Valentino’s Dolce Vita
BY Michael Joseph Gross
February 02 2009 1:00 AM ET
We’re one banquette away from being truly in the room,” jokes Matt Tyrnauer, as he and I are seated at La Grenouille, New York’s grand French restaurant. Impeccably, scruffily groomed, the 39-year-old Vanity Fair special correspondent arrives for lunch on a rainy afternoon wearing a blue blazer, polka-dot tie, white shirt, khakis, and brown loafers (no socks), orders sole and a Grand Marnier soufflé, and scans the jewel-box dining room, which is separated by towers of lilies and orchids from the tiny seating area in front, where billionaires’ wives’ gossip traipses languidly among the Romance languages. He spies John Fairchild, the former publisher of Women’s Wear Daily who created cults of personality around the top mid-century designers such as Valentino Garavani, who is the subject of Tyrnauer’s first documentary film, Valentino: The Last Emperor. The synchronicity delights him. “It’s perfect!” he declares.
In this room in the 1960s, Valentino lunched with the ladies he aspired to dress, such as Jacqueline Kennedy, Babe Paley, and Nan Kempner. Today, “it’s one of the last places in Manhattan where Valentino feels truly comfortable,” Tyrnauer explains, “because it is preserved in aspic, from the genteel New York where people dressed for lunch.”
The Last Emperor is an intimate chronicle of this rarefied world, swathed in jaw-dropping extravagance at Valentino’s headquarters in Rome and his homes in Gstaad, Paris, London, Tuscany, and New York. While preparing for a party at Valentino’s French château, for example, a gardener spray-paints the lawn a brighter shade of green. Tyrnauer finds honor in such absurdity by revealing the grueling labor that sustains the dying art of couture and the Old World lifestyle that surrounds it. (When, at a gala retrospective of his work, Valentino gazes up at his most famous dresses, pinned like butterflies to the walls of Rome’s Ara Pacis Museum, he shares a satisfied moment with Karl Lagerfeld -- and you realize that, for all their glamour, the detail-obsessed work ethic these men share is really, at heart, a form of geekiness.)
The core of the film, and the aspect of Valentino’s life that most fascinates Tyrnauer, is a love story: Valentino’s 50-year relationship with Giancarlo Giammetti, his partner in business and in life. Tyrnauer first met the couple when he profiled the designer for Vanity Fair in 2004. On publication, the story caused a bit of a stir, because it was the first time the designer’s sexual orientation had been explicitly acknowledged in print. “Each of them lived with his mother until the mother died, and they never told their mothers that they were boyfriends, but this is not unusual in Italy,” Tyrnauer explains. Public disclosure “wasn’t an easy experience for them,” he says, “but we had a level of trust, and I asked them to go ahead with a film immediately.”