Valentino became interested in men's fashion while in primary school in his native Voghera, Lombardy, northern Italy, when he apprenticed under his aunt Rosa and local designer Ernestina Salvadeo. Valentino then moved to Paris to pursue this interest with the help of his mother Teresa de Biaggi and his father Mauro Garavani. There he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne.
His first choice for an apprenticeship, in Paris, was Jacques Fath, then Balenciaga. He found an apprenticeship with Jean Desses. He then joined Guy Laroche for 2 years. At Jean Desses, Valentino sketched furiously, between helping with window dressing and greeting clients for the daily 2:30 p.m. private showings. Most of his early sketches were lost.
After five years, Valentino left Jean Desses. Helped by his friend Guy Laroche, he joined his "tiny, tiny" fashion house. After discussions with his parents, he decided to return to Italy and set up in Rome in 1959.
In 1959 Valentino left Paris and moved back to Italy and opened a fashion house in Rome . More than an atelier, the premises resembled a real "maison de couture", being it very much on the line of what Valentino had seen in Paris: everything was very grand and models flew in from Paris for his first show.
On 31 July 1960 Valentino met Giancarlo Giammetti at the Café de Paris on the Via Veneto in Rome. Giammetti was in his second year of architecture school, living at home with his parents in the haut bourgeois Parioli section of Northern Rome. That day Giammetti gave Valentino a lift home in his little Fiat and a friendship as well as a long-lasting partnership started. The day after, Giammetti was to leave for Capri for vacation and by coincidence Valentino was also going there so they met again in the island 10 days later. Giammetti would shortly after abandon the University to become Valentino's business partner. When Giammetti arrived, the business situation of Valentino's atelier was in fact not brilliant: in one year he had spent so much money that his father's associate pulled out of the business, and had to fight against bankruptcy. Valentino and Giancarlo have been together, both romantically and in business, for over 50 years.
Valentino's international debut took place in 1962 in Florence, the Italian fashion capital of the time. His first show at the Pitti Palace was welcomed as a true revelation and the young couturier was deluged by orders from foreign buyers and enthusiastic comments on the press. Then breakthrough show in Florence, Valentino started to dress the ladies of the international best-dressed crowd. In 1966, confident of his client base, he moved his shows from Florence to Rome and there, two years later, he had one of his greatest triumphs, an all-white collection, which became famous for the "V" logo he designed.
By the mid-1960s he was already considered the undisputed maestro of Italian Couture, receiving in 1967 the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award, the equivalent of an Oscar in the field of fashion. Throughout the 1970s Valentino spent considerable time in New York City where his presence was embraced by society personalities such as Vogue's editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland and the art icon Andy Warhol.
1989 marked the opening of the Accademia Valentino, designed by architect Tommaso Ziffer, a cultural space located near his atelier in Rome, for the presentation of art exhibitions. The next year, encouraged by their friend Elizabeth Taylor, Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti created L.I.F.E., an association for the support of AIDS-related patients, which benefits from the activities of the Accademia Valentino.
In 1998 Valentino and his partner Giancarlo Giammetti sold the company for approximately 800 million Euros (US$1.1 billion) to HdP, an Italian conglomerate controlled, in part, by the late Gianni Agnelli, the head of Fiat. In 2002, Valentino S.p.A., with revenues of more than $180 million, was sold by HdP to Marzotto Apparel, a Milan-based textile giant, for $210 million.
On September 4, 2007 Valentino announced that he would retire fully in January 2008 from the world stage after his last Haute-Couture show in Paris. He delivered his last women's ready-to-wear show in Paris on October 4. The day after he retired, January 24, 2008, Valentino was presented with the Medal of the City of Paris for his services to fashion in the city where he was educated.