At the Emperor's Table with Valentino Garavani
by Claudia Croft
November 28, 2014
Valentino Garavani lives in the most immaculate house on the most immaculate road in the whole of London. His double-fronted white stucco Holland Park mansion, with its black and white marble steps and perfect topiary, seems to gleam more brightly than those around it. A butler opens the black iron gate and takes me through a grand hallway lined with Philip Taaffe canvases and into a drawing room where two Warhol dollar-sign paintings are surrounded by countless precious objects. Valentino is an haute hoarder. As the designer’s favorite pug snuffles at my feet, it becomes clear that everything, from the silk cushions to the heavy crystal glass I sip from, is refined, elegant and the best it could be. Valentino doesn’t do shabby chic.
I’m here to talk to the couturier about his new book, At the Emperor’s Table, which documents his lavish entertaining style in five of his homes. There is the London mansion with its famous blue room, lined with 18th-century blue and white Chinese porcelain. “They are worth thousands,” he says, handing me a priceless plate. His most important pieces of Qianglong period china are kept here or in his château outside Paris. The Gstaad chalet is where he keeps a collection of fruit- and vegetable-shaped tureens by Meissen and Sceaux. The New York apartment, overlooking Central Park, houses many of his prized Russian Imperial plates and faceted glass jars, while his yacht, with its staff of 50, has more contemporary pieces by the likes of Ralph Lauren. “The boat is a different world, more simple, just blue and white, nothing to faint about,” he says.
The designer, now 82 but still as tanned and elegantly turned out as ever, has been collecting for decades. “I am a disgusting shopper, because when I go out, I always try to get something. Finally, through all those decades, I bought and bought and bought, and this means that I have a beautiful collection of Meissen and a beautiful collection of Russian plates, and so it’s a pleasure for me.”
He uses this glorious global collection of Fabergé decanters, Russian Imperial dinner plates, French cut crystal goblets, golden cutlery and bespoke napkins to compose lavish tablescapes fit for fashion’s last emperor. “If you do it, why not do it to perfection?” he says of his approach to setting a table. “I am most comfortable creating dresses and entertaining. I think visually. I love beautiful things. I love to see a proportionality. I love food and I love seeing beautiful ladies dressed up for events.”
His standards are so high, he prefers to be the host rather than the guest. Only when he can control every element and be assured that it meets his expectations can he truly relax. “I am sometimes a pain in the neck with people because I always want perfection and I always want to see people well-dressed. This is Valentino, my dear, I’m sorry,” he says, not sorry at all. All he asks in return is that his guests, “be elegant, be smashing, and also for women that they make an effort to be attractive and to be with a good dress, because they know there is competition, there are other people”.
Even when he is alone, Valentino dines on an elegantly laid table because it reminds him of his own success. “When I am sitting alone and I see everything around, I am proud in a certain way because I know what I have done in life, I know I have done good things. I have no regrets when I see all these things because I did it on my own and nobody helped me.”
Complacency is not tolerated. He likes his staff to constantly change the settings. “Because when they don’t change continuously, I’m screaming at them, ‘I want this’, and another night, ‘I want that, change everything.’ ”
He singles out a few objects for special mention. A set of Chinese plates, beautifully painted with vivid flowers, are, he says, “very rare. I have just nine.” But his Meissen swans are his pride and joy. “I think I have almost 30. I have a big, big collection. I love the swan as a bird. I think it’s very decorative — beautiful decoration.” They only come out for special people, and a guest can gauge their VIP status by how many swans are on the table. Valentino recalls one dinner where he put out 20 swans, swimming in a sea of tiny yellow orchids, “some as big as your fingernail. They looked like clouds.”
A compulsive shopper, he has stopped collecting tableware for the time being. “I don’t know where to put it. I stopped, stopped, stopped completely, completely. I don’t buy anything anymore. The other day, I was looking at the catalogue of Sotheby’s and I saw beautiful things, but I don’t need to make the collection bigger. For what? I did enough in my life.” That said, he’s appalled at the idea of selling anything. “No, no,” he says, shaking his head in disgust.
At home, you could try using lavish bowls of fruit as a table decoration, or have bespoke monogrammed napkins made, but the designer knows that his extravagant style of entertaining is impossible to copy. “You can make a charming table with three things that you buy at the market, but if you have taste you can do something exceptional,” he says.
However, he does have one tip for anyone wanting to throw an impressive dinner party. “Light is very important in the dining room. You have to calculate what is a good light to make everybody look wonderful.”