Valentino: the Last Emperor

Rachel Cooke is reminded not to take fashion too seriously.

Valentino: the Last Emperor
BBC4

Mostly, I watched Valentino: the Last Emperor (7 June, 10pm) as if in a dream. If I was asked to choose my last dress (this concept is like one's last meal, only it's for girls), it would be vintage Valentino, probably something from the 1968 white collection. Boy, could he cut. Then again, I'd be lying if I told you that my reverie wasn't occasionally punctuated by hooting laughter. Although I'm deeply suspicious of people who don't care about clothes, taking fashion too seriously is by far the more heinous crime, as various literary types have proved down the years (stand up, Linda Grant). Basically, my attitude to fashion is that one should swoon in the presence of a great gown and feel deeply covetous of it, but that the moment you buy into the greedy, disproportionate, narcissistic, corrupt, spoilt world from which it emanated, you are doomed.

The film followed the preparations for the celebration marking Valentino's 45th year in business in 2007 - an anniversary that turned out to be the beginning of the Italian designer's retirement. Naturally, it was full of beauty. As Valentino told us: "I love beauty. Eeet's not my fault." An exquisite creation floated by every other minute. But there was other stuff going on, too. Valentino was the last of his kind, being more connected to the couturiers of the past than to the marketing men of the future; his interest was in pleats and bodices, not sunglasses and scent. When he was not surrounded by his pugs, we saw him surrounded by seamstresses - the women whose hands, fast as minnows, made his crazy visions a reality. These skilled workers did not want him to step down, and it was obvious why. One day soon, nothing will be made by hand.

Not that their boss was easy. Hissy fits were scattered throughout, like carelessly dropped pins. "People 'ave to be on their knees in front of me!" he shouted, when something did not look as he wished. "An evening dress that reveals a woman's ankles while she is walking is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen!" he yelled, as a model paraded in front of him. The man to whom this last comment was directed - he looked like the one with the moustache in Frankie Goes to Hollywood - sensibly said nothing. Saying nothing was clearly the best strategy with Val. The only one who felt able to be frank with him was his partner of five decades, Giancarlo Giammetti. Giancarlo even plucked up the courage to mention his, er, colour. "You look a leetle beet too tan," he said, carefully failing to meet Val's eye. Val pursed his lips and stared determinedly out of the window of their limo.

The relationship between these two was unexpectedly touching: the one (the shiny little conker) reticent in his affection, the other tearfully devoted beneath his exasperation. But I gasped at the hideous massed ranks of the international rich and famous, and wondered why, exactly, such people need to be given "goody bags" on arrival at any given hotel. Aren't their whole lives goody bags?

At a party at Valentino's French chateau, someone squealed: "The Comtesse de Ribes has brought her own vodka!" - a line straight out of A Handful of Dust. A woman appeared. Princess Rosario of Bulgaria. Her job? "Muse," said the subtitle, as if no other explanation was needed. Liz Hurley was ubiquitous, ditto Gwyneth Paltrow, and both appeared to be on first-name terms with Val's major-domo, whose job it was to cut windows into the marquee with his penknife when guests began to feel stuffy.

But, too soon, we left Paris and travelled, via Gstaad, to Rome for the finale: Valentino's 45th-anniversary couture show, followed by an even bigger party ("Just 2,000 people plus our friends, with finger food!"). Through my fascination, and a searing desire to own a pink coat I'd seen, I could now feel biliousness rising up to teach me a lesson. At which point, a TV reporter asked Joan Collins: "What's the difference between style and trash?" Collins faked a laugh. "I've no idea," she said. This, I feel, explains a lot - though it also made her something of an imposter in the bias-cut world of Val­entino and the divine Giancarlo. Had they perhaps mistaken her for someone else? It's possible. All I know is that I couldn't spot Sophia Loren anywhere.