Designer of the Year Pierpaolo Piccioli's newfound authenticity

We speak exclusively to Valentino's creative director, who was named Designer of the Year at the Fashion Awards in London

Fashion designer Pierpaolo Piccioli acknowledges the audience at the end of the Valentino   2017-2018 fall/winter Haute Couture collection in Paris on July 5, 2017. (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)
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Anyone who has been fortunate enough to visit Tokyo will appreciate its unique allure. A city of contradictions, it is calm yet fast-paced, old but at the same time new. So it is not difficult to understand why Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative director of Italian fashion house Valentino, chose this curious city for the unveiling of his pre-fall 2019 collection.

With a shared a love of beauty and refinement, both Tokyo and Valentino remain loyal to a rich past while looking resolutely to the future. One Japanese element in particular that caught Piccioli’s imagination is wabi-sabi, the Japanese belief, with no western equivalent, that flaws and imperfections are an intrinsic part of beauty. This is supported by a tradition of repairing broken objects with gold, so that the break itself becomes something precious.

“I have always been fascinated with this Japanese concept,” Piccioli, who has since been named Designer of the Year at the Fashion Awards in London, tells me. “It is much closer to my own way of thinking. Wabi-sabi is so different from the European thinking of perfection and youth. For me, this is very modern, and the opposite of the idea of beauty held in western cultures – of perfection and symmetry. I wanted to start a conversation between western culture, my culture, and the Japanese one.” 

Models backstage at Valentino's pre-fall 2019 runway show in Tokyo. Courtesy Valentino
Models backstage at Valentino's pre-fall 2019 runway show in Tokyo. Courtesy Valentino

The collection that Piccioli unveiled in a barren concrete space in Downtown Tokyo was exactly that conversation: Valentino seen through a Japanese prism. The opening look was a trench coat, lavished with classic house ruffles in a fiery Valentino red, atop flat boots, but left creased and unfinished.

As the collection progressed, it became clear that this was more than just another tranche of pretty dresses (although pretty they most definitely were), and instead was about frills and ruffles left distressed, elements left undone and a precise asymmetry that nodded to the unique aesthetic of Japan. In the skilful hands of Piccioli, this was no hackneyed recycling of tourist fodder, but a deeply reflective, sophisticated and, dare I say it, dreamy discourse. “The first look for me is the most wabi-sabi,” Piccioli explains. “It was about taking the house codes of red and ruffles, and treating them differently.

"It is just a trench, a dress and coat, but instead we made them out of nylon-mix fabric, because even the most humble of fabrics can become precious in the hands of the craftsman."The considered layering of each look felt new and youthful, perhaps another nod to the host city and its rich mine of streetwear. "Tokyo is a young city, a creative city, but where there is a long culture of dressing up," Piccioli explains. "Perhaps because of the history of wearing kimonos, which are both elaborate but poetic at the same time, Japanese people seem to really enjoy wearing clothes."What feels different here, however, is that while in the West, it is about showing off, showing how much money you have, here in Japan, in Tokyo, it is more about personal expression. It is about dressing for yourself, and showing the world who you are. It is very personal. Many men and women in Tokyo dress in a non-gendered way; their clothes are loose and the body is not defined the way it would be in Europe. I didn't want to get anything traditional from Japanese culture; instead I wanted to present a collection that was truly Valentino to the heart, but with a Japanese perception," he elaborates.

Kaia Gerber walks the runway for Valentino's pre-fall 2019 show. Courtesy Valentino
Kaia Gerber walks the runway for Valentino's pre-fall 2019 show. Courtesy Valentino

Those familiar with the history of Valentino will already be aware of the unconventional path that Piccioli has followed to reach this point, as he has had the unique distinction of taking over the reins at Valentino not once, but twice.

The house was founded by Valentino Garavani in 1959, in Rome. Having left his native Lombardy for Paris at just 17 to pursue his love of fashion, Garavani studied at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, before going on to apprentice for Jacques Fath, Cristóbal Balenciaga and Guy Laroche, and then returning to Rome to open his own fashion house.

A difficult first year nearly resulted in bankruptcy, but a serendipitous meeting with the young architect Giancarlo Giammetti changed everything. Immediately inseparable and sharing a common vision, Giammetti abandoned his studies to become Valentino’s lifelong business partner, and together they relaunched the house in 1962, at a show in Florence that presented a parade of dresses in what would become the house signature: a fiery red.

With a flair for dramatic, attention-grabbing gowns, Valentino soon became a favourite with film stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, and socialite Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, who came to be known as Val’s Gals. By 2007, however, after a wildly successful career, Valentino decided to step away from his eponymous label, prompting the promotion of Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli to the role of joint creative directors.

Piccioli is quick to put his own success into perspective against that of Valentino himself. “First of all, we were walking in the footsteps of a legend,” he maintains. “With Maria – and I loved working with her – we shared everything: the ideas, the vision, the runway, everything. Working with Maria, I had to learn how to put my thoughts and my emotions into words, so I could explain them. Because, obviously, there were two of us, together, so I had to be able to explain what I was thinking.”

The pair led the label to great acclaim until Chiuri left to head up Christian Dior in 2016. Her departure turned the spotlight on Piccioli, the assumption being that with Chiuri gone, he would struggle to find success. His first solo show resolutely shut critics down, as it became blindingly apparent that Piccioli, far from hiding behind his former colleague’s expertise, was an astonishing talent in his own right. Far from being overwhelmed as many predicted, Piccioli rose to the challenge.

“Since she left, I feel I am more free to just express my emotions and my dreams. I don’t need to overthink them, or to try to understand them in order to put them into words. I can just express them in a pure way, instinctively, even if I don’t understand them until later in the process. I definitely feel more unfiltered now, more authentic,” Piccioli says.

He has earned a reputation for delivering powerful collections – both ready-to-wear and couture – that are received with equal rapture by clients and critics, and that frequently leave the audience in tears (including, famously, his last couture show in Paris this summer, which saw the house’s founder Valentino Garavani visibly overcome).

The show in Tokyo was no exception, with the bleak concrete space providing the perfect foil for a procession of 90 staggeringly beautiful looks. While pieces were creased and misaligned, and proportions lifted and fell, everything retained the unmistakable allure of Valentino. A simple coat had intricate origami sleeves, while horizontal layers of ruffles seemed to float in the air, suspended on lace panels. Elsewhere, dresses were draped from a single length of fabric, while trenches and frilled coats swept past in black-on-red florals.

Menswear, too, was brimming with pleats and folds. One coat looked at first glance to be made of dark camo print, but was actually an overdyed vintage 1980s Valentino floral fabric. Another looked as if it were cut from an exceptionally beautiful futon. Fluid trousers and shirts swept past, covered in pleats radiating from a central seam, and hats bobbed by decked in feathers.

“When people think of Valentino menswear, they think of tailoring. But I wanted to push that. For the coats, I wanted them to feel like it was womenswear that had been cut open and remade into men’s. I wanted a feel of history, not just of something new,” Piccioli explains.

The collection included youthful elements, inspired by Japan's strong streetwear culture. Courtesy Valentino
The collection included youthful elements, inspired by Japan's strong streetwear culture. Courtesy Valentino

One element that was definitely transplanted from couture was fur, and while undeniably beautiful (in particular an ankle-length coat in vibrant red), it raised the question of whether the house is out of step with current thinking, on this if nothing else.

“I understand there is a change of mood and people want something that is less… offensive,” Piccioli admits. “However, as creative director, I am very aware of my responsibility to the 3,000 families that rely on Valentino. We employ a lot of people in Italy, in Rome, and I truly believe that makes us an ethical company. We support many skilled people.

“We have our own factory for fur, so instead we are starting to look at ways to alter what we make there. We are looking at intarsia, at wool instead. I think this is the most ethical way.”

Ethics aside, this was a show about piling the unexpected together into a glorious contradiction, as dresses came lopsided, over plastic shoes, or hand-pieced from countless fabric discs. Of course, Valentino excels at gowns and, when these finally arrived, they were breathtaking. Great swaths of froth were carved into pod-like shapes, while endless frills sat in tightly clipped layers, or tumbled down in haphazard cascades. This was romantic, beautiful and spellbinding in equal measure.

For the finale, models swept on to the runway before halting in a single file. Standing as they were arm’s-length away, the impulse to reach out and touch these amazing pieces was almost overwhelming.

And, as we were given the chance to see the workmanship up close, boxes opened above our heads and rose petals – red, of course – spilled out, blanketing the runway. Piccioli had delivered yet another powerful performance.


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