Valentino, maestro of red-hot couture

Valentino and his models in trademark red

Valentino and his models in trademark red

The email was polite and succinct. “Dear Brigit, we’ve managed to get you five minutes with Valentino at midday on Wednesday. Look forward to seeing you then. Kind regards…”

Now ordinarily, being allocated such a frugal amount of time with an interviewee would be laughable, but this was different. To spend 300 seconds (it sounds longer) in the company of the undisputed master of Italian couture is a feather in the fedora of any fashion scribe, and the last time I was this excited about a work itinerary was when I received the following email from Disney: “Date: Feb 8, 2012. Location: Mayfair Hotel, London. Time: 4.30pm. Interviews with Kermit and Miss Piggy”.

Not that I would dare to compare the quizzing of two felt puppets to an audience with the prophetic designer who has dressed everyone from Jackie Onassis to Lady Gaga, but hopefully you know what I mean .

The reason for Signor Valentino Garavani agreeing to meet with the fash-pack was to promote the 50th anniversary exhibition celebrating his life and work at Somerset House in London, and if you like beautiful clothes, I urge you to see it.

Fran & Jane’s floral red £160

Fran & Jane’s floral red £160

“Beauty and elegance is all I thought of when I design,” says the nut-brown octogenarian who opened the House of Valentino in Rome in 1959 to create spectacular gowns without ever using a single sewing-machine. “Everything is handmade by le ragazze,” he says, referring to the gifted seamstresses he employed.

Many of those hand-crafted designs — 140 in total — worn by style icons such as the aforementioned Jackie O, as well as Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Madonna, are on display as part of the exhibition and one can only marvel at the ebb and flow of each gown.

Standing close to the black and white tulle dress worn by Julia Roberts for the Oscars in 1992, it’s easy to understand why Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld once whispered to Valentino: “Compared to us, the rest are making rags”. But unlike lofty Lagerfeld, Valentino never collaborated with H&M to create a high-street range. Not that il maestro is entirely dismissive of cheap clothing. “The high-street is very clever at what they do, but they copy.”

Retiring four years ago, with a send-off that saw him turn Rome into a fashion runway bathed in red light, the couturier has now turned his hand to designing for the ballet, so a collection for Top Shop is not on the cards. So where does that leave a Valentino votarist on a budget? For starters there’s the pop-up Valentino exhibition shop at Somerset House where they are selling limited-edition tote bags at £350, along with bespoke silk scarves, moleskin notebooks for jaunty journalists and a range of sunglasses from the Valentino Eyewear Collection from £150.

For those who want to make an investment in Valentino without alerting the bank and before the brand is watered down by the conglomerate that now owns it, a visit to www.theoutnet.com may prove fruitful. Browsing there, I spotted a Valentino £1,670 bubblegum pink shoulder bag for £751.50 and a £1,677 silk crepe red dress for £749.25. The latter was tempting, if only because red is the designer’s signature colour.

As he puts it: “In the middle of a group of women dressed in black, a woman in red is a vision.” Apart from shoes and scarves, I have steered away from red as a rule, but Valentino insists his rossi is a red with a tiny bit of orange added and works for brunettes, blondes and even redheads.

As my bank manager is fittingly on red alert in spite of the festive season, I decided to look for a Valentino tribute dress I could afford, such as the ’60s-inspired silk chiffon Gwyneth dress at Silk and Sawdust, the Fifties Duchesse by London-based designer Suzannah (unknown by me until now) and The Pretty Dress Company’s flatteringly fitted lace effort which is available at Van Mildert in Glasgow and Gateshead. Turns out rossi lookalikes are available everywhere once you start searching, which is what the maestro meant when he said, “they do copy”, before revealing that Berluti makes his shoes, Caraceni makes his suits and he doesn’t travel anywhere without his six pugs. It’s amazing what you can learn in five minutes.

‘Valentino: Master of Couture’ is at Somerset House, London WC2 until March 3 2013. www.somersethouse.org.uk

    Last updated: 4:57pm, December 13 2012