How Valentino Became Relevant Again (and Plans to Stay That Way)

The 55-year-old fashion house is hotter than ever. How co-creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli have managed to modernize the brand without forgetting its past.
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The 55-year-old fashion house is hotter than ever. How co-creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli have managed to modernize the brand without forgetting its past.
Terry Richardson for Valentino. Photo: Valentino

Terry Richardson for Valentino. Photo: Valentino

Valentino is having a good year. And so far, a wonderful decade. After being sold to private equity shop Permira in 2007, the fashion house founded by legendary draper Valentino Garavani was snapped up in 2011 by an investment firm run by Qatar's royal family for a reported $730 million. In 2013, the 55-year-old house nearly doubled its earnings, while sales increased by 25 percent to more than $640 million from 2012. (In Asia, they jumped 70 percent, and in the U.S., 30 percent.)

It's easy to see why. From accessories to couture, Valentino is in demand. Since their promotion to co-creative directors in 2008, designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli have managed to generate red carpet and retail buzz, while staying true to the ethos Garavani and his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, established.

It's a tricky balance, and one not many creative directors are able to pull off. Especially when the namesake is still around. (Yves Saint Laurent was famously unhappy with the work of Tom Ford and sent his successor several letters expressing this sentiment.) So while Garavani and Giammetti may not have a say in the day-to-day running of the business, they were very much still involved when Chiuri and Piccioli were appointed six years ago. In fact, they had originally hired the duo from Fendi in 1999 to design Valentino's accessories.

So, what's the secret to Chiuri and Piccioli's impressive success? First off, they are respectful of the house's preset design codes, from Valentino's signature red to his beloved high neckline. "There is such a respect in regards to the design," says Roopal Patel, founder of Roopal Patel Consulting. "They understand [Garavani's] language and have been able to modernize the Valentino lifestyle without changing the signature of the house he built. They move that story forward into the future."

And the future, for now, seems to be in studs. Rock studs. "I remember one day seeing a picture of Claire Danes, and she was wearing a pair of studded gladiator sandals. I lost it," says US Weekly Fashion Director Sasha Charnin Morrison, a longtime follower of the brand who is now an obsessive collector of its accessories. "I said, 'What. Is. That?' Our accessories editor, Hannah Deely, said, 'Valentino.' I don't know what it is, but those stone-shaped studs make me crazy."

Gwyneth Paltrow in Valentino at the 2013 Met Ball. Photo: Getty

Gwyneth Paltrow in Valentino at the 2013 Met Ball. Photo: Getty

And she's certainly not the only one. The numbers speak for themselves, but retailers are even louder about the success they've found with Valentino.

"Valentino has been a top seller since the day we launched Forward by Elyse Walker and, two-and-a-half years later, it still remains one of our top brands," says Elyse Walker, owner of the well-regarded namesake boutique in Los Angeles's Pacific Palisades neighborhood. (Forward is her e-commerce site, a partnership with Revolve Clothing.) Walker began selling Valentino in her brick-and-mortar boutique years before Chiuri and Piccioli were on board.

"The change in the brand is very interesting," she says. "The younger girls are now not looking at Valentino from afar, but at these new pieces as must-haves. That's the biggest change. Everyone from all ages wants to own Valentino, not just to admire it." Walker stocks plenty of accessories, but she also carries the brand's ready-to-wear line, which as of late has become best known for modestly cut lace dresses in unique colors.

Indeed, ready-to-wear has become a larger part of the fashion business. For years, it was all about accessories; now, as the number of high-net-worth individuals increases the world over, firms once again see potential for making real money off of clothes. Which means creating desirable off-the-rack pieces -- and well-received runway collections -- is more important than ever.

The best advertisement for those pieces is the red carpet. While an image of Julia Roberts at the 2000 Oscars -- wearing Valentino couture from 1992 -- remains iconic, a new batch of young starlets have made Valentino their own. Gwyneth Paltrow and Anne Hathaway might be perennial wearers of Valentino, but it's Olivia Wilde, Michelle Williams, Alexa Chung and their peers who are making it relevant. "They're very selective about who they dress," stylist Charnin Morrison says. "They contain it as much as they can to who they see as their customer."

But who exactly is that customer? Can Valentino keep its longtime clients -- its "ladies who lunch" -- happy while appealing to a younger audience? Morrison, who was first introduced to Valentino by her mother in the 1970s, thinks yes. "They deliver product that is modern and innovative, without it having to be something it's not," she says. "They're totally respectful of the person that gave them the reins. It's very rare to see two youngish creative directors like that. Everyone has 1,005 ideas. I just want one good one! And they've done it."

Chiuri and Piccioli surely have more to offer, but for now, it's the lace and the studs that are helping them to make a mark. To help keep the product fresh, they introduce new silhouettes, colors and treatments each season, often creating exclusives for different stores. (A typical strategy, yes, but a necessary one in the age of internet when store loyalty is virtually non-existent.) So while Valentino red will always be a part of the brand's DNA, so now are these elements.

"Every luxury house has a signature that they build upon. Valentino owns the rock stud and will continue to modernize it as time goes by. It will become iconic," Patel says. "Trends aside, the original rock stud kitten heel looks as good today as when the house first launched it. It's a classic in the making."