrangement does little to exhibit any change or development in style. Instead we are treated to some truly foul mannequin colours (surprise surprise not every Valentino piece from the sixties looks good against 'mustard') and another reason to have to flip through the booklet to identify the era of every dress.
All that aside most of the pieces are undeniably stunning. This is the part where I was going to review the best and worst but alas no photos were allowed and the ones I made a note of are impossible to find online so I'm kind of limited. I did manage to find my favourite though...
As for my least favourite pieces, the animal print section was a strong contender, but the top (or bottom) spot has to go to a 1992 blue, yellow, purple and green tappeto di ruches technique evening dress. I mean I know it was the nineties but it's hard to imagine this ever being high fashion.
Overall I was a big fan of the white and black sections, though I think this has more to do with my personal preference of simplistic elegance in couture. A disappointing admission for me was the lack of the classic red dresses Valentino is famous for, especially considering the dominant red in the promotional material. Most of all I felt the styling let the dresses down, the wigs and coloured mannequins doing little for the exquisite pieces and only dragging down the less beautiful.
Beyond the runway section a beautiful wedding dress made for Marie-Chantal, Crown Princess of Greece is displayed. In contrast to the runway this was beautifully presented; if only more pieces had been given such precedence. The last exhibit was an explanation of the classic techniques used in the prestigious Valentino Atelier, including the Pagine technique exclusive to Valentino.
The exhibition overall was much more focused on parading and celebrating the success of Valentino the man, and then the brand. For a label that is famous for dressing A-list stars on red carpets, it is arguably appropriate that the exhibition takes every opportunity to drop a famous name but in many ways I felt this detracted from the dresses themselves. All in all the beauty and craft of Valentino's garments does show, but I can't help feeling they weren't done justice in this exhibition.
After taking in Valentino, we popped into the Tim Walker exhibition - incredible photography even though the larger than life props scared the hell out of me, and then off to Oxford Street (I was boring and only bought a grey tee from Zara and some long white and grey socks from Uniqlo, but then again I do love my quality basics) Basically a really good day!