March 30, 2012


Keni Valenti and Madonna have more in common than you might think. Not only were they groupies together in New York in the 70’s, they have both reinvented themselves in that only-in-America way, more times than the hands have fingers.

Keni Valenti left. Madonna right.

Keni Valenti used to take the subway from his family home in Queens, to Manhattan’s finest hotels, to gain access (exactly how, he’s not saying) to the Rock & Roll royalty of the day in order to snap candid shots of them, which he would sell to music magazines.  He was good at it. And he made lots of money. And he made lots of friends (including Madge) who needed lots of cool things to wear. So he also made those:  like hats and rubber jewelry and bags, and he was damned good at that too. Bestsy Johnson thought so as well, so she scooped him up to design hats for her. Good-bye photography, hello fashion.

But doing hats for someone else wasn’t enough for Valenti so he quit Ms. Johnson and began his own fashion label, bringing the 80’s world such staples as the “eight armed dress” (yes it truly did have eight arms, put on one after the other which created an amazingly chic pile of ruching), which Holly Woodlawn absolutely adored - to the “Joy” dress with a silhouette lifted from a bottle of Joy dishwashing detergent. TIME magazine called him a rising star, F.I.T. put his things in a museum show and Japanese industrialist’s insisted on backing him.  Everything was success and adulation and $$$.  So he gave it up. 

Left; James Galanos. Center; Comme des Garcons. Right; Christian Dior.

Somehow, and for some weird reason, Keni got it into his head that what people really needed, were old clothes. As in used. As in “gently pre-worn” As in Vintage. Keni Valenti was truly one of the original pioneers in a new field that was previously unthinkable. Remember when “Vintage” clothes were just. . . well. . . old? Well not to Keni! To him there was beauty in historical fashion so he opened up Keni Valenti Retro Couture in New York and went to town.  He shopped the world: Galanos from Palm Springs, Comme des Garcons from Tokyo, Dior from Paris, and came back to New York with piles of fashion’s finest cast-offs and before you knew it, everybody else knew it too.  There is probably not a designer today who has not, at one time or another tapped into Valenti’s horde for “inspiration” (a very kind word for copying), nor a fashion magazine or photographer who hasn’t documented his collection (his press clippings are numbered not by the tear-sheet, but by the volume). Celebrities have paraded his gowns at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Grammys, in Cannes. In short, the only difficult decision for Valenti became choosing who to let in, and who not to let in to his venerated New York showroom. 

So he quit. Again.

YSL sketches

Which brings us to Miami. And Yves Saint Laurent.

Valenti started to feel that the Vintage clothing business, which he practically invented, had lost its allure. It was getting stale, and common, and over-crowded.  All of the sudden, everyone was wearing Vintage, everyone was a Vintage expert, Vintage was completely and totally legit and acceptable. How boring! So he edited what he had down to the absolute crème de la crème (a mere 20,000 or so choice pieces) and moved out of New York into Miami – lock, stock and bugle bead.

YSL exhibition at Keni Valenti. Photo: Jeff McKay

YSL exhibition at Keni Valenti. Photo: Jeff McKay

On March 10th, Keni Valenti reinvented himself - this time as a gallerist.  In the epi-center of the pistol-hot Wynwood art district of Miami, Valenti premiered a stunning salute to the French master himself, Yves Saint Laurent.

Wynwood contains purportedly the largest collection and concentration of commissioned graffiti in the world. So amid the blocks and blocks of acid bright Kenny Scharf murals, insanely complex Shepard Fairey phantasmagoria and general day-glo mayhem looms a solid matte black warehouse front with the hand painted (by Miami artist Javier Mayoral) face of YSL - just that - nothing else, no type, no identification, just Yves. 

 Javier Mayoral painted the face of YSL on the front entrance of the Keni Valenti Gallery.  Photo: Jeff McKay

But inside, is another story. The gallery is literally bathed in a vibrating turquoise, exactly the color of one of Millicent Rogers’ Navaho bracelets. And I mean everything! The walls, the floors, the mannequins, even the French desk and mirror haven’t been spared. Of course this doesn’t include the miles of silver lame’ drapery swathing the ends of the space. 

YSL exhibition at Keni Valenti. Photos: Jeff McKay

Within this heady envelope is the history of Modern Fashion, as interpreted by M. Saint Laurent. And it’s ALL there:  Le Smoking; the Russian look; the Broadway suits;  pieces from the Porgy & Bess collection. Hard to miss is a killer aqua taffeta couture gown from the 1959 Christian Dior “Ballet Russe” show designed by a very young YSL, right next to Art Deco inspired dresses as interpreted by a very mature Saint Laurent for the 1970’s.  Also included is the entire history of the Safari look - which he very much invented as wearable street wear - with examples from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Plus there are cases of jewelry, artwork designed by Yves to give as presents to friends and even a fantastic selection of YSL designed sheets, and potpourri pots, and sunglasses, and handbags. There are antique press photographs of the designer with the famous of the day such as Princess Margaret and Shirley McLaine, and even an uber-recent Terry Richardson shot of James Franco in drag, in a Saint Laurent “Le Smoking” ensemble for the cover of CANDY magazine. And don’t forget to look at a complete collection of original 1978 color snap shots from that year’s runway show in Paris. And it’s all for sale. For a price.

Yves Saint Laurent and Shirley MacLaine, 1965

YSL exhibition at Keni Valenti. Photos: Jeff McKay

Valenti maintains that due to the quality of his collection - along with his many years of experience and research in collecting the pieces one at a time - that these highly edited creations warrant a fine art/gallery showcase – nothing less.  He plans on opening up his gallery and archives to students of fashion and scholars as a service to the world, as well selling key pieces to a highly refined and discriminating group of collectors and clothes aficionados.  And guess what?  According to Valenti, two very famous fashion houses have started a potential bidding war over that amazing Ballet Russe gown for their archives.

YSL exhibition at Keni Valenti. Photos: Jeff McKay

So what’s next for the man who can’t stop redefining the time in which he lives – and reinventing himself?  Well first off, his next show is going to be on “Mr. Blackwell” the man who invented the “Worst Dressed List” (as well as simultaneously dressing Jayne Mansfield – go figure!), which should be REAL education. And then he promises a show on the great Beth Levine, designer of the positively revolutionary Herbert Levine shoes, so coveted in the 60’s and 70’s - plus another exhibition he plans on calling “The Battle of the Americans” based on the famous “Battle of Versailles” show held in Paris circa 1973, where 5 American designers were pitted against 5 French ones, and the Americans triumphed big time!

Liza Minelli wearing Halston, French-American fashion show, Palace of Versailles, November 28, 1973. Photo: Sandy Kaplan/SPIA

Beth Levine – Paper Twist, 1966 – Photo: Dutch Leather and Show Museum

And since he feels he chose the right area (Wynwood) in the right town (Miami) at the right moment (Art Basel /Miami anyone?) Keni Valenti is, of course starting to get antsy. “You know, I’ve always wanted to open a museum somewhere . . .” he says as he wanders away.
So if you love fashion - get to Miami.  But you’d better hurry up.
Jeff McKay

The Keni Valenti Gallery is at 2612 Northwest 2nd Avenue in Miami, Florida
His website is and he can be contacted at


  1. A beautifully written article, Mr McKay :) And you so truly captured Keni. He is an amazing artist in his own right...

  2. Viva Keni Valenti Viva


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