Valentino loves to go to parties, The Times informed us yesterday, in excruciating detail, in a huge story. But you knew that already and learned nothing new. A tonic antidote to this anodyne puff piece might be an article that tells you something about the world-famous designer that you didn’t know, and would like to.
That’s why Orbmagazine was invented. Keep reading—we’ll tell you: (1) if Valentino still owns the company he created; (2) about the handsome young Brazilian brothers who will inherit the five palatial residences and the plump portfolio when the Big Guy goes to heaven; (3) about the talented and unassuming American architect who’s been his companion and soulmate for the past 30 years; and (4) what the couturier par excellence is like offstage. (Not exactly a pussycat….but sweet.)
First to the Times piece, which took up almost all of page 1 of the Thursday Styles section, with 10 photos, then jumped inside. (NYT 12/4). The headline and deck read “HIS RED CARPET LIFE: At 82, the retired fashion designer Valentino Garavani is among the busiest figures on the NY social scene, as front-and-center around the city as much as ever.” Got that?
Writer John Koblin buttressed this thesis with insightful quotations. “Valentino loves to go out,” said a Mr. Talley. “He really sincerely loves being in the public eye” added a Mr. Tyrnauer. This was followed by an enumeration of his itinerary for the past month, listing whom Val posed with and whom he air-kissed. Fun stuff. But let’s get to the real story. (Unlike The Times, which costs $ 2.50, Orb is free online. Here you get your money’s worth.)
A half-century ago, when Valentino launched his eponymous clothing company with his inamorato and business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, they started with little more than scissors, a bolt of cloth and a dream. By 1998, they had sold the house to Italian investors for about $350 million. It has changed hands twice since then, and now is owned by the Qatari royal family, through a holding company. From all evidence the founders no longer have ownership interest.
Along the way, Valentino and Giancarlo worked hard, lived lavishly, and helped maintain their blue-ribbon brand at the top of the heap, even in unprofitable years. They mastered the Italian art of sprezzatura, always looking good while never looking frazzled. And they must have invested well. Internet sites put Valentino’s net worth at $ 1.5 billion. Giametti can’t be far behind. That may or may not be accurate–but they live better than people worth many multiples of that. That’s what really counts.
It is not known if or how much Valentino and Giancarlo still get paid for tirelessly promoting and polishing the brand name they sold long ago. But it’s clear they flourish at a level of affluence few dressmakers have ever known, or ever will again. They live like emperors and have avoided scandal. What’s not to admire about that?
But where will Valentino’s enormous wealth go when he shuffles off this mortal coil? Some to his current companion (Bruce Hoeksema–we’ll get to him), but the majority will settle, our sources say, upon Sean and Anthony Souza, two Brazilian brothers who might be the luckiest young guys in the world.
They are the sons of Carlos Souza, who met Valentino in 1973 in a Rio nightclub when he was nineteen (Brazilians are sexually precocious, as you may have heard, and often bisexual) and spent the next decade as his lover (bookended by Giancarlo and then Bruce. See how the pieces are starting to fit together?) Souza learned the ropes as a public relations smoothie for the fashion house, and after the sexual sizzle began to fizzle, he didn’t leave the nest. (Valentino prizes continuity, and rarely terminates close relationships.). Instead, Carlos married a Brazilian woman, Charlene Shorto, fathered two sons, and integrated his new family unit into the “Valentino family.” (Brazilians go with the flow, and things work out.) Souza never stopped doing p.r. for the brand. He and Charlene divorced long ago, but everyone is still as cozy as peas in a pod.
Valentino and Giancarlo became godfathers to Sean and Anthony. They taught them the aristocratic way of life. The boys were quick studies, and fun to have around. They became the sons that Valentino and Giancarlo never had. Now they’ll become the heirs they didn’t have, with the keys to a rather opulent kingdom. In the meantime, they deejay at Val’s events and flirt with girls. Don’t you love a happy ending? So do we. Read on.
Although Valentino has been in a stable, contented domestic partnership with Bruce Hoeksema for over 30 years, it has been kept on the down-low and few outside elite circles know much about Bruce. This was a natural course for Valentino, who hit the international spotlight in the years when same-sex marriage was inconceivable (pardon the pun) and no one thought he or she would live to see the day when mirror-image matrimony became first legal, then commonplace, then banal. Another reason it wasn’t publicized is because Bruce is a modest, unassuming man who never sought attention for himself, even after he founded a successful firm making high-end jewelry and accessories.
In many ways, important ways, Bruce is the opposite of Mr. Valentino, perhaps a key to the longevity of their intimacy. Bruce is an aw-shucks American from the Midwest, the boy next door, polite and easygoing. He trained as an architect and also worked as a model. By 1983, when Valentino came into his life, Hoeksema had an eye for the finer things, a passion to be around them, and a willingness to work hard to obtain them.
In the early aughts, Bruce founded VBH (his first name is Vernon). His designs are manufactured in Italy, by the ablest craftsmen using the finest materials. They have the same beauty and quality as goods at Hermes and Bulgari, and sell in the same price range.
Until last spring, VBH occupied the stately former bank building across from the Whitney, on Madison Avenue. Then Hoeksema sold the lease to Apple for a retail store and is currently scouting for a new prestige venue. He is about to open a pop-up boutique in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel. He sells on the main floor at Bergdorf. His clients are rich, discerning and loyal. These ladies will follow him anywhere.
Why isn’t Bruce’s company better known? For one thing, he is a well-grounded person, who would rather be at home with his dogs, working at his drawing board, than be surrounded by poseurs at a Fifth Avenue dinner party, tossing bon mots in the direction of a social-climbing hostess clad in a muumuu (the career path of some fashion figures one has known). Another factor: VBH price points are ultra-luxury, so customers who are insecure about themselves or lack confidence in their own taste will opt for pre-certified Status Symbols like Tiffany and Louis Vuitton. Chacun a son gout.
If all this seems to good to be true, it isn’t. John Fairchild once told Vanity Fair, “Valentino and Giancarlo are the kings of high living. Every other designer looks and says, ‘how do they live the way they do?’ Giancarlo knows how to make money, and no other designer ever spent money like Valentino.”
Matt Tyrnauer, who directed the documentary “Valentino: The Last Emperor”, told The Times,”He lives his life according to the old rules of celebrity. To just settle down into a life of quiet retirement would be a very bad idea and have an enervating effect. He is doing what he always did, which is being in New York at the appropriate social season, or being in the Alps at Gstaad at the appropriate season or on his yacht at the appropriate port of call in the Mediterranean. It conforms to the rules of the international jet set, which doesn’t really exist anymore. He’s practicing a social art.”
I asked a person who has been around Mr. Valentino a lot and who adores him, as his intimates usually do, why he says very little. The answer was, “Watch his eyes, he is always observing. For him, it’s all about beauty. When he meets a person, he instantly begins assessing the aesthetics of that person: “you look good, you don’t look good”. It is intense, but when he approves, he nods.”
When he is with his extended family, of course, he can relax, turn off the radar and be playful. And the tribe is tight-knit. Once in the “Valentino family”, the only way out is via a hearse. (RIP, Nan Kempner and Lucia Salles, the Rio social deity who was a longtime pal.)
The exceptions might be Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigada. These girls will outlive all of us.