The Vibrant Inclusivity of Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino
The conundrum every designer faces when they take over a venerable, beloved fashion house is how to respect its history while also molding their own vision. In my last article I spoke of Yiqing Yin at Poiret—a young Chinese couturier charged with resurrecting the long-dead fashion house of Paul Poiret. In that case, while Poiret is still highly regarded and discussed in fashion history, the broader public is mostly unaware of the name and legacy, which allows Yin a greater flexibility to create her own imprint. Profoundly different is taking over a fashion house that is not only still going strong, but whose founder is still alive. Such is the remarkable task Pierpaolo Piccioli has taken on at Valentino—first alongside his long-time creative partner Maria Grazia Chiuri, and now solo. From anonymity to Instyle’s “Designer of the Year” in less than a decade, Piccioli has uniquely placed his innovative approach to a heritage brand at the center of fashion.
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Piccioli was born fifty years ago in the Italian beach town of Nettuno, 44 miles south of Rome. There he became enamored with the world of movie-making and then fashion: “I have always loved cinema and during my adolescence I dreamed of becoming a movie director. When I discovered fashion and its narrative power, I decided to become a designer. It was for me a natural evolution of a dream.” He studied fashion and accessories design at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Rome, during which time he interned and assisted at a number of well-known local ateliers. In 1989 he joined the accessories department of Fendi, where he worked alongside Chiuri. Immersion in the world of Fendi—known both for high Italian craftsmanship and technological experimentation—and a creative partnership with Chiuri proved invaluable for Piccioli, amply providing him with the foundation for his next twenty years of work. After ten years the pair moved to Valentino, where they were tasked with revamping the house’s handbag and eyewear collections while maintaining the tradition and creativity of the founder. Their success with these two collections led to them taking over design for the diffusion line, Red Valentino, in 2003; and in the following three years, they were put in charge of all accessories including shoes. When Valentino Garavani announced his retirement in the fall of 2007, designer Alessandra Facchinetti was announced as his replacement. After two collections she was dismissed and Piccioli and Chiuri were promoted to creative directors, which came as a surprise to the industry—though their accessories had won acclaim and racked up sales, the pair were completely unknown and many members of the press considered them an odd choice to be put in charge of couture and luxury ready-to-wear dress-making.
By this time Valentino was in the top echelons of Italian fashion. Following several years working in Paris in the 1950s at Jean Dessès and then Guy Laroche, Valentino Garavani founded his eponymous fashion house, Valentino, in Rome in 1960. With the help of his business partner (and then-lover) Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino became a global success as his elegant designs clad the high society stars of the Best Dressed lists. Known as much for his extravagantly luxurious lifestyle and superstar clients as for his chic day outfits and exquisite evening gowns (often in his trademark red), by the time of his last runway show in January 2008 Valentino was highly esteemed yet his collections were not known for setting trends. Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri set out to change that. According to an interview they gave following their first collection (Spring 2009 haute couture), their vision for the new generation of Valentino girls was “more cool, modern, contemporary… very uptown goes downtown.” While their first collections were deemed “very ladylike” by the press, by 2010 they had hit their stride with collections that married Valentino’s storied romance with a younger, harder edge—their now iconic “Rock-Stud” shoes and bags being a key emblem of this new aesthetic. According to Piccioli, their goal was not to copy vintage Valentino but instead to use the artistry and craftsmanship of the couture workshops as the starting point for a new methodology: “From the first days, the most important task on Valentino’s heritage has been to accomplish the perception, the idea and the essence of the Maison rather than reproposing pieces of its archive. It has been a creative process that took as a model the modus operandi of the Atelier of Couture. In other words, the human excellence portrayed in every single detail. From the fashion shows, to the collaborations, to the stores.”
Together they began to spin out a new version of Valentino’s romanticism—one that was steeped in history, in art, in literature. After Chiuri left to head up Christian Dior in 2016, Piccioli chose to simplify their joint vision. The differences in working in a partnership and alone were clear to him: “Before, there would be an exchange, as we developed concepts. If you work together without compromises, you validate each other’s differences in an ongoing discussion. Alone, it’s more direct, more connected to the sensitivity, the emotions of the imagination, without elaborating.” As Sarah Mower wrote in a review of his first solo haute couture collection for Spring 2017, “Where there had previously been precious Renaissance virgin princesses, now there were young goddesses wearing flowing pleated gowns… It was a change in the silhouette, a shift toward purity and simplicity…” Slowly he moved away from the intricate embroideries and empire-line princess neckline that had become a signature for Chiuri and him—though covered-up, a style most suited to a young maiden—to a much broader array of styles, adding in more elegant daywear that is marked most surely by its inclusivity and vibrant colors. Pierpaolo dresses not just a single type of woman (a romantic dreamer), but every age and kind of female: “My whole job at this house is about individuality and evaluating diversity. Couture talks about a one-of-a-kind uniqueness, and so giving couture a different perspective is about evaluating these values. It's not about something that still belongs to a beautiful past. It's about valuing diversity, and in this moment I think it's super important to talk about diversity as beauty."
Though other opportunities have come his way, Piccioli says: “Besides being a wonderful company, I feel at home, I feel it’s mine. It’s important for one’s aesthetics to fit with the brand. We all knew Valentino for how [Garavani] was, but now it’s the brand’s second generation.” For him, the design continues to be about the artisanship and the workers in the atelier: “I’m interested in people, in creating personal relationships, I know all the seamstresses, their lives, how to speak to each. It’s not the technique that makes the difference in fashion, but the care and passion. Talent is conceptual, but if there is no passion or sharing a project, you lose the poetry. Fashion lives [from] this magic. Things can be beautiful, but they become magic if one puts some of one’s life, care and passion into them.”
Piccioli still lives in the small town of his birth with his wife and children, commuting every day to the Valentino workrooms in Rome. Though he travels often for work, by removing himself at nights and on weekends from the city Pierpaolo has allowed himself the space to research and think away from the frenzy of fashion. His academic approach to each collection—references rigorously researched and moodboarded—is given room to breathe in his hometown life and now even more so in his independence as creative director (he’s been quoted as saying, “I like to know my history, and then forget it”). Instead of minute focus and historical replication, Pierpaolo’s solo designs draw on tradition yet have an expansive energy and freedom of thinking that are a step forward from his work with Maria Grazia Chiuri and from Valentino’s own creations. A review of his latest collection, for Fall 2018 haute couture, very clearly recognizes the strength of Piccioli’s vision: “[These clothes] are about being dressed beautifully and courageously, and that is so rare as to be utterly thrilling to behold.”