Designer wants to revive `event' dressing

Carmen Marc Valvo puts the sparkle of decades past into his stylish eveningwear.

April 14, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

TYSONS CORNER, Va. - Growing up in the 1950s, designer Carmen Marc Valvo remembers being surrounded by elegant women who dressed up for almost every occasion.

Ensembles often weren't complete without hats and gloves, and lovely cocktail dresses or gowns were de rigueur for evenings out.

The world changed, however, as he got older. And so he decided to become an eveningwear designer. Today, he runs a thriving business that's partly fueled by an attempt to bring back some of that old-style sophistication.

"As a child growing up, there was always a sense of beauty," Valvo, 48, said in an interview after an informal fashion show at Neiman Marcus recently. "Our society is much more dressed down today. I don't know if it's a good thing - it's more comfortable, for sure. But you don't dress for the events.

"I want to create dresses for everybody's red-carpet events," added Valvo, nattily dressed in a gray herringbone Giorgio Armani suit and shiny black Prada shoes. "They're much more important than the Oscars. It could be a wedding, a bar mitzvah, a fund-raiser, a charity event - these are women's important events. And that's when they get dressed."

In the years since Valvo established his fashion house in 1989, he's distinguished himself as a notable eveningwear designer whose regulars include Vanessa Williams and Oprah Winfrey.

With his collections of classy gowns and cocktail dresses that often are dusted with tiny beads or made of fabulous fabrics like flouncy chiffons or lovely laces, he's been the designer of choice for many stars on award nights. At this year's Academy Awards, Denzel Washington's wife, Pauletta, stepped into the spotlight in a gorgeous lavender silk strapless gown with seams that dramatically raced down the bodice. And actresses who have chosen him for award shows include Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lucy Liu, Halle Berry and Bridget Fonda.

Despite his red-carpet successes so far, Valvo tries to be blase about events like the Oscars.

"If you get too excited, you get too depressed and disappointed afterward," he said. "One time there was a very famous celebrity who wore one of my gowns. I'm watching the Oscars, she was wearing my gown and they're, like, `Who are you wearing?' and she goes, `Oscar de la Renta.' And I'm, like, `That's not Oscar de la Renta. That's my gown!'

"I was furious," he added. "She was cut off. I've never sent her a gown since. She asks, but we don't give them to her, so she buys retail."

Valvo gravitated toward the fashion business early - he began designing clothes while growing up in Westchester County, just outside New York City. His father, Anthony, was an anesthesiologist and his mother, Marie, was a nurse. Both had hoped that Valvo, the second of their four children, would go into medicine. Valvo, however, had a decidedly different vision for his future.

"I remember designing dresses for my sisters' Barbie dolls," he said. "Then when I was in school, I would take a Burberry raincoat, take out the lining, dye it green and wear it as a vest. I was always doing strange things to my clothes."

But before settling on fashion, he got a degree in fine arts at Manhattanville College, spent three years traveling in Europe and returned to New York to enroll in the Parsons School of Design. After working for Nina Ricci and Christian Dior, he launched his own house 13 years ago.

Shawny Burns, spokeswoman for Saks Fifth Avenue, which has carried Valvo for more than 10 years, said the designer is popular with women because his prices aren't as high as other eveningwear designers. The average gown from Valvo's collection usually costs between $600 and $1,500, while eveningwear from many other designers customarily costs more than twice that.

"He's able to take a lot of these couture looks and adapt them at a price point that's great," Burns said. "The lace detailing on his garments is so incredible for the money. He uses a lot of the same laces that you would see on a dress triple the price."

In designing, Valvo said he looks to the fabric for inspiration.

"The fabric sometimes talks to you," he said. "As the fabric comes in and you start playing with it, your plans start to evolve."

This spring, he said, he's favored simpler designs - classic blacks and floral gowns sprinkled with beads.

"I think people are still concerned with dressing appropriately" in these post-Sept. 11 times, he said. "But the soft chiffon skirt works. Nothing grand. Don't wear a ballgown, wear something simpler, a little more streamlined. Cocktail looks are a good option."

And the cocktail length Valvo is pushing this season has a '50s flavor - it falls just at the calf.

Valvo said he is working on exploring this retro flair even more in his spring 2003 collection - which he is starting to conceptualize now.

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