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The Restless and the Refined

Valentino's ageless designs still shine.


PARIS — It's clear from the moment that designer Valentino swings open the heavily carved door of his elegant Place Vendome office here that the 40 years of living with and designing for the jet set have been exceptionally kind. Perpetually tanned, perfectly coiffed and framed in a pale blue cashmere scarf, Valentino is as close to beautiful as any man of 68 can be.

His office decor, like his designs, is a balance of opulence and simplicity: modern, low-slung lavender chairs and a simple framed and signed photograph of Princess Diana offset the gilded woodwork, expanses of marble and dizzyingly high ceilings. But something still impresses this man who has it all--a 152-foot yacht, homes in five countries, and hundreds of millions in the bank.

It's Hollywood.

"I always love Los Angeles--Hollywood, the movie industry. I was always fascinated by it," he says , admitting that he yearns to design complete movie wardrobes, not just lend clothes to them. "If somebody would say to me, 'This is the script, do some drawings,' it would be challenge to me," he says. "I would love to do it!"

He's not above snapping pictures of the Hollywood sign, staging parties with Hollywood themes or using the Hollywood Hills for the background of his latest ad campaign. In two weeks, Valentino returns to the city where he will stage and fund an elaborate party that celebrates the 40th anniversary of his business and benefits the Children's Action Network. The party will also be the grand finale to a two-year period of celebration and upheaval that included selling and restructuring of his Rome-based company.

The Italian designer fondly recalls his last big L.A. event, a 1988 charity bash on the set of "Die Hard" that Barbara Davis called the best party of the year.

Though his clothes seemed out of place during the somber, minimalist 1990s, fashion has once again embraced refinement, color and ladylike looks--the hallmarks of his own style, which he continues to refine.

"I flash back and see what we did in the past. And it was sensational," he says. "I look at my archives and there are thousands of ideas that I could use again, but in another way--make them more modern, more relaxed, more easy to wear."

That is why Valentino still figures prominently in Hollywood at the Oscars, where he recently dressed Ashley Judd. In June, the actress presented Valentino with a lifetime achievement award from New York's Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Fashion isn't just a career for Valentino, whose full name is Valentino Garavani, it's an all-consuming passion. .

"If I am, after 40 years, still in the spotlight of fashion, it is just because I know and I love young people. I know what's going on," he says in charmingly accented English. He admits to being very self-aware and calls himself "a good observer" who loves his life, his friends and helping others.

"I'm not some person completely involved in the world of fashion without concern for the terrible things that happen in the world. But, when I am doing my collection, I try to be happy, to be positive, to be full of energy," he says. . "Hopefully, I will succeed and make clothes that are happy, too."

If it's true that happiness comes from complete integration of life and work, then Valentino has every reason to be ecstatic. "I combine my work with my private life, with my vacation. I mix everything together. I do more or less the same thing with the same enthusiasm," he says. . "And this, I think, is very, very important, because if you are much, much too concerned with one thing, I think the fantasy goes out of it."

Valentino's idea of fantasy is not a world of wealth and privilege, science-fiction proportions or short-lived trends. His own life has assumed fairy-tale proportions since he left his home in Voghera, a small town south of Milan, to study fashion in Paris and work with Jean Desses and Guy Laroche . A year after he started his own business in 1959, Elizabeth Taylor visited his atelier in Rome, where "Spartacus" was being filmed, and launched their long and high-profile friendship. He devotedly follows the careers of the many men and women he dresses--Taylor, Sharon Stone, Elizabeth Hurley, Dylan McDermott and more--in his large film library.

"Oh, my God! I used to watch every single thing. But I am becoming more and more selective." He thinks Julia Roberts is phenomenal, Meryl Streep incredible, and the new set of young Hollywood actors intriguing.

Yet, dressing stars hasn't become routine, he says. "I'm thrilled! It's quite surprising that after 40 years, I have the same enthusiasm. I'm not bored at all," he says. . "What I like very much is when the press office says to me that Courteney Cox would love a wedding gown from you. I am delighted because this proves that a young girl who can have dresses from everywhere loves my things."

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