Chic-ness and Light

Photo by Tenaya Hills"Welcome to the temple of Valentino," president Graziano de Boni says in measured tones as we enter the famed designer's sixth U.S. outpost: an intimate 3,000-square-foot expanse that is within shouting distance of Gucci and the Nordstrom cosmetics counter in Costa Mesa. This, last week, was the soft opening; the grand opening comes in September. And midway through the store's second day, there were still no chairs—a fact for which de Boni apologized profusely—no music to shop by, and somewhere in the back, someone banged loudly with a hammer. But no one shouted.

"God is in the details, and Mr. Valentino knows that," says de Boni, a tanned man in a tan suit, who adjusted a blue-and-green rep-striped tie once during the interview. And by September—by the time you read this, even—those details will be worked out. This Valentino store sells mostly ready-to-wear garments and accessories—but its couture heart is on every sleeve and in every chair: in the details.

"Luxury, elegance, glamour," de Boni says, reaching back to finger the pleats in a spangly evening gown as we sit on the edge of the window display. "We can never over-educate the consumer on how to be elegant." But they can try: with tweed jackets for men and women ("Tweed is one of Mr. Valentino's favorite fabrics"); slender, suede five-pocket jeans that fight aging with a passion; or a lone splotch of red—a sexy, stately evening gown in the hue that always closes a Valentino runway show.

And yet, this being Orange County—and South Coast Plaza, a premier destination the couturier has long coveted—studied wardrobe staples and painstaking poses are really not the focus of thisValentino. The store's center rows, separated by gardenia blooms, house an exhaustive array of accessories, and, de Boni says, the first sale yesterday was a pair of the store's slightly oversized aviators, redolent of the '70s and Italian playboys.

"I'm fascinated by the fact that a sort of formal elegance is coming out of California and the surfwear companies. You've got teenagers again having to wear a jacket, and until a few years ago, it was just T-shirts in California," he says. In a way, this explains the new Valentino: mostly ready-to-wear, condensed into soundbites, easily thrown on to blend with—or to dress up—$200 jeans and a $75 T-shirt.

"We actually only started getting into the accessories business about five years ago. Our U.S. accessories business is very recent, within the last two years," de Boni says. "We're very happy because the collection is very broad." Which means there's something for virtually everyone of a certain financial stratum: underslung hobo bags in earthy, matte leathers; slim little furry rectangle purses of brown cashmere; an exquisite, darling little box-purse of green velvet, with cascades of pearls like water droplets. There are also the sunglasses, of course, and an array of ethereal shawls—looking, appropriately, like bolts of the most expensive fabric ever.

It all makes for a great transition for Valentino. Like every company store, this one obviously trades on the Valentino name: its legendary couture, exclusive fabrics, quality and detail. But by leaning heavily on chic accessories and sophisticated off-the-rack separates, the fashion house takes a very big step—very necessary for survival—back into turf it long ago ceded to ready-to-wear giants like Banana Republic. The question, of course, is to what degree they can reclaim it.

"God," de Boni reiterates, more slowly, "is in the details."



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