WHEN IN PARIS, there are some things a fashion fan simply must do. Sample the rose-petal flavoured macaroons at Laduree, sip kir royales in the Hemingway bar of the Ritz and enter the hallowed halls of Chanel and Dior. Eclipsing all of these, however, is the opportunity to watch a haute-couture fitting, with all the theatre, frivolity and downright diamonds-in-the-morning decadence that such an event entails. And where better to do it than at Valentino, where the elder statesman of fashion - and an Italian at that - has been ruling the world of French couture for more than 40 years? 'Movement! Movement! Movement!' declares Valentino as he briskly inspects the fine-tunings of his couture collection in the sweltering July heat of his Place Vendome headquarters. Movement, it seems, is the modus operandi in la maison Valentino. Lighting technicians, drenched in sweat, bolt to and fro, chic PR girls teeter past as fast as their perilous heels will allow and the nimble fingers of seamstresses work their magic quickly and efficiently over a series of delectable flights of fancy, created with the finest fabrics and embedded with precious jewels. The resident fitting model, Agnes Zogla, is the only one who isn't moving, standing like a statue for hours as fantastical dress after fantastical dress is subtly reworked, nipped and tucked around her. Finally, Mr Valentino, as his staff refer to him, stops moving. In a cavernous room decorated like the inside of a Faberge egg, at the end of a mock catwalk, there are two seats. One is for Valentino, the other for Giancarlo Giammetti, his business partner of 40 years. Like a monarchical couple receiving courtiers, they greet each ensemble with a flurry of rapid-fire Italian, Valentino issuing instructions to the models. The catwalk debut is tomorrow, but Valentino, 74, is a picture of composure. 'I still get nervous. That's part of the fun,' he says. 'But the collection is there, it's ready. I put all my passion, my strength and all my joy into this.' After almost half a century as a designer, Valentino is as enthusiastic as when he first began in 1959. He moved to Paris, aged 17, from a small town in the north of Italy and worked for couturiers Jean Desses and Guy Laroche. 'I think it's because I love my work very, very much. I think I stay relevant with the help of my young actress friends,' he says. 'And I always want to move on to something else. To me this collection is old, I'm already on to the ready-to-wear for October.' Presiding over nine lines, from couture to accessories, can't be an easy job at any age, but watching Valentino, with his sprightly blue eyes, immaculately groomed and mahogany tanned, it's one he does with grace. 'My work has never been an effort', he says. 'Sometimes it takes a lot of work to get things right but the drive to make something new and my desire come instinctively.' The secret of Valentino's vigour is that he has never betrayed his mantra, the almost antique ideal that a designer's job is to make a woman beautiful. Elegance and beauty are almost nostalgic notions for the designers of today, as they clamour over one another in their pursuit of the new, shocking and provocative. Not for Valentino the renegade styles of the avant garde, though. As Suzy Menkes, fashion director of the International Herald Tribune, says: 'Valentino has never strayed far from his main tenets, which is to iron out a woman's imperfections and make her flawless. Unlike some designers, he is interested in making real woman feel like goddesses.' Make-up artist Pat McGrath says: 'Valentino is about creating elegant women who are completely perfect.' Style icons Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor and the Princess of Wales turned to Valentino for classic, timeless clothes. 'Some of them became close friends,' says Valentino. 'With women of that kind you really have the chance to get close to the essence of femininity. 'One of the biggest changes I've noticed in fashion since I began is that it has become an abstract thing, an exercise in weirdness, losing touch with its reality, which is to make perfectly crafted garments for men and women who want to look good.' He makes it sound so simple, but watching the aged, bespectacled seamstresses in his ateliers work platinum filigree around bouquets of rose-coloured crystal flowers looks anything but. 'I have never offended the body of a woman,' says Valentino. 'I design for the natural desire of women to feel beautiful and that's one of the few things that really last. Strange ideas in fashion come and go, women's desire to be beautiful does not.' This is the reason he is so passionate about China, having visited on numerous occasions for inspiration. He was struck, he says, by Chinese women's 'great sense of elegance. It's embedded in your culture, almost in your body.' It's a meeting of minds of sort: 'we are both - Chinese women and I - attracted to the same sense of classicism and timelessness. We dream the same dream.' Valentino becomes animated when talking about Chinese art - he has a collection worthy of many museums in most of his six homes (he likes the Chinese use of colour). 'More or less explicit references to Chinese culture have been part of my work since the beginning,' he says. Valentino doesn't do themes, however; any inspiration is a mere hint, not a full-blown cavalcade. 'This show, for example, isn't Russia - it's the idea of Russia.' The following day, Valentino, flanked by bodyguards, is holding court in the imposing Theatre National de Chaillot where his show will be held. 'Couture means fantastic construction and perfect proportion. With this collection I wanted to touch on the very essence of what haute couture is about,' he says. 'Everything I do - everything - comes from couture. It is the origin of my world.' The show, when it happens, is a jewel in the crown of Valentino; a lesson on just how exquisite clothes can be. Front-row fixtures, including Ivana Trump, Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece and the cream of the fashion crop, erupt into rapturous applause, all the more significant due to the impending Legion d'Honneur ceremony. Valentino is to be awarded the prestigious accolade by the French Culture Minister for services to the arts. The next day, as he thanks France and his loyal staff in front of the elite of the fashion industry, Elizabeth Hurley and Betty Catroux (muse to Yves Saint Laurent and Tom Ford) among them, there's a poignant moment as his voice falters and he dabs tears from his eyes. 'This is a big honour. I'm so proud and I just hope I deserve this,' he says humbly. Valentino told me that he designs dresses so that, when a woman walks into a room wearing one, people gasp, turn their heads and cry: 'She looks so beautiful!' Looking around the room of Valentino-clad lovelies, I'd say his work here is done.