Valentino's Pierpaolo Piccioli: 'Clothes are instruments through which you can say more'

The creative director of the Italian fashion brand talks about his grounded dreams and human-centric approach to design

“Coming back to Paris, I hated the idea of everything being exactly as it was,” says Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative director of Valentino. Sitting in the company’s lofty Parisian headquarters ahead of his spring/summer 2022 runway presentation, the designer is laying out the context of the show. “I really wanted to get a new vision, a new picture of Valentino.”

The event marked the brand’s first physical show at Paris Fashion Week since the onset of the pandemic and, as such, Piccioli was keen to present a new fashion manifesto, better suited to an altered world. “It’s like Valentino for the future. And when you think about your future, you have to be aware of your past, of who you are, of your identity.”

That sentiment was neatly encapsulated in the show’s opening look, a delicate, embellished ivory mini dress lifted straight from Valentino’s expansive archives. Piccioli asked his team to copy it, down to the last button, pearl and petal. The revitalised dress, now teamed with combat boots, felt ravishingly pretty and very modern, despite being more than five decades old. The update came, Piccioli says, from a new attitude, not a new cut.

The presentation continued with a mix of new designs and other archival pieces. “I don’t think the aesthetic is made by the clothes; it’s made by the humans wearing the clothes. So it was challenging to revisit the pieces exactly as they were, as I didn’t change anything. It is an act of love, in a way, because the selection is, of course, very personal and each piece is a thing I love from the archives that was witnessing a moment in Valentino, and where Valentino was witnessing a change in society.”

The show unfolded in a cavernous cast iron and glass space in the Marais district of Paris. Called Rendez-Vous, it started as any other runway presentation, with a parade of models sweeping past seated guests. Rather than return backstage, however, the models walked out of the doors to continue the show on the street outside, in front of the waiting public.

When Piccioli had spoken about how the presentation would offer an alternative view of the house, and would be a “new picture of Valentino, not in the palazzo, but in the street”, he was being literal.

The collection was filled with familiar pieces, rethought and revisited. A shirt was exaggerated into a voluminous dress, while couture-style embroidery was lifted from a dress and placed across the shoulders of a long coat. Cuts were relaxed and fluid, favouring the oversized, while a closer look revealed painstaking handwork more commonly found in haute couture.

Quote
What was missing in this year and a half was the people, not the glamour. My inspiration is humans.
Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative director, Valentino

Sequins were applied to a shirt in intricate patterns, leaving gaps of bare netting, while a woman’s shirt dress, which from afar looked to have a blue and white printed design, was actually appliqued, each piece carefully sewn by hand. Even the fabric used, taffeta, was given a new treatment. It was washed and crumpled to strip away the crispness and grandeur, “but keep the intimacy and care, and cut into new objects that are not evening gowns but oversized shirts, balloon dresses, PJs, jackets and suits”, Piccioli explains. “They still have the grandness in the cut, but in a very effortless way.”

The overall sense was of duality, a mixing and blending of things previously kept separate. Footwear, meanwhile, remained resolutely flat; not, as the designer explains, “because I don’t like heels, but that I feel in this moment that it’s important to deliver a different vibe of grounded dreams”.

Individually, such elements are subtle, but together they speak of the new vision Piccioli has for the house. As one of the few designers to instinctively grasp how the world has altered, he speaks of a new order emerging, where boundaries have been swept away and individuality is embraced.

“If I am able to describe this new world, it is about just humans. I don’t care about gender, identity, culture, whatever, just humans who stand for the same values. I think couture is about humanity – and humanity is about imperfection. If I am to deliver a different image of Valentino, a celebration of diversity as something normal, then I don’t have to add the word ‘equality’ or the word ‘freedom’ to the pictures. It’s already there. And it can be super-powerful and strong, much more than any words.”

Fast to pivot around the pandemic, Piccioli has embraced inclusion by taking his runway out into the street. And by adding archival pieces, he is returning them to the youth, where they belong.It’s a quiet realignment that has been under way since March last year, when Piccioli launched Valentino’s Re-Signify programme as a way of reframing the company’s history. The first exhibition opened in Shanghai in China in December 2020, while a second recently began in Beijing. With both events focusing on the house as it exists today, it is a way of introducing the brand’s know-how to a new, younger, more global audience.

“What I want to do now is open Valentino to everybody, so Re-Signify is not an exhibition that celebrates the history of the brand, but that celebrates the present. And Re-Signify is opening the world of Valentino to other perspectives, other points of view. It’s still about life, about people looking at the same moment, but with different perspectives.”

During extended bouts of Italian lockdowns, Piccioli found himself craving the company of others, rather than the buzzy allure of shows, awards and red carpet events. “What was missing in this year and a half was the people, not the glamour. I don’t care about it. I was missing the emotions. My inspiration is humans.”

Despite being with Valentino since 1999, and becoming its sole creative director in 2016, Piccioli retains the rare ability to see the house with fresh eyes. Feeding into this are the various collaborations he has embarked upon recently. What started quietly as a tie-up with Undercover designer Jun Takahashi in 2017, for the relaunch of the Tokyo Ginza store, has snowballed to encompass a project with Levi jeans and the July launch of new Roman Stud trainers with British designer Craig Green. Valentino then teamed up with tasking musician Robert Del Naja (better known as 3D of Massive Attack) to create the soundtrack for its February 2021 haute couture show. That event debuted menswear, while in July, Valentino joined social media platforms Tik Tok and Clubhouse.

Perhaps the most memorable step towards Valentino’s utopian future came during the autumn 2021 haute couture show in July, in Venice. Delivered as a masterclass in 82 lessons, 22 of the looks were made in collaboration with 17 artists, each personally hand-picked by Piccioli.

“Venice was a moment in time. It came out in a very particular moment after the illusion of the summer, when we thought the pandemic was all over, but we went back to a scary moment. I felt isolated from people. I needed to talk with other people who could witness it from different perspectives.”

Artists were invited to contribute works to the Valentino atelier, to be translated into couture, which is itself often described as a work of art. But Piccioli is clear where the division between the two disciplines lies. “Fashion is not art. I feel that fashion is fashion and has its own dignity in being fashion, and art is for art’s sake. Fashion has to be in relation to the body, so the purposes are different. And we can create a conversation if we are aware of who we are, and our language. Fashion is my whole language, for artists, painting is their language, so we work together.”

Amid looks that either billowed or were sleekly tailored, in tones of flamingo pink, mint green, lilac, magenta, mustard and chartreuse, came the creations crafted in collaboration with the artists, translated using the astonishing skills of the atelier. Kerstin Brätsch’s work The If (2010), for example, was pieced from 46 collages of fabric. Meanwhile, the ball gown inspired by the art of Patricia Treib required more than 140 metres of cloth to make and took close to 700 hours to complete.

“It was challenging to translate the originality of the works. I didn’t want to do just souvenir couture, so we worked to catch the spirit of the artist. The different voices came out as one in the end. The story behind every artist is different, and so each one was a process and that was very interesting for me. It was actually like a new beginning. All those colours and volumes, it was like a catharsis.”

Back in Paris, in the run-up to the spring/summer 2022 show, Piccioli had the opening dress’s most famous outing – a 1968 photograph of it being worn by American actress Marisa Berenson – replicated, now starring brand ambassador Zendaya. Boasting a mixed German and African-American heritage, Zendaya was the perfect choice for the project, Piccioli says. “In 1968, would anyone have given that dress to a black woman?” he asks, highlighting social shifts over the past half century.

With a career spanning 22 years with Valentino, Piccioli’s drive is infectious, as is his determination to throw Valentino’s doors open to the world. “It is a need for connection. It’s a real, authentic need to connect, and share a vision, values, ideas. I still feel lucky to be the creative director of such a huge brand, but I am still the same as when I was dreaming about fashion, and this is an opportunity to share and deliver my values through my work.

“I think you can manage a company like this with a personal approach. Not with arrogance, not with money, but just with humanity. If you want to deliver that, first you have to collaborate with people to create something that is unique, where two identities meet. Fashion is not just clothes, they are instruments through which you can say more.

“And I feel that I have a responsibility to use my voice to say what I stand for, and not just offer a summer dress. It’s watching the world, thinking what it is feeling. I think beauty is something you have to feel. And if I don’t feel it, I can’t deliver it.”

Updated: November 20th 2021, 5:38 AM