Fifteen years ago, an intimate documentary about the private and professional life of one of the world’s most famous fashion designers would’ve been greeted as rare and revelatory, but the past decade-plus has seen Project Runway, The Devil Wears Prada, Unzipped, and countless other TV shows, documentaries, feature films, and novels about nearly every aspect of the fashion industry. As a result, Matt Tyrnauer’s Valentino: The Last Emperor is—as the fashionistas say—so last year. From Valentino Garavani’s imperious carriage and diva fits to his coterie of tiny dogs, the subject of Tyrnauer’s doc comes off like a fictional character, scripted by a writer with a weakness for cliché.
Only two elements set Valentino apart, and even those two represent opportunities squandered. First, there’s the presence of Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino’s partner in business and in life. The two men met in 1960, and over the past four decades, Giammetti’s business sense and deep understanding of Valentino’s work has helped transform his lover’s name into a brand. Tyrnauer catches glimpses of their working relationship, recording how they bounce ideas off each other, with Valentino’s flights of inspiration balanced by Giammetti’s practicality. But either because they’re inclined to discretion or because Tyrnauer didn’t push, the two men never discuss how their relationship has weathered all the cultural changes.
Similarly, Valentino fails to pin its subject down on how the art and business of fashion have evolved. The documentary’s second distinguishing element is its focus on Valentino’s final couture shows, as he simultaneously celebrates his 45th year as a designer and prepares to retire. Tyrnauer gets some stunning footage of the step-by-step assembly of a retrospective exhibit in Rome, but the brief flashes of Valentino’s life’s work hint at the in-depth biography Valentino could’ve been. The ceremony and process of the designer’s farewell is genuinely moving, but while it’s fascinating to watch the man himself go through his paces for the final time, the long scenes of him fine-tuning the work would be more fascinating in the context of a larger story. At one point, one of the people working on the Rome exhibit says, in sympathy with a frustrated Valentino, “One spends one’s whole life dealing with something that is not working.” This documentary only shows a few days of that life, and it focuses too much on the familiar.