This week sees the opening of a major new exhibition in London celebrating the 50 year career of one of fashion's most illustrious designers, Valentino Garavani. "Valentino: Master of Couture" focuses on the ever more rarefied world of haute couture. The exhibition at Somerset House showcases over 130 hand-crafted designs; worn by iconic women from Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Grace Kelly and Sophia Loren to Gwyneth Paltrow.
"Each of these designs have a beautiful story" says Valentino "The atelier crafted each so diligently by hand, taking hours, sometimes days to complete. The details are incredibly intricate, though outside the runway shows and events, the dresses have rarely been seen."
Valentino's couture clients have included princesses, first ladies and Hollywood actresses - an exhibition highlight is the vintage Valentino dress Julia Roberts wore in 2001 to pick up her Academy Award for Best Actress. There are also Jackie Onassis's wedding dress from Valentino's 1968 White Collection and Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece's pearl-encrusted ivory silk wedding gown, which is made from ten different types of lace. Some of the exhibits have come from the couture catwalk and red carpet or were commissioned by private clients but much of it has never been seen outside the Valentino atelier.
The exhibition features photographs from Valentino's private collection and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Valentino atelier, with specially made films demonstrating the skill and craftsmanship that go into creating couture gowns. The atelier tour also explores the technique of budellini, strips of silk ribbon used to accentuate a woman's hourglass shape, which is as much a signature of Valentino as the hallmark 'Valentino Red'.
The highlight of the exhibition is the Catwalk experience; visitors walk a 60 metre runway surrounded by an 'audience' dressed in an array of Valentino couture. The clothes are grouped by theme, from black and white to red, and trace the house from its beginnings in 1950s Rome through to pieces from the current house of Valentino; now creatively led by the designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli since the retirement of the eponymous Valentino.
Another room is dedicated to Valentino's current passion, the Valentino Garavani Virtual Museum, an online museum that you can download onto your computer - and in fact I have just started playing with it now, it's interactive and very cool.
Couture has suffered a decline in the past century with the number of haute couture members dwindling from over a hundred in the post-war period to now just 18. The profitability of prêt-à-porter and the expense of creating a couture collection have contributed to its decline, but the kudos and aura it brings a design house is priceless.
"Valentino: Master of Couture" shines a spotlight on the hundreds of hours of skilled artistry that goes into creating a couture gown and the exhibition is equally a tribute to the petites mains of the atelier team as it is to the master couturier Valentino.
The exhibition will be held at Somerset House in London and runs from 29 November 2012 to the 3 March 2013. If you want to visit the Valentino Garavani Virtual Museum, click the link.