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Valentino on Starting from Scratch and Dressing Jackie O

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Valentino with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1976. Photo: Getty Images
Valentino with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1976. Photo: Getty Images

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It takes talent to start a fashion company from scratch and become world-famous in the process. For Valentino Garavani, it also took an immense amount of luck.

"Luck" was a word Garavani threw around a lot last night, when he spoke to an audience at Manhattan's 92Y as part of its Fashion Icons series with Fern Mallis. The 82-year-old Italian designer reflected on his time in the industry and how fortunate he feels to have founded an iconic brand.

"It's very difficult for me to talk about me, to say something about my career, my name, what I did," he said. "But I have to tell you that I am the happiest, luckiest person in the world. I was always a very big dreamer...I was not nervous at all because I loved what I did. I said to myself, 'Maybe there will be people who don't like it, but who cares? I love it, I created it.'"

Garavani grew up in a small village near Milan, where his father was an electric cable salesman and his mother was a housewife. He discovered his love of fashion by attending the theater with his sister: "I was so enchanted by all those evening gowns, those sequins, those shiny things. Then I realized that my way was to do design."

At the age of 17, he asked his parents to go to Paris to study fashion, which he compares to asking to go to the moon. Nevertheless, they did send him to Paris, where he attended the École des Beaux-Arts and the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. He had apprenticeships at Jacques Fath and Balenciaga, but decided "that I couldn't go on designing for others." Garavani's salary was "almost nothing," so his father gave him an initial investment to open his own company when he moved to Rome from Paris in 1960.

Garavani was running the operation by himself for a bit before he met Giancarlo Giammetti, an architecture student who would later become the company president.

"He asked if he could see the fashion house, and he said, 'What a boring life I have, to be an architect, to go home to study. I would love to come here and do something for the fashion house,'" Garavani recalled. "He came and he took care of everything that was not part of the creation. Little by little we arrived at something quite solid."

Valentino with Fern Mallis. Photo: 92Y

Valentino's exquisite evening wear first became visible thanks to Elizabeth Taylor. The actress was living in Rome while filming Cleopatra when she contacted Garavani for a gown she'd need for the opening night of Spartacus.

"I tried to do my best, and she wore my dress!" he said, adding that she joked she would only take a picture with the designer if he made her another dress. "She was very demanding! Two days after, she came to my first fashion house. Finally I said, 'I promised you a gown, choose what you like!' She chose the most expensive one."

Garavani attributes what he calls the true "Valentino boom" to Jackie Kennedy. The former First Lady bought six pieces of his haute couture collection in 1964; the black and white dresses were worn during the year following John F. Kennedy's assassination. Jackie O also wore a white Valentino gown at her second wedding, when she married Greek shipping giant Aristotle Onassis. Everyone called up Garavani after the wedding to confirm it was indeed his design, and he realized it was a dress she had simply pulled out of her closet.

The Valentino brand grew at a rapid pace during the '70s and '80s. At the time, legendary editor Diana Vreeland was a close friend of Garavani's and famously wrote him a note that read, "Even at birth, genius always stands out. I see genius in you. Good luck!"

Though Valentino sold a remarkable amount of dresses during the '80s, Garavani believes the decade was his worst: "I go back to all my collections, and I hated those dresses. They were out of proportion...the hair was all terrible. The shoes, they were not good. I never liked it."

For all his fame (remember his cameo in The Devil Wears Prada?) and fortune (he owns five beautifully decorated homes around the world), the designer is surprisingly shy. Throughout the night, he blushed frequently at questions Mallis asked, dodging quite a few with cheeky one-liners like, "You make me feel naked" and "Do you want me to tell you which underwear I am wearing tonight?"

And while Garavani wouldn't divulge which fellow designers he's fond of, he did offer one small nugget of advice for emerging talent: Do it yourself. "I was so concentrated on my design, my creation," he said. "I had lots of assistants, but I never asked them to do something instead of myself."