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Born in Voghera, Italy, in May 1932, Valentino 's childhood interests in fashion, painting and architecture, coupled with an immense talent for drawing, prompted him to study fashion design and French at the Accademia dell Arte in Milan. His success led him to further studies at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, and it was there that Valentino flourished. Moving to Paris to study fashion while still in his teens, Valentino also took up dance lessons and developed a love of French theatre. While still a student, he was awarded a prestigious prize for fashion design by the International Wool Secretariat (a prize that was later won by both Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld). This award led to his being noticed by couturier Jean Desses, at whose fashion house he took up his first design job in 1950.
Valentino assisted Desses for five years before going to work for Guy Laroche, former chief illustrator at Desses, where amongst other duties he assisted Princess Irene Galitzine. By 1960, he was ready to establish himself as a designer in his own right and launched his first collection and salon on the Via Condotti in Rome. He was an immediate success, impressing in particular Elizabeth Taylor, who was filming in Italy at the time and has remained a fan ever since.
It was Valentino 's desire to design clothes that would celebrate the female form and accentuate a woman's sensuality. "I don't think any man in the world wants to go out with a woman dressed like a boy," he once said. The launch of Fedrico Fellini's La Dolce Vita in 1960, the same year as Valentino launched his first store, accelerated his success as women everywhere wished to emulate the film's style and its star Anita Ekberg.
Emerging as one of the leading couturiers of the Sixties, despite the fact that his premises were in Rome, not Paris, Valentino 's unique designs were widely admired. He drew particular praise for his full-length skirts (which flew in the face of the new wave of minis), his signature 'Valentino red' and his love for the simple contrast of black and white. Success spawned a boutique in Paris and the launch of the now-famous 'V' label. In 1967, he won the coveted Neiman Marcus Prize and, in 1970, launched his first ready-to-wear line, with boutiques following in Rome and New York.
Accolades and awards continued to come in for Valentino including, in 1986, the highest decoration possible in Italy, the Calvaliere di Gran Croce, presented by the President Cossiga.
In 1991, to celebrate thirty years in fashion, Valentino threw a three-day party, reported to cost $5 million. Among the 1,600 guests who enjoyed the extravagant finale dinner at the Villa Medici were Nancy Kissinger, Gina Lollobrigida and guest of honour Elizabeth Taylor. A retrospective exhibition, 'Thirty Years of Magic', was also mounted in Valentino's honour, including some previously unseen sketches. It was a fitting celebration for a man whose career has seen him design countless Oscar gowns, as well as some of the world's most expensive wedding dresses, for Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Onassis, Courteney Cox and Jennifer Lopez.
A red carpet regular, Valentino has dressed some of the world's most glamorous people, including Princess Margaret, Julia Roberts, and Claudia Schiffer. His success has also provided him with a lifestyle to match that of even his richest customers. Immaculately stylish, Valentino has become known for his perfectly coiffed hair, permanently tanned skin and a wardrobe of Ralph Lauren, Savile Row and, of course, his own label. In fact, he is the perfect personification of his own label. With homes in Knightsbridge, New York, Capri, as well as a villa on the outskirts of Rome, a chalet in Gstaad, a 43-metre yacht and a six-storey Roman Palazzo for an office, Valentino's circle of friends is the glittering cognoscenti he dresses.
In 1998, Valentino and his business partner Giancarlo Giammetti sold their fashion empire for 211 million.