For Valentino's creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli, the couture runway is a platform for peak creativity. This was certainly evident in the designer's most recent couture range, where gratifying construction met bursts of hypersaturated hues and swaggering proportions; it was arguably one of the most spectacular and free-spirited couture offerings to date. The collection received a standing ovation and reminded the world that while sneakers and T-shirts might be covetable, they still aren't the rarest, most magical or of-the-moment things in reach.
At Vogue's Forces of Fashion conference on Thursday, Piccioli, who in 2016 became Valentino's sole creative director, spoke about his multilayered vision for the brand, how he has made the storied house relevant in 2018 and how he handles couture.
Piccioli wasn't brought up in the lavish world of couture, though he did fantasize about fashion. "When I was a kid, I felt that fashion was something so far from everything," Piccioli told moderator Hamish Bowles. "I wanted to escape from the places that felt too small for me."
He later enrolled in Rome's Instituto Europeo di Design to study fashion, but there Piccioli explained that he was fascinated with politics and was considered an outsider — a role he continues to take pride in because it allows him to see beauty in a different way and to think alone. Perhaps it is Piccioli's individualistic nature and desire for moments of isolation that have made his designs at Valentino completely his own.
Piccioli attributes some of his openness to experimentation and newness to working on the accessory line for Fendi in 1990. "I arrived at Fendi when I was a kid, and it was incredible because it was a school where we learned that anything is possible," Piccioli said. "We would experiment with everything in a very free way."
After Fendi, together with Maria Grazia Chiuri, Piccioli went to Valentino in 1999 to develop the emerging accessory line. It was a change of pace for the designer. "Valentino was much more formal," he explained. "Everybody wore a suit and tie. When I arrived there, it was July, and I was wearing flip-flops." But despite his choice of casual footwear, he got on quite well at the luxury house. Piccioli and Chiuri revamped the brand's handbag and eyewear collections and were put in charge of designing Red Valentino in 2003. Five years later, Chiuri and Piccioli were appointed co-creative directors when Valentino Garavani retired.
This was the first time Piccioli was tasked with not only designing product, but also creating a vision for the brand. And for Piccioli — the reluctant fashion superstar who prefers to live a quiet life by the sea — his vision was all about maintaining the house's culture of couture and updating its values to reflect the present time. "I feel that my job is giving my vision of beauty, but in relation to the times you are living in," he said.
What has emerged are a series of couture collections rooted in dreams and ready-to-wear offerings that speak to the present time. "Ready-to-wear has to catch the zeitgeist," Piccioli said. "Ready-to-wear is about culture and the idea of uniqueness."
But the handmade fantasies have been strong players in his vision for the brand: "Couture for me is the DNA of the brand," Piccioli said. "When you do couture, you can't do it last minute: you need time, because couture is made of rituals. It's an experience."
Growing up, Piccioli never saw couture up-close; he only interacted with such designs through photographs. So it was all a fantasy, until he landed at Valentino: "When I arrived, I asked to see the pieces because I wanted to touch them," he said. "But when I saw these dresses, they were not what I pictured in my mind — they were more heavy, more structured, so it was not the lightness that I imagined." In that moment, he decided not to reference the archives for his couture collections; instead he would rely on his own vision. "I love to think about that past, but not to see the past," he noted.
While couture isn't always considered the most relevant or youthful sector of the fashion industry, Piccioli is working to change that. Valentino's atelier comprises two age groups: One made up of women in their 60s, who pass the techniques on, and one made up of people in their late 20s. "There's a new generation in their 20s that rediscovered the poetry of doing couture," Piccioli said. "It's nice to see this relationship, and it creates a new energy."
The designer is also looking to breathe that youthfulness into the brand as a whole. His goal is to keep Valentino relevant and "not dusty." For Piccioli, that means the brand is not just promoting a lifestyle, but also fostering a community.
"Lifestyle is a group of people who share faces; communities are groups of people that share lives," Piccioli concluded. "I want to keep the idea of luxury and culture, but take Valentino from an exclusive brand to an inclusive brand."