Private No More: Giancarlo Giammetti on Life With Valentino, Elizabeth Taylor’s Expensive Taste, and Lauren Hutton’s Tantrums
Many of fashion’s great performers have benefited from great showrunners—those unsung partners who protect and guide from offstage. The line you hear about Giancarlo Giammetti, then, is that he allows Valentino to be Valentino. What that means exactly can be hard to explain. Suffice it to say that what began as a mutual attraction turned into one of the most fruitful collaborations the fashion world has ever seen. In helping to build up the legendary label, Giammetti also laid the groundwork for the industry as it is today. His relationship with his partner is as moving as it is complicated—or so it appears in Valentino: The Last Emperor, the acclaimed documentary that ushered Valentino vividly back into the spotlight in 2008, at a time when the pair behind the famous name might have retreated into relative (but impossibly opulent) obscurity. Now, with Private: Giancarlo Giammetti, Giammetti offers another peek into the Valentino world. Published by Assouline, the twelve-pound tome is a compendium of reflections and photos, nearly all of them snapped by Giammetti himself, of the long, enviable life he’s led—one that has contained so many royals, Hollywood idols, and pharaonic fashion types that it more or less functions as an illustrated social history of the latter half of the twentieth century. Giammetti spoke with Style.com about fashion then and now, the glamorous “tribe” with which he’s always traveled, and the “diva fits” he’s come to take in stride.
In his foreword to the book, Valentino writes that he learned some things about you that he did not know before. Is that even possible?
It’s true. Everybody has secrets, no? It was easier to tell them to the book than to him! He would have reacted, probably. At least the book was silent.
The Last Emperor made your life public in a way that it never had been before. Could you have done this book without that movie?
You’d always guarded your privacy. Tell me about how the movie changed that.
The movie was a surprise. The first time we went to see it, we came out of the room so shocked that I called the lawyers. I felt so violated. I expected a documentary about fashion, the beautiful girls, the runways, the parties. I didn’t expect to feel so naked.
But eventually you came around.
We got eight minutes of standing ovation in Venice, and everybody started to say how great it was to see a different aspect of our lives. I remember that Matt [Tyrnauer, the director] said, “This is not a movie about the rich and famous. This is about love, and the end of an era.” And it seems that people were attracted to this. Also it helped people—I’m talking about gay people, probably—to see there are people that can build a relationship and a life together.
How did this book come about, then?
There was this enormous collection of photos I did all my life, and my diaries. The pictures were glued in albums, so three or four years ago I called an archiving company that specialized in this kind of thing—the same one that did all the Vatican’s documents. I started to look at these pictures inside my computer, and I had an offer from Assouline already, so I said, “Why not?” We went from 57,000 archived [images] to 500 or 600.
Drama, or mini-drama, seems to be a recurring fact of life. You write about Lauren Hutton throwing a “diva fit,” and mention the “tantrums” of Naomi Campbell. How have you learned to deal with it?
Fashion is full of drama people, and [you see that] some problems are more important than others. If Naomi wants to go out first and not second, you let her do it, because it’s not worth it, and because despite being a difficult character she is a great person and an amazing friend. Lauren’s tantrum made me more upset because it was in the middle of an event. But yes, I have quite a tough skin now.
In one sense—as romantic partners—you and Valentino broke up in 1972. In another sense, you never did. It’s an unorthodox business arrangement. Did you ever have any doubts it would work?
Of course it’s never easy. But I am somebody who hates to lose track of people that are important to me—the construction of this “tribe” is because of that. And don’t forget, we [had been] in business for twelve years. You don’t leave everything [behind] just because something doesn’t work anymore.
Valentino is sometimes considered the first house really to embrace celebrities. Was that plan or accident?
A bit of both. It’s interesting to see people who are successful, and even then it was important to have them wearing your clothes in front of a camera. I remember in ’61 Elizabeth Taylor was in Rome for Cleopatra and went to an opening of Spartacus, the movie with Kirk Douglas. She wore this pleated white chiffon Valentino dress with ostrich at the end, and it was in every paper. The day after, she came to the fashion house and wanted seven outfits. She said, “Oh, you have so much publicity with me today—I deserves this, this, this, this.” In a certain way she was like an animal, she wanted things, and when she wanted something, she’d use any means.
Did you give her all the dresses she asked for?
Of course. And they were the most expensive [ones]. I remember one in embroidered velvet with a sable collar. She chose that first, of course. But she was also an amazing woman. Anyway, we understood that this was a good way to promote the brand, and it was fascinating to be sitting with Elizabeth Taylor.
Is it harder to work with celebrities now?
Very much so. In the beginning, Valentino was really the person involved. You had Elizabeth Taylor or Jackie Kennedy coming to your office and choosing the dress. You’d discuss, and fight or not fight. But now stylists decide which dresses will be in the room. The most famous dress for Valentino, for example, is the Julia Roberts [the vintage Valentino she wore to the Academy Awards in 2001]—and we didn’t know anything about it. It was there in a room with twenty-five other dresses from twenty-five designers. She went out in another dress and her niece, Emma, said, “I don’t like this dress—why don’t you wear the Valentino?” And she changed at the last moment. It was a huge success, and I absolutely thank Julia. But it was not something personal.
Despite all that, you and Valentino still have personal relationships with lots of celebrities.
But it has nothing to do with wearing our clothes, thank God. We had an accident with Anne Hathaway during the Oscars—she didn’t wear a dress that we made with a lot of care and love. But it doesn’t mean that she is not one of our best friends.
This book is very much about the dolce vita. There is a section in there about work, but it isn’t exactly represented in images.
Fashion is not people playing with dolls, you know? It’s a very tough business, very competitive. And wherever there’s competition there’s a lot of pressure and anxiety and sleepless nights. If there were pictures [of this], I wouldn’t mind publishing them. But there are no photos.
Yves Saint Laurent versus Valentino is considered one of the great rivalries, but you’ve said that Valentino did not feel personally that competitive toward other designers. Was it more of a rivalry between you and Pierre Bergé, then?
No, it was more of a complex of Mr. Bergé. I think Yves Saint Laurent is an amazing designer—there was nothing to say. It was not a real rivalry for me. I don’t have the greatest admiration for Mr. Bergé. I don’t think the way that he handled the relationship with Yves was right. And even now, I don’t like what is happening to that company. The cancellation of Yves in the name, I thought it was really something horrible.
You write that there is no training for the job you’ve done. But nowadays people get trained for every job, don’t you think?
The difference is that I was doing it by myself. Today five or six people would do this job together. And it was dictated by feelings. I was also owning the company, so there was the ambition to make it bigger, not just to save my chair or title. It was a different moment, suddenly not just couture anymore. You had dresses on racks, publicity, advertising, magazines—so many things.
And fashion did not have the cachet it has now, when everyone wants to be in the business.
I remember just to get an accountant in Rome in the sixties, you couldn’t get a man. They were ashamed to work for a designer! And today we could have the president of United Airlines come in and work for any fashion company. There is an appeal in fashion today that is amazing. There is also a lot of money involved. I don’t think that the business has the same salaries [anymore].
If the fashion business has gotten more glamorous, some people would say that you and Valentino are, to an extent, responsible.
I don’t know if the money was my fault! But the cachet we brought to life.
Is this book the last time you’ll share so much of your memories and archives publicly?
I don’t know. Maybe there will be another book with less pictures and more text—something that you can take to bed.
Sounds like a memoir.