In today’s fashion industry, even top designers are journeymen who swing from gig to gig, displaced after clashing with their corporate overlords. Couture is a beloved but increasingly outmoded art that doesn’t make money–unlike licensing deals for perfume and sunglasses.

This is the backdrop for Valentino: The Last Emperor, a documentary about the Italian designer Valentino Garavani that follows him from June 2005 to his retirement some two years later, heralded by a blowout celebration in Rome of his 45th year in business. The festivities–truly a once-in-a-lifetime party even for jaded fashion insiders–included a retrospective at the Ara Pacis Museum and a huge party inside the Temple of Venus, part of the ruins of the Roman Forum just across the Coliseum. (My invitation was lost in the mail.)

Any half-serious follower of fashion already knows the course of events in the film, but when director (and Vanity Fair writer) Matt Tyrnauer was filming, that course was hardly fixed. In 2005, Valentino and his longtime life and business partner Giancarlo Giammetti are simply doing what they have done for the last four-plus decades–getting ready for another collection. A designer with roots in la dolce vita of the 60s, Valentino dressed such stylish personages as Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn. More recent clients included Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts, who wore an early-80s Valentino gown the night she won an Oscar in 2001.

Valentino himself comes across as a relic from another age, with his helmet of carefully arranged hair and savage tan, and he acts the part of the tetchy artiste to the hilt. Giammetti is the business guy, the one who takes interminable meeting after meeting and calms the designer down (muttering a few mamma mias along the way) when he’s upset over a suggestion to add more ruffles to a dress or is unhappy with the presentation of his gowns at the anniversary exhibition. Valentino’s grand lifestyle–he visits his chateau in France and goes skiing in Gstaad, constantly accompanied by a clutch of pugs–is  contrasted with the utilitarian atmosphere of the workrooms, where workers painstakingly hand-stitch the maestro’s creations. Yet their work is valued–the fearsome head seamstress is the only person Valentino is seen to speak to in deferential tones, and the arrival of current and former workers at his anniversary exhibition brings tears to his eyes.

Throughout the movie Giammetti and Valentino acknowledge that the demands of business have played an increasingly larger role in fashion throughout the years, and the possibility of Valentino’s retirement is always a topic of speculation, although constantly denied by Valentino himself. Giammetti clashes (off-screen) with the young Italian businessman whose family has bought a stake in the company, and later a European corporation buys it outright. The viewer’s forced to acknowledge and appreciate the fact that these two represent a dying breed, which is underscored by an endnote that informs us that the designer hired to replace Valentino left after two seasons, replaced by two “creative directors.”

In an early bit of foreshadowing, Valentino and Giammetti stop at a cafe on the Via Veneto where they first met. Once the place to be in the Eternal City, it’s now visited only by the most uninformed tourists. The golden sunlight of the capital–and the choice of the Roman ruins as a backdrop for Valentino’s celebration–throw the sense of a waning era into starker relief. Like so many industries in our era (newspapers, anyone?), the fashion industry is in flux, irrevocably altered by the forces of modern capitalism. Yet it’s the singular vision of designers–as well as the skilled hands that bring the vision into reality–that have made the industry what it is.

The movie opens March 27 at Landmark.