During an illustrious career that has spanned over four decades, his exquisitely detailed creations epitomized haute couture and were worn by generations of the world's most glamorous women, from Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Onassis to Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Less well known is Valentino's passion for the ballet, an enthusiasm he traces to seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov dance Swan Lake in Florence decades ago. "Ballet speaks to me because of the romance I see in it," he says. "I realize the dancers do so much to be perfect, and in high fashion I always wanted perfection."
Valentino's love of the dance led him to design costumes for the Vienna Ballet in 2009. This fall he returns to the ballet world in an even bigger way with costume designs for New York City Ballet's 2012 Fall Gala, including three works by NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins and a pas de deux by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. In addition, the one-time-only event on September 20 will celebrate Valentino with a performance of George Balanchine's Rubies from Jewels, in tribute to the designer's signature "Valentino Red."
"My dream for a long time was to do one day what we're doing in September," Valentino says.
Sharp-eyed ballet-goers have spotted the designer, tanned and impeccably dressed, at NYCB performances over the years, often at galas. "I've known Peter for a long, long time and remember seeing him on stage when he was dancing with Suzanne Farrell," Valentino says. "That's something you never forget."
The designer's collaboration with the Company began in earnest this past spring, when he met with Martins and NYCB Director of Costumes Marc Happel. Valentino arrived in Martins' office with a stack of sketches, and things fell into place.
For Martins' new ballet, set to selections from Tschaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Valentino fashioned black dresses with hot pink skirts peeking from beneath and white dresses that hide skirts in red. "Black and white can be boring, so there's a surprise when the dancers jump," says Valentino, who also designed black tuxedos for the men.
Sophisticated Lady, choreographed by Martins to a Duke Ellington score for NYCB's 1988 American Music Festival, showcases a ballerina in a red chiffon dress and a chorus of 12 men in classic tuxedos. "Red is very strong on stage, and since she's very sophisticated I put her in a beautiful long dress with a flower close to her face," he says.
Also from the 1988 festival, Martins' Not My Girl is a pas de deux inspired by music composed by Fred Astaire. Valentino dubbed the ballerina's short tutu "harlequin" for the diamond shapes created by artfully draped chiffon in red and pink. Her partner wears a tailcoat, which Valentino designed in eggplant-colored wool.
And in Wheeldon's pas de deux the ballerina wears a smoky gray dress embellished with narrow strips of fabric stitched into geometric patterns.
The fabrics the designer chose are simple: nets, tulles, chiffons, organzas and lace. But the designs are extremely complicated, says Happel. "When you work with a couturier you get couturier details," he says. In the red costume for Sophisticated Lady, for example, "a second layer of chiffon with a beautiful pink underneath gives the dress a lot of depth," he says.
Valentino and his long-time business partner Giancarlo Giammetti visited the NYCB Costume Shop nearly every week through early summer to tweak the designs, oversee fabric selection and conduct fittings. "Valentino is very hands on," says Happel. "He'd call me every so often from the chateau outside Paris or from Italy with some little detail of a dress he wanted to talk about _ a lace trim that should be flat instead of rouched up, that sort of thing."
On a sticky afternoon in early July, Valentino and Giammetti were in the shop, surrounded by racks of hanging costumes and work tables piled with jewels for headpieces and sketches. Dressed in a tan summer suit with a blue shirt, silk tie and striped socks, Valentino strode briskly through the room, moving from task to task. He sketched a hairstyle for the Wheeldon ballerina (grosgrain ribbon woven through a French twist). He sat for a video interview (he suggested placing a costumed mannequin in the sightline behind him). And he conducted a fitting of a white tutu on Principal Dancer Ashley Bouder for the new Martins work.
Gazing critically at the dress, Valentino adjusted the pleated bodice. "I want this to be very, very tight," he said. He discussed the make-up he wanted Bouder to wear. "Red lips," he said. "I love red lips," Bouder replied. He stepped back from the dancer. "Let me see some movement." Bouder obliged with pas de chats. "Beautiful, beautiful. The skirt looks like a huge white cloud," he exclaimed, clapping his hands.
Afterwards Valentino talked about his foray into costume design, a realm that seems not that different in many ways from high fashion.
"I learned when you create something for the ballet you must give the dancer the opportunity to move and jump well," he says. "And if you make a beautiful couture dress for a lady, and she's not able to walk, well, that dress is a dead dress."
Devising dresses that dazzle high fashion audiences is not unlike creating costumes that play to the back row of the fourth ring, he says. "My dear, I've shown my couture collections everywhere in the world on huge, huge stages, and the dresses make an impression."
Even the dancers, it seems, are able to take on the role of runway model showcasing Valentino's creations, albeit in a very different way and on a very different stage. "The dancers here may not be as tall as models," he says. "But when a ballerina comes on stage and she's a star, everything is fantastic. And the dress becomes a dream. Everything is beautiful."
Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel