The fall Valentino ready-to-wear show took place during a time of fragile innocence — which is to say, just months ago. It was a fleeting display of uncomplicated beauty, the last we’d see for some time. That runway spectacle, in the final days of a bustling, crowded Paris Fashion Week, may well have signaled the end of an era.
It was early March and the World Health Organization had not yet declared a pandemic. The coronavirus was a long way from having killed more than a million people worldwide. George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota with a life story of struggle, hadn’t died under the knee of a White police officer, and a mosaic of protesters around the globe had yet to blanket the streets demanding racial justice. The fashion economy, indeed the world economy, hadn’t convulsed, leaving clothing factories quiet and legacy brands in bankruptcy, millions unemployed and countless families worried about their next meal.
Eight months ago, the City of Light still glowed. We had no idea how much we didn’t know. We could not imagine what was to come. And so the fashion industry was doing as it always had done.
In the hours before sunset, under an airy tent pitched in the shadow of Les Invalides and just across the street from a row of elegant Beaux Arts flats, models in romantic confections walked a runway in front of a full house of guests — and a couple of uninvited regulars.
The Valentino tent, where creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli shows his collection, is a fully enclosed rectangular edifice with broad windows set high on its walls to let in the light. Each season, a mysterious couple pulls chairs up to a cafe table on the small balcony of one of those neighboring apartments. The two settle in with glasses of wine. From this serendipitously perfect bird’s-eye perch, they’re able to admire dozens of models enrobed in some of the most beguiling garments the fashion industry produces.
Just below their private box seats, a bouquet of color reliably blossoms: honeysuckle, carnation pink, cornflower, pine green and always a magnificent shade of sun-kissed red — which has been the house’s signature hue since the days when Jackie Kennedy Onassis was a loyal customer. But even without all that glorious color, which surely must read like a riotous English garden from afar, the clothes at Valentino are something special to behold because they are so unlike anything else. They refuse to be trendy. Or sorrowful. Or pedantic.
“I find Pierpaolo deeply, deeply poetic and optimistic,” Andrew Bolton, curator-in-charge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, told me. “I never have negative, pessimistic, critical thoughts when I leave a Valentino show. They really are uplifting. They’re full of joie de vivre.”
Voluminous white shirts surround the body in great clouds of cotton that has been appliquéd with naive shapes that recall those in an Henri Rousseau painting. Or sometimes, the generous silhouettes are emblazoned with contemporary graphics in collaboration with some young tradition-breaking artist or a love-stricken poet.
The clothes at Valentino speak in opposition to the familiar story of glamour, which focuses on high slits, low necklines and exposed backs. Evening gowns hang from narrow shoulders and then flow outward to float on the air. Dresses don’t greedily clutch at the body; they gently skim it. There’s a conscious modesty to these clothes that makes them stand out in an industry that typically relies on exposure and flamboyance to make its most salient points about sexuality and femininity.
In fashion, skin might be bared in service to personal empowerment, body positivity and righteous self-possession. At other times, nudity is the result of the enduring authority of the male gaze. It can sometimes feel as though the female form is the subject of a gender studies dissertation while any meaningful aesthetic proposition goes missing. Piccioli’s clothes are sexy — but never obvious. He believes in romance.
Color is a visual language and Piccioli speaks it eloquently, but for fall, he used a significant amount of black. He’d wanted to create his version of a luxurious uniform that functioned as a backdrop to the wearer’s nuanced individuality. “I wanted to represent the idea of a society with no boxes,” he told me. He wanted to jettison fashion’s reliance on preestablished archetypes.
“It’s old, this idea of the sexy woman, the powerful woman, the strong one, or a romantic one,” he says. “I don’t feel that today women need to wear big shoulders to be assertive. I think that a woman can be assertive even wearing something sensual.”
“I really wanted to talk about the idea of equality,” Piccioli says.
I was interested in spending time with Piccioli because I admired his ability to convey emotion and cerebral vibrancy within his collections in a way that seemed natural and unforced. But even more than that, he was addressing what it means to be a modern haute couture designer — one of the few — in a time of changing demographics and ideals. He wasn’t disavowing the rarefied story of Valentino; he was continuing its narrative into the 21st century. Part of that evolution has meant wrestling with inclusivity.
Like so many other designers of European descent, Piccioli has dabbled in Africa for creative inspiration. He has been enamored with Black culture. He has earnestly recognized the need for diversity. He made missteps. But he persevered until he seemed to be thinking deeply about how inclusivity fits into the very definition of luxury fashion — and ultimately about how luxury fashion fits into the future.
Piccioli, who became Valentino creative director four years ago, was delivering one of fashion’s purest expressions of beauty in the European tradition — but it was also relevant to our multicultural times. So after his Paris show, we were to meet for lunch in Rome, where the Valentino brand was born and where its atelier remains. But the coronavirus began rolling through Italy like a fast-moving storm. Piccioli made it to Rome; I stayed in Paris. And we had our leisurely, midday conversation over FaceTime.
We spoke again at length in October, after he’d survived a draconian lockdown in Italy and while the United States was still struggling with surges and spikes of coronavirus infections, as well as an endless season of racial unrest. By then, Piccioli had live-streamed two more collections; our technology of choice was now Zoom; fashion had plummeted into a crisis over its very survival. And the world was in dire need of beauty — beauty as a kind of emotional sustenance that Piccioli was determined to supply.
“I don’t think you necessarily have to own it to appreciate couture. It’s like art. I don’t really like when people talk about fashion as art. Fashion is fashion. Art is art. But yes, I don’t think that you have to own art in order to appreciate art. You can go to a museum and you can appreciate paintings and whatever you like,” Piccioli says. “So why not for couture? You can do the same. You don’t have to buy couture in order to appreciate couture.”
Indeed, if you are lucky, you can sit on your balcony with a glass of wine and watch as it unfolds below.
“Dreams make us human.” — Pierapolo Piccioli, Vogue.com, 2017
From its founding in Rome in 1960 by designer Valentino Garavani and businessman Giancarlo Giammetti, the Valentino fashion house has been defined by the fantasy — and the reality — of a jet-set, aristocratic lifestyle. It has always been unabashed in its embrace of traditional femininity and extreme luxury. In fact, Valentino rose to prominence thanks to the patronage of women who led a privileged life and who traveled within a cosseted social set.
A few months before the founders retired in 2008, Garavani celebrated his legacy with a three-day Roman extravaganza set within some of the city’s most renowned landmarks from the Forum to the Villa Borghese gardens, with guests that included designers, actresses and icons. His indulgent life was captured in the film “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” But what Garavani represented more than anything was “an appreciation of fineness,” his friend André Leon Talley told me. “He does not eat off a simple white Lenox plate. He is eating off of Russian plates — Russian plates from the czars.”
“That’s what Valentino was all about: unabashed luxury and unabashed beauty,” says the veteran fashion editor. “It’s a kind of aesthetic that’s very Italian. It’s different from French and different from American.”
“There’s a kind of poetry that comes from fashion that doesn’t have anything to do with anything but has something to do with everything,” Talley says in his enigmatic way. There’s a universality in the roots of the Valentino brand that’s disconnected from any specific social movement or political doctrine. As a brand, Valentino has no specific baggage — aside from its cost. It has always simply aspired to make women look beautiful. And Piccioli “is deeply rooted in the Valentino aesthetic,” Talley says.
Piccioli is, of course, Italian. But specifically, Piccioli describes himself as Roman. “Roma is a city of contradictions,” Piccioli says. “You can see the Catholic side of Roma. There’s angels and madonnas in the street, in the corners, in all the suburbs.”
“It’s also a city of freedom and tolerance. It’s what makes Roma so unique and special,” he says. “I think that all these layers are knit together in a kind of balance, which is what I like.”
“It’s part of my creative process, for sure.”
But Piccioli’s point of view differs in one significant way from that of Valentino Garavani, who often attends Piccioli’s shows as an enthusiastic admirer. Instead of catering to women who share a lifestyle of going here and living there, Piccioli aims to cater to women who share a mind-set.
“ ‘Lifestyle’ is definitely an old word for me,” Piccioli says about a marketing term that brands rely on to sell everything from evening gowns to household paint. “I like for today the idea of community. I wanted to [change] the idea of Valentino as an exclusive brand to be an inclusive brand — but keeping the values of the house, which is in couture and romance.”
“Beauty in the past was linked to the surface. It was an idea of physical attributes — everyone with the same physical attributes,” he says. “Today, beauty is about the idea of grace.”
Piccioli isn’t trying to dress a single, idealized woman from morning to night — and then decorate her house as well. He wants to dress an entire roster of women for singular events, whether those events are their own wedding, a charity gala or a long-anticipated vacation. He has accomplished that most vividly with the clothes that have appeared on the red carpet, all of them worn by a diverse range of artists and all of them highlighting the multitude of ways in which beauty can be defined. These women are all actors, but they’re not all in the same social set or skiing in Gstaad.
Lady Gaga wore his periwinkle blue strapless gown to the Golden Globes when she was on the award show merry-go-round for her role in the remake of “A Star Is Born.” The dress was reminiscent of one worn by Judy Garland, who starred in the 1954 version of the film.
Actress Gemma Chan, one of the stars of “Crazy Rich Asians,” wore a high-necked, sleeveless, voluminous fuchsia gown with pockets to the Oscars in 2019. The dress was a showstopper, in part because of its intense color that created a kinetic energy as it clashed gloriously with the red carpet, but also because it defied all the cliches of how a woman is expected to look at such events.
“It was not this tight dress. It was not the right color,” Piccioli says. “If you just see the picture of a woman on the red carpet, everything is stiff. I felt that Gemma could be beautiful because of the movement on the dress.”
And when he dressed Frances McDormand for the same occasion, he paired her red haute couture gown with custom acid-yellow suede Birkenstocks. “Why not? A woman can walk and not wear heels if she doesn’t love heels,” Piccioli says with a shrug. “Of course, why not?”
But it’s not as simple as that. There’s long been an expectation that women would teeter down the red carpet on stilettos. In fact, at the Cannes Film Festival, there was an uproar and minor revolt in 2015 when women were turned away for not adhering to that tradition. A woman does not need multiple layers of Spanx to wear Piccioli’s clothes. The garments meet her where she is — happily and authentically herself. But even as they honor women with this kindness and respect, they remain extravagant.
“He is always respectful of a woman’s body and never makes her a slave to some random idea of a trend in fashion. I have tried on outfits straight from his runway, always too small for me but never in an embarrassing way and it is often a thrill to find that they suit me even if I can’t close the zippers,” McDormand wrote me in an email. The Birkenstocks “allowed me to realize my dream of taking full command of my sartorial self at an event that has often been fraught with expectation. Done and done. I need never go again.”
The two also collaborated on an ensemble for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2018 Costume Institute gala, which celebrated “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” She wore a chartreuse gown with a billowing teal cloak and a magnificent headdress of teal feathers.
“The flamboyant feathered hat that I wore to the Met Gala will forever be a highlight of my life,” McDormand says, “and if I could be buried in it, I would be.”
Piccioli, 53, has a mop of gray-streaked, chestnut-colored hair that often looks slightly windblown. He has sleepy eyes and a small mustache paired with a light dusting of stubble. His face, long and narrow, is lined with both laughter and pensiveness. His physique is nimble, his posture relaxed.
Piccioli speaks in a pleasant alto, slowly and quietly in heavily accented English. He doesn’t fill the silences between his thoughts. It sometimes seems that he’s finished considering a topic, but no. “Sorry, I have more,” he says with a laugh, and continues on. Cigarettes are close by. Piccioli’s hands are at rest until he reaches to light one. And then another. And another.
He’s not a child of privilege. He grew up in the seaside town of Nettuno outside of Rome, and his parents ran a tobacco shop. But he was infatuated with the world of aesthetics portrayed in film, books and photographs.
For Italy, fashion is not merely art or commerce. It reflects the notions of the bella figura and sprezzatura, which are as much about how one lives and interacts with others as how one looks. The terms encompass decorum and style, community and beauty and a vigorous life. They are the elements that drew Piccioli to the craft.
He studied design in Rome. He interned. As an ambitious young man, he wanted to work for Yves Saint Laurent ... or Valentino. But first, he settled into the accessories department at Fendi, where, along with Maria Grazia Chiuri, Piccioli helped Silvia Venturini Fendi conceive the baguette, the iconic handbag of the 1990s that almost single-handedly invented the concept of the “it” bag and that entered the popular lexicon as a cultural touchstone on “Sex and the City.”
The two designers spent a decade at Fendi — a lifetime by today’s standards that have designers departing brands after a year or two. They came to Valentino as a team: the creative directors of accessories. “When I arrived at Valentino, it was the first time I was close to couture pieces,” Piccioli says.
They quickly hit the financial bull’s eye with the Rockstud collection of sandals and slingbacks embellished with metal studs that resemble the pyramid-shaped hardware that adorns some of the grandest doors in Rome. “Those shoes were interesting because they were not part of the Valentino story. It was interesting to disrupt the idea of Valentino as a house that delivered shoes only for certain kind of women,” Piccioli says. The shoes are “ladylike in terms of shapes and heel and everything. But there is this stud that was coming from a foreign culture. I love punk because this was the first movement that was underlining individuality as a strength. And so putting gold studs on very ladylike shoes ... it was not punk anymore. It was not ladylike anymore. It was something that people couldn’t describe just in one word.”
“You can create new harmonies using dissonant elements,” he says. “Even from something that people already know, you allow them to see it in a different way or from a different perspective.”
The shoes have been popular with everyone from Capitol Hill bureaucrats to social media influencers. “It will go down as one of the longest-lasting style trends,” says Robert Burke, a luxury retail and fashion consultant. “This has had one of the longest shelf lives of anything I can remember in recent history outside of a logo.”
Over the years, Piccioli was steeped in Valentino lore. When the design team assembled for fittings with models, Piccioli would spend hours peppering the founder with questions and listening to his stories about life in the reckless 1960s and ’70s, and, of course, the jet set. “Mr. Valentino himself was like the book you want to read. We had a long, long, long time together. He used to love to do fittings with the proper hair and makeup of the show, exactly the same as the show. So girls used to come to do the fittings and to do real hair and makeup, so we had hours waiting for the girls,” Piccioli says. “It was a fantastic time for you to chat with him about, you know, Studio 54, Bianca Jagger arriving at Studio 54 riding a horse.”
About a year after Garavani retired, the design partners were elevated to co-creative directors. In 2016, Chiuri was appointed creative director at Dior — the first woman to be named to that post. And Piccioli became the sole creative director of Valentino.
Four days after his Paris show, Piccioli is in his Rome office at the company’s headquarters, which sit just beyond the iconic Spanish Steps. “It’s a strange atmosphere, I have to say. It’s a little empty,” Piccioli says of the typically bustling, tourist-packed streets now quiet because of the pandemic. “People are scared.”
In Paris, the multistoried showroom is situated on Place Vendôme, where it keeps company with the ateliers of the great jewelry houses as well as the Ritz hotel and its Hemingway bar. The geography in both cities reflects the brand’s renowned place in fashion’s history and its current position in the luxury ecosystem where its 2019 revenue reached 1.22 billion euros, an increase of 2.4 percent from the previous year.
The Rome office, with its paintings and furnishings, has not changed much since the founder retired. But the mood has. When Piccioli met Garavani for the first time, “it was summer outside and I was dressed in, you know, short sleeves and a pair of flip-flops. And everything was air-conditioned in order to allow people to wear suits and ties. So I was freezing,” he says. Today, under his reign, T-shirts are the rule year-round, with sneakers in the winter and Birkenstocks in the summer.
Piccioli’s additions include shelves dotted with a photograph of himself with Franca Sozzani, the longtime editor of Italian Vogue who was a good friend, a champion of diversity and a source of inspiration. She died in 2016. Alongside it sits a picture from his first solo show for the house. It isn’t an image of a model in a dress. It’s a picture of the hôtel particulier where the show took place. It’s the view that guests saw upon arrival. It’s a photograph of anticipation.
“I’m not interested in just delivering clothes. It’s to be a witness of my times,” Piccioli says. “I don’t feel that fashion is political, but it can be a voice for a designer. Every collection starts as a reflection of the moment I live in.”
And in this moment, fantasies are not subject to geographic borders. Nor are they limited by race or religion or ethnicity.
Valentino clothes are devastatingly expensive. Owned by the Qatar-based Mayhoola for Investments, which also controls Balmain, Valentino sells silk day dresses for well over $4,000. An off-the-shoulder romper, something that a woman might envision wearing to a seaside lunch while on vacation, is nearly $3,000.
Most brands at the pinnacle of the luxury pyramid have made a mission of chasing younger and more-diverse consumers by dabbling in streetwear or athleisure or by partnering with the most au courant hipster that social media can uncover. Piccioli has insisted that Valentino remain relevant, such as with collaborations with Birkenstock and Levi’s. But he has never abandoned the essential core of the brand — not even in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
“At the top end of luxury, what sets [Valentino] apart from other brands with history is that it hasn’t chased after a new position in the market. It’s always been about beauty. It’s always been about sophistication. It’s always been about workmanship. It’s always been about color,” Burke told me. “They haven’t been seduced by that rock-and-roll trend. And I think that’s a positive. I think people always respond to beautiful designs.”
Valentino reimagines fashion’s most romantic period, following World War II, back when the industry was defined by the likes of Diana Vreeland and Cecil Beaton. The pictures from that era, which filled the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, enchanted everyone, not just the white swans who populated them.
There’s an iconic Beaton photograph from Vogue in 1948 that features a group of ivory-complexioned women attired in voluptuous Charles James evening gowns. They are perched on the edges of regal armchairs or standing with their back arched just so. Their bare shoulders are like deftly carved marble; their facial features are finely etched. The clothes evoke a rose-colored nostalgia for an era of gracious living, society balls and cocktail hours. The photograph captures the magic of haute couture in homogenous, attenuated glory.
Piccioli loved that picture. It was how Piccioli understood couture — that world of handmade, customized clothes. It was what had long defined it in his imagination, because in his imagination was the only place he could experience it. That photograph inspired his spring 2019 couture collection. It moved him to modernize couture, not by changing the nature of the clothes, but by reconsidering who might wear them.
“When I saw the Cecil Beaton picture, I was thinking, ‘What if rather than those swans, those kind of White, WASP women, there were Black women?’ ” he recalls.
“Couture is synonymous [with] individuality. It means uniqueness. But at the time it was impossible for couture to be what it was born to be for Black women. Black women used to go to a different toilet from White women. And magazines like Jet and Ebony had to buy clothes rather than borrowing the clothes to show on Black beauties,” Piccioli says.
“And I always, always felt a little strange to see the Black beauties as the exotic touch of the collection. Even in the ’70s and the ’80s, [designers] started to use Black models like Donyale Luna,” he continues. “They were always the exotic touch in all those shows. And so I wanted to reverse the idea. And not do any kind of couture like your ethnic couture or something, but a very, very classic couture collection.”
The collection was a world apart from one that he and Chiuri had designed for spring 2016. Those clothes were inspired by Africa. And while the frocks themselves were beautiful, the show cast few Black models and conflated the unique identities of multiple African countries into one blurry version of cultural tourism. The presentation hit another sour note with a printed program that primed the audience with the promise of a trip through “wild Africa.” African identity was simultaneously exoticized, diluted and appropriated.
Piccioli’s haute couture show was wholly different. The clothes bore all the hallmarks of classic couture: flowers, rich colors, ruffles, bows. “But worn by Black beauties in order to give a different dignity to a different kind of beauty,” he says.
Piccioli had taken a lesson from Sozzani’s July 2008 “Black issue” of Italian Vogue. Every editorial photograph featured Black models as a way of both celebrating diversity and underscoring the industry’s lack of it. The issue sold out in the United States and in the United Kingdom.
“Sometimes fashion has a very short memory. And what she did 10 years before was already forgotten. And so I decided to do this collection,” Piccioli says. “Of course, we had awareness of doing something that could be important, for doing this couture, this very classic couture but conceived in a totally different way because of a different kind of beauty.”
Piccioli spent months casting almost exclusively Black models for the show. Casting a show typically takes only a few days, but he wanted to find a particular kind of Black model, one who exemplified the couture body and attitude — so he was looking for a needle within a haystack within a field of golden haystacks. Perhaps it was discrimination of another sort — against a more voluptuous body type or a more diminutive stature or a more familiar attitude. But Piccioli wanted to maintain the fantasy as he remembered it — as lithe, magical and elusive.
“It was important to do a certain kind of casting, not just with Black women, but Black women with a certain kind of aesthetic,” he says. “I didn’t want to explain. I didn’t want to talk about that. I just wanted to deliver the image itself. If the [audience] would see that as normal, for me it was done. For me, the job was done.”
The audience for his spring 2019 couture collection reacted with overwhelming approval of his modern vision of couture. Piccioli’s “argument played out in a tour de force of grace, beauty and wonderment,” Bridget Foley wrote in Women’s Wear Daily. In three years, Piccioli had moved from parachuting into Africa and mining it for inspiration to simply welcoming Black women into a world that he has always loved.
Over the summer, the fashion industry — like so many others — was forced to consider the ways in which it had allowed White privilege to be its default position. It was forced to face a near existential crisis about its relevance in a world turned upside down by death and economic stress. Would anyone even want to look at fashion?
“I know we are pursuing life as usual and that this conversation continues because what else are we to do?” McDormand says. “However, I struggle with what significance it will have for an unknown future.”
“Today, the clothes I put on to go to the post office, the farmstand, when friends gather for a long walk a safe six feet apart are usually practical and often monochromatic,” McDormand says. “Not unlike a first-grader choosing their clothes for the first day of school: blue hat, blue denim, blue socks, blue jacket — with the odd lime green sweatshirt to add some spice.”
Will we want anything more than that?
Piccioli spent the period of lockdown with his family in Nettuno. He is married to his high school sweetheart, to whom he refrains from giving fashion advice. They have two daughters and a son who, he says, are mildly interested in his professional life. And they have an adopted stray dog named Miranda — after Miranda Priestly of “The Devil Wears Prada.”
When he was finally able to return to work, it was with all of the precautions that have become part of daily life: masks, social distancing, hand-washing as a kind of talismanic ritual.
His couture show over the summer was a mostly digital experience with a small audience at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. His models were floating and flying in angelic white as if they were levitating above the terrestrial chaos.
His spring 2021 ready-to-wear show, the one usually in Paris, was instead in Milan so that his team wouldn’t have to risk a long trip out of the country. It was a blast of color — pumpkin, fuchsia, daffodil — in front of a local audience gifted with live music performed by the British artist Labrinth. His soothing, otherworldly soundtrack was a balm.
“The emotion we had seeing the first girl on the runway — all my team was kind of crying because it was so tough, so tough,” Piccioli says. “And we did it together.”
The models he chose were not his usual perfect specimens. He had done a bit of street casting, that is, using folks who were not sample sizes. It was a diverse cast. But this time, it wasn’t a statement. Almost two years after his reimagined Cecil Beaton photograph, he has moved beyond that.
“It was necessary at the time to declare an intention; it was sort of a manifesto,” Piccioli says. But inclusivity is not simply a runway trick. It can’t be. “Your world has to be inclusive so you don’t have to [check] the boxes when you do the show. Inclusivity is part of life.”
“My job is about delivering my vision of beauty relative to the time we live in. If you’re not inclusive in this moment, you’re not talking about the time we’re living in,” he says. “So you’re doing half of your job.”
Like so many companies addressing the issue, Valentino is assessing its own historical weaknesses and trying to mend decades-old fault lines. New hires and initiatives have been delayed because of the pandemic, but the company is focusing its attention on two key areas: early education within communities where it has a footprint, and professional development, namely the way in which it identifies and nurtures talent.
For much of its history, Valentino was a brand that excelled at capturing the essence of what it means to live a sweet life — a privileged life. Today, privilege comes with responsibility. La dolce vita is a global conceit. And statements come cheap.
“It is not about clothes,” Piccioli says. “It’s about the values that can be delivered through couture.”
Robin Givhan is a senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts for The Washington Post.