London’s Somerset House in December; positively idyllic. Beautiful chilled crisp sunshine, perfect views, ice rink full of skaters, warm tea in my tummy and a fashion exhibition too. Oh my. I love an extravagant evening gown or two and with Valentino being known for amazing dresses, I got to the exhibition ‘Valentino- Master of Couture’ as soon as my little feet could carry me there. It had only been open a few days when I went so I was expecting long queues, as were the people at Somerset House it would seem. Roped off queuing lanes were laid out ready for the demand, but alas, those lanes were empty and the exhibition was surprisingly very quiet.
Is Valentino one of the most sumptuous, glamourous, fantastical and talented dress designers of modern times? Absolutely.
Is this slightly cramped, strange and small exhibition a bit of a let down? For me, unfortunately yes.
The exhibition has been curated by Alistair O’Neill for Somerset House with Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfreda and is split into 3 main sections. Firstly we have ‘Valentino’ where we see personal photos of the designer himself and unseen intimate letters from the many women he dressed. The way this was styled was great, glass boxes atop of raised chairs mounted on the walls, a catwalk theme from the offset. This section was done really nicely, great unseen and unknown information, I love to get a basic insight into the subject of an exhibition.
The next and main part of the exhibition was ‘The Catwalk’. The concept of this is great, we, the viewer walk down the catwalk and the mannequins are the audience, seated and standing among chairs. To demonstrate the way couture collections are traditionally showcased to press and buyers, each mannequin had a number on their wrist, which we could match up with the list in our booklet to read about the dress. So, the concept is a good one, but sadly, for me, it didn’t work well in its realization. The lighting was really dark, I know that with clothing the lighting needs to be sensitive, but the overall feeling was of dim light making it hard to see the dresses in detail. The mannequins were awful, they were the most garish shades of terracotta, lime, parma violet and mustard. This was done to identify the era of each outfit, but my goodness, the colour choices made them look like characters from Jim Henson’s The Muppets and clashed horribly with the dainty beauty of each dress. The mannequins also had really bad and dated wigs, in all honesty I felt like I was in a dark deserted 1970’s department store. It felt far from high glamour. The long corridor shape that had been built to form the catwalk space seemed to ignore any of the gorgeousness of the location we were actually in. I would have much preferred to see these amazing dresses, these stunning works of art, in a bright, clear, open space, with room to walk around each outfit. The dresses here, had no room to breathe, the mannequins were stood and sat really close to each other. I fully understand that in order to show, say, the back detail of a dress, you need to turn the back towards the viewer, but as a result we only saw certain parts of the dresses, I was left needing a little more.
Then we had a behind the scenes look at the work of Valentino’s Ateliers. This was most probably the part that was best executed. Clear, bright and visually amazing. We got to see up close detail of couture techniques and watch short videos of the incredible work that goes into each aspect of a dress. In a glass case at the end of the exhibition was a stunning light pink organza cape made up of discs and discs of fabric, incredible. This was the one item I felt I could get a proper look at.
That was it. Although there were around 140 dresses on display, this exhibition felt very short and brief. At £12.50 each it’s not cheap either and I genuinely left feeling disappointed. The dresses are unequivocally awesome. I was mesmerized by their beauty, but it all felt cramped, dark, dated and kinda creepy with those strange mannequins. I peeped into what I assumed may be more of the exhibition to find it was a small gift shop to signal the end of the show. The fact that pretty much the only thing on sale at the shop was an awful cow print canvas shopper bag priced at £350, gave a final blow of disappointment. £350!! Just because Valentino put his label on the inside? Surely this devalues the whole notion of paying for bespoke, unique, couture pieces. These shopper bags, cheaply made, mass produced and covered in a dated animal print design insulted me as a Valentino fan. Having just paid to look at his stunning creations, to peek into a glamorous world, to witness the talent that goes into his exquisite gowns, to realize why they cost the earth…for it then to be suggested that I may like to pay an extortionate amount for a canvas bag that required no skill or expense to produce left me gobsmacked. The entire message of the show is that when you pay a high price you get superior skill and design. The bags in the shop completely debased that idea. I wouldn’t discourage any fashion lover from going to this exhibition, it’s a great chance to look at amazing dresses, and it’s a great retrospective on Valentino’s long career, but overall, it had the atmosphere of a dated cruise ship, and I don’t feel the dresses were given the exposure they demanded, which is a real shame.
The exhibition runs until March 3rd 2013
For more information visit http://www.somersethouse.org.uk