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Valentino: The Last Emperor

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009
NEW YORK - MARCH 17:  Designer Valentino Garav...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I wasn’t enthusiastic about going to see the recently released documentary about Valentino, the internationally renowned fashion designer, but my wife persuaded me.  I was somewhat surprised to find that I really enjoyed the movie. 


For 45 years, Valentino created fantastic Haute Couture gowns for the most glamorous and famous women in the world.  He tells us that his fascination with the 1930’s and 40’s American screen goddesses inspired him to create beautifully designed hand-stitched gowns, using the most luxurious materials draped around long-legged models, who showed off “the collection” to perfection.


Apart from watching Valentino’s incredible lifestyle with his lavish homes in France and Italy and his giant yacht sailing around the Mediterranean, we also see “behind the scenes” that Valentino is an extremely talented and creative individual, who shrewdly positioned himself at the top end of the market and maintained a reputation as one of the leading designers in the world for many decades.


It was also interesting to learn of his personal partnership with Giancarlo Giammetti, with whom he shared his life and his business relationship since 1960.  Clearly, it was Mr. Giammetti who had the business acumen to build Valentino’s fashion empire, ultimately valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.


As the movie progressed, we learned that the Haute Couture end of the business was not the profit earner.  However, it created the brand on which the rest of the business empire was founded, and resulted in vast licensing fees and income from everything from accessories to perfume.


In 1998, an Italian business conglomerate bought 25% of the Valentino business, and subsequently built that position into a controlling interest.  In 2007, those interests were bought by another conglomerate which owns many of the internationally known-fashion brand names. 


We see Valentino’s extraordinary three-day extravaganza commemorating his 45th anniversary in fashion, attended by most of the world’s rich and famous – celebrities and stars galore – at a black-tie ball at the Villa Borghese and at the Temple of Venus overlooking the Coliseum in Rome.  This celebration proved to be timely, because two months after the sale of his empire and the execution of his final Couture show, he officially retired.  What timing!


Given the major global recession, which has included major declines in sales of the leading fashion brands, the new owners of the Valentino Empire must be feeling very sorry for themselves.


However, Valentino and his partner, Giancarlo, can sail off into the sunset, immaculately dressed, coiffured and tanned and probably laughing all the way to the bank.


A movie built around beautiful women, exquisitely designed clothing, and an imperial lifestyle which will probably never return, is just the sort of escapism that we need in this day and age.


Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:

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Notes from China (1)

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009
Temple of Heaven
Image via Wikipedia



When a planned business trip to China for late April was postponed to the fall, I decided to take the time off and make a personal trip to Beijing and Changchun. It had been more than six months since my last visit. I was eager to see my aging mother and my sisters and get together with a few friends.

The 12-hour flight from Chicago to Beijing passed faster than I expected thanks to a series of audio lectures on the history of China—From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History—that a friend recently lent me. I put on my Bose noise cancellation headphone, a nice travel companion, and imagined sitting in a lecture hall listening to the professor. By the time the plane touched down, I had finished a third of the 36 lectures. There were times when I dozed off and the voice of the professor faded away. I’d replayed the lectures again when I became alert.


The new Beijing International Terminal still dazzled me as I walked from the landing gate to the customs counter: sparkling marble floor, high ceiling decorated with various patterns of metal strips and lit digital and print ads on the walls. It’s the largest and most contemporary airport in the world. Such a difference from the Beijing Airport in the mid 1990s when cockroaches and mice infested even the first class lounge.   

 Despite my jet lag, I met a friend for dinner and was happy to feel the natural and close connection as if we had never departed. But I couldn’t escape the impact of the 13-hour time difference—I was wide awake at 2 o’clock the following morning. As always, instead of fighting it, I propped myself up against the bed headboard and read until daybreak. As soon as it became bright enough outside, I put on my jogging gear and ran to the Temple of Heaven Park. The few blocks leading to the park was already filled with cars and I felt my lung chocking from the pollution in the air. 


I bought my entry ticket and joined the stream of people going into the park—they all had their annual passes. It was always a lovely scene in the park early in the morning. People of all ages gathered there: walking, practicing Tai Chi, dancing to loud folk music in groups, kicking shuttlecocks, playing badminton, and etc. A very lively place. Few people jog, though. Everyone appeared at leisure, taking their time to walk and chat and enjoy a social life instead of merely exercising. I realized I was the only one who had a pair of earphones plugged in. Ironically, I was listening to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories on the lives of Indian immigrants adjusting their settlement in the “unaccustomed earth” of the West. I watched the changes in China, the place of my growing up, with the keen awareness and alert of an outsider. I found the familiarity and foreignness both comforting and alarming. On the express train from the airport to downtown the day before, I was shocked to see the appearance of two young men—one with his hair covering half of his face, the slightly dyed brownish hair layered and spread in all directions, and the other, with his hair as dark as coal, had them all shooting upward as if he was about to pull himself off from the earth. For a moment, I thought I was having hallucinations because of the long plane ride. Then I heard them talking and their heavy accident made me realize they must have come from the northeast, and that this was reality. After living in the US for more than twenty years, I could no longer tell which land was more of the “unaccustomed” for me.  




Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.  












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