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Peggy Siegal

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My Roman Holiday with Valentino

Posted: 10/01/07 02:22 PM ET

Thursday, July 5th Arrival Day: All Roads Lead to Rome

All eyes are on Rome this weekend for a three-day, $10-million celebration of "Valentino a Roma: 45 Years of Style," an exhibit that encapsulates grace and everlasting beauty. We are ready to rock'n'roll with the 1,000 European aristocrats, movie stars, socialites and journal- ists who are descending on The Eternal City hell-bent on living la dolce vita.

By noon the group I am traveling with--American industrialist David Koch and his gorgeous statuesque wife Julia, Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, Charlie and Sara Ayers and Brad Cosimar, the best friend of Valentino global PR maven Carlos Souza--check into the fabulously chic Hotel de Russie, which has terraced gardens inches away from the Spanish Steps and the 18th-century Palazzo Mignanelli, where Valentino's Louis XIV-style office--and its 26-foot ceilings--is located.

In each guest's room is a white canvas tote from L.L. Bean embroidered with endless red Valentino logos , and a note personally signed by our host. We get a detailed schedule of events, a book , aviator sunglasses and a gold plastic entrance card with our name, preferred arrival times at each event and the warning, "Sono di ri gore smoking e abi to lungo." No one can get near a red carpet without this gold card, which is now worth gold.

Silver chauffeured Mercedes minivans with multilingual guides are at our beck and call every day. Thursday afternoon we visit the Piazza Navona with the Fountain of the Four Rivers, The Pantheon, The Trevi Fountain (where we borrow Euros from our guide and throw her money in the water), the Circus Maximus (used for chariot races in 2 B.C. and more recently the back drop for Ben Hur), and The Victor Emanuel II monument, a colossal white marble structure dedicated to the memory of Italy's first king, who was the great-grandfather of Umberto II, the last king of Italy and the great-great-grandfather of our traveling buddy Dimitri.

Friday, July 6th 10am Sightseeing: The Roman Forum

The silver Mercedes reappear and take us to the Roman Forum. It is hot. It is crowded. We are tourists, and we love it. We walk to the Colosseum and pass 40 huge, chalk-white, fiberglass Doric columns rising out of the Temple of Venus. We realize they are not antiquities but replicas for the party. We are whisked to the front of the line as a guide announces that Donald Trump will be attending Valentino's party tonight. (Oddly, a no show.)

1pm, Le Jardin de Russie

Our group has a quick lunch on the terrace.We tell Judy Taubman, who is at the next table, that we are going on a private tour of The Vatican. She tells us she has done the tour twice, met the Pope and been to his pri- vate apartment. (She must have a better travel agent than we do.)

3pm, A Private Tour of the Vatican

We have fussed and discussed our Vatican outfits for days. We are dressed in tailored suits as our silver chariots drive us past hundreds of people waiting on line wearing T-shirts and flip-flops. Our guide races us through Vatican City--the palaces, art gallery, the museum of antiquities, the map room, and the Sistine Chapel, which is packed like a subway station. We're led through a tiny door, down a dark hallway, up some steps into a room lined with closets ...and I whisper, "Holy macaroni, we are in the Pope's robing room." We can't believe it. The guide begins to take out the Pope's undergarments and embroidered robes. We feel his gold threads, running our unwashed hands over everything. We are shown all the jewel-encrusted miters, rosaries, shoes, gloves and chalices. We are in clothing heaven--and this is before we see a single Valentino dress. We are about to try on the Pope's skullcap, when Anna Wintour walks in with her daughter, Bee Shaffer, and the Monsignor in charge of ceremonies. Our guide could be headed straight to hell. We freeze. The Monsignor pulls him aside . . . and miraculously everything is fine. We sign the guest book and notice Sarah Jessica Parker was there right before us. I think about putting J.A.P. after my name, but as a guest of Valentino, Rome's most famous citizen after the Pope, I decide to play it straight.

7:30pm The Exhibition; Valentino a Roma: 45 Years of Style Museum of Ara Pacis, Via Ripetta

The Ara Pacis is the "altar of majestic peace" built in 9 B.C. It is now housed in a stunning but controversial museum designed by Richard Meier. (Meier, whose name was on every press release, was oddly another no show. A week later, he confides to me it was "one of the bigger mistakes of my life.") Patrick Kinmonth, the British opera stage designer, and Roman Antonio Monfreda designed the installation. Hamish Bowles, European editor at large of Vogue, was the archival consultant who curated the 300 dresses. Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino's brilliant business partner of 45 years, one- time companion and confidant, oversaw everything. Entering the opening night of the exhibition is as thrilling as lighting the Olympic torch and winning the Oscar for lifetime achievement at the same time.

We ascend a huge, white marble staircase to be greeted and kissed by Valentino with Giancarlo at his side. At 75, Valentino is very slender, very tan, very coiffed, very charming and very, very excited. As he embraces every guest, he also makes sure the photographer gets the two-shot. We enter a dark tunnel with three tiers of mannequins wearing magnificent clothes and attached to sky-high walls. Next we are in a sun-drenched glass box that ironically illuminates evening dresses, which are also juxtaposed against dark Cyprus trees and a blue sky.

The symbolic centerpiece is Valentino's white 1990 Peace dress with the word peace embroidered in silver in 14 languages. Valentino called every embassy to have them fax the correct spelling of "peace" in their language . Red-clad, goddess-like gilded mannequins flank either side of the altar with their arms outstretched like a chorus of angels. We descend a staircase lined in a rainbow of colored gowns. Champagne is passed among the world's most famous and beautiful women, who are dressed in Valentino they either own or have borrowed. Uma Thurman, Anne Hathaway, Elizabeth Hurley, Elle McPherson, Claudia Schiffer, Clare Danes, Eva Mendes, Sienna Miller, Natalia Vodianova, Cornelia Guest, Anna Wintour, Joan Collins and 80-year-old Gina Lollobrigida are just a few of the impeccably dressed women floating around. It is an overload of beauty. I don't know where to look first.

The exhibition also has muslin dummies embroidered with movie stars names on the necks. These display Valentino's most iconic celebrity dresses--the ones worn by Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Princess Diana, Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchett and Elizabeth Taylor--and video monitors play mini-movies, Oscar acceptance speeches or just grand entrances. This is very cool. The exhibition is open to the public until October 28 and is worth a trip to Rome.

Friday, July 6th 9:30 pm Opening Night Dinner Temple of Venus, Via San Gregorio

Since Valentino donated $270,000 to the city of Rome, Mayor Walter Veltroni gave him unprecedented access to The Temple of Venus, an ancient site so sacred that the Pope visits once a year by himself. Too bad he is out of town this weekend.

The 40 fiberglass replica Doric columns we had seen this morning on our walk through the forum are now glowing from within. At one end is a brand new gigantic statue of Venus in an enormous niche. At the opposite end, we see the Colosseum, now bathed in red lights.The panorama is breathtaking.

Valentino wanted the dinner to feel as if it were in one of his homes, and the food was cooked by his personal chef. Renowned Oscar- winning, Italian movie designer Dante Ferretti recreated the original temple. Even the weather, their biggest uncontrollable worry, was perfect .

The evening originally was planned for 250 gold-card-carrying guests, but has now swelled to 500. We dine under the stars on white couches and chairs situated in living room-like clusters. Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi sits with Princess Caroline of Hanover and the Shah OfIran's widow, Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi.

Also dining under the stars are Alexis Bryan, Amy Sacco, Barry Diller, Lauren Davis and her fiance Andres Santo Domingo, Wendy Finerman, Eva Mendes, Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller, Elle MacPherson, Georgina Chapman and Harvey Weinstein, Graziano De Boni, Hamilton South, Kate Betts, Jane Sarkin, Annelise Peterson, Valesca Guerrand- Hermès, Ellen Niven, Mark Gilbertson, Tamara Mellon, Alice Bam- ford, Carole Bamford, Bianca Brandolini, Rebecca de Ravenel, Olivia Chantecaille, Alessandra Borghese, Coco Brandolini, Eugenie Niar- chos, Stefano Tonchi, Christian Louboutin and Rena Sindi.

In front of the Colosseum, a light show and shower of fireworks explodes in synchronization with an opera sung by Maria Callas. Three acrobatic dancers in flowing, fairy-like red Valentino dresses whirl above the ruins and float like birds on a wire strung across the Colosseum, which is now lit with different colors. A dancer in white emerges from the ground and ascends into the sky with a giant blue globe balloon that is painted with the word"Valentino" repeated in golden circles. It is a happening of such heavenly beauty that these 500 sophisticated guests are reduced to children squealing with amazement. Only Valentino could have made the Colosseum, the very symbol of Imperial Rome, even more exquisite.

Saturday, July 7th 10am A Private Tour of the Palazzo Colonna

Pedro Girao, a European advisor for Christie's, has arranged a private tour of the Palazzo Colonna, which was built in the 15th century. Like many palaces in Rome, the exterior is grand but simple, camouflaging a life of sumptuousness inside. The noble Colonnas plastered their red coat of arms (a column) on every inch of their possessions. They amassed one of the largest privately held priceless art collections in the world. As Pedro patiently explains the history, David Koch, the most inquisitive of our group, humbly and hilariously admits his entire 25,000-square-foot Palm Beach Mizner mansion could fit into the Colonnas' humungous ballroom.

1pm Marina Palma's Lunch for Valentino at Dal Bolognese Overlooking the Piazza del Popolo

"VaVa," as the press call Valentino, is with his models in last minute fit- tings, preparing for his couture show, but everyone from his inner sanctum is here. David Koch and I sit with Princess Marie Chantal and Prince Pavlos of Greece, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, Elizabeth Hurley and her charming new husband Arun Nayar, Lynn Wyatt and Donald Moore, Marina's banker boyfriend. Tim Jeffries stops by the table to announce he just proposed to his model girlfriend Malin Johansson the night before, and she flashes her multi-carat ring.

Bob Colacello holds court outside. He is writing a piece for Vanity Fair and has been scribbling in his notebook for days. He and VF's Wendy Stark amuse Caroline of Monaco, Ernst of Hanover, Allison Sarofim, Stuart Parr, London decorator Nicky Haslam and Baroness Helene Ludinghausen.

Susan Gutfreund, Marisa Berenson, Doris Brynner, Francois Catroux, Marina Cicogna, Jacqueline de Ribes, Daphne Guinness, Kenny Jay Lane, Lee Radziwill, Beatrice and Julio Maria Santo Domingo, Reinaldo Herrera, Rosita, Duchess of Marlboro, and Princess Ira von Furstenberg are just a few of Valentino's devoted and loyal friends at the lunch. They kiss-kiss and kiss-kiss each other non stop all afternoon and continue to marvel at the magic of last night's magnificent show.

This is the day Valentino asks his women to change their clothes four times, and they could not be happier. We start with the cool casual breakfast/shopping/sightseeing outfit, move into the day- time chic lunch ensemble, change into a late afternoon cocktail dress for the show, and once more redo ourselves head to toe, pouring our bodies into ball gowns for the gala--my idea of a perfect day.

5pm Presentation of the Fall-Winter 2007/08 Couture Collection Complesso Monumentale S. Spirito in Saxia, Borgo S. Spirito 1

Once again, those silver Mercedes bring us to another spectacular venue for the couture show: a restructured 16th-century medieval building, the Complesso Monumentale of Santo Spirito in Sassia, originally used as a convent and a stone's throw from the Vatican.

Dante Ferretti, Federico Fellini's and Marty Scorsese's Oscar-winning set designer, has lined the endless walls with a vast photo retrospective of Valentino's black- and-white advertising and editorial images, evoking the look of a massive art gallery.

We need to show that gold ID card to get in . . . society to the white gallery, press to the black gallery. One thousand famous people, still kissing each other, eventually settle into three rows that are a mile long.

The clothes Valentino sends down the runway are as explosive as the fireworks from the night before. The opulent and vibrant evening gowns are bedecked with enough jewels, feathers, beads and bows to wow even the most blasè red-carpet paparazzi.

Equally impressive is the line-up of Valentino's col- leagues in the front row, which indicates his enormous popularity. Sitting next to each other are Diane von Furstenberg, Zac Posen, Manolo Blahnik, Tom Ford, Donatella Versace, Giorgio Armani, Philip Treacy, Car- olina Herrera and Karl Lagerfeld, whom Valentino has known for 52 years.

At the finale, everyone jumps to their feet and wildly cheers as Valentino strides down the runway behind his models.He is wearing an immaculate white fitted suit and has his arms in the air like a conquering gladiator. He is crying.

9:30pm Gala Dinner Galleria Borghese-Via Pinciana

The lobby of the Hotel de Russie is clogged with swans in Valentino ball gowns--Julia Koch in white, Sara Ayres in red, Marie Chantal in pink, Anne Hathaway in black, Jennifer Hudson in brown and Sarah Jessica Parker in gold.

Senator and jet-set racounteur Mario D'Urso spontaneously drives me over to the Villa Borghese and gives me a tour of the Galleria Borghese museum with its Caravaggios, Canovas and Bernini sculptures. He introduces me to every noble Italian in Italian--which is a little scary. We stroll through the gardens into a vast, Chinese- themed, tented dining room designed, once again, by Dante Fer- retti and built especially for the evening--complete with tufted ceilings, palm trees and lacquered red and black walls, recreating the exotic glamour of Shanghai in the 1920s.

During dinner, snippets of the cinema veritè documentary on Valentino are shown. The documentary was produced and directed by Matt Tyrnauer, a veteran VF journalist. He has been globetrotting for two years, filming Valentino's life of "art, beauty and love" on the designer's 152-foot yacht and in his five homes: Rome, London, Gstaad, Paris and Manhattan. Tyrnauer describes his film as a celebration of the "last emperor of haute couture."

Valentino then makes a very short speech to everyone who has shared his unforgettable weekend,"I love you, all of you, very much." Chanteuse Annie Lennox, wearing her first Valentino, sings Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), and Mick Jagger, fresh from his sold-out performance the night before (attended by Lance Armstrong and Tory Burch) jumps up on the dance floor . . . along with Uma Thurman, Rupert Everett and the girls in red: Claudia Schiffer, Sienna Miller, Natasha Richardson and Lynn Wyatt in a 25-year- old gown. Claire Danes snakes her tight body around Hugh Dancy's tight body as they dirty dance the night away.

Also celebrating are Valentino's American boyfriends since 1982, Bruce Hoeksema; Valentino's and Giancarlo's god-children, Sean Souza and his brother Anthony along with their dad Carlos and mom Charlene de Ganay; Nati Abascal and her son Duque de Feria; Lita,George and Stavros Livanos; Lord Charles Spencer Churchill; Carolina Herrera, Jr.; Prince and Princess Pierre d'Arenberg; Count and Countess Ravenal; HRH Princess Firyal of Jordan; Eugenia Silva and Alejandro Santo Domingo; Eugenia and John Radziwill; Baronne Silvie de Waldner; Stephen and Christine Schwarzman; Giles Bensimon and Diana Widmaier Picasso; Margherita Missoni; Charlotte and Andrea Casiraghi (Princess Caroline's gorgeous children); Glenda Bailey; Pamela Fiori; Patrick McCarthy; Andrè Leon Talley; Fabiola Beracasa; Jennifer Creel; Rachel Zoe; Delphine Arnault Gancia; Taki Theodoracopulos; Theodora Richards; Georgia and Elizabeth Jagger.

In the end, Valentino's only disappointment is missing Gwyneth Pal- trow, who smashed her knee tripping over furniture and is on crutches in her East Hampton home, and Meryl Streep, who sent her husband Don Gummer and their daughter Mamie. Valentino had a cameo in The Devil Wears Prada and became very friendly with Meryl, but she is stuck in Stockholm preparing to film the hit Abba musical, Mamma Mia!

Well, mamma mia,Valentino! His lucky friends will reminisce for years to come about this extraordinary event. Rome wasn't built in a day, but Valentino transformed it in three. Bravo Valentino!