Portrait of Valentino's artistic directors, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli
Under the aegis of its dynamic design duo, the Roman house is having a brilliant revival.
In 2008 when the founder of the house stepped down, vital questions hung in the air: how to move this Italian institution firmly into the 21st century? And how to write its future? And so the master chose his successors: Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli who’d been designing the accessories since 1999. In nine years the duo had succeeded in creating a distinct set of codes. Veritable objects of desire, they punctured their accessories with golden square-shape studs which would quickly became a signature detail. Since agreeing in 2008 to take over from the maestro, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli have attracted a new younger clientele without ever tarnishing the reputation of the Roman fashion house. Their latest challenge has been how to weave a powerful link between the different sectors of the house, the accessories the haute couture and the ready-to-wear. How to use the wealth of a past legacy to nourish the future…
On July 8th this year, the creative duo gave the perfect answer to all these difficult questions by moving the haute couture show from Paris to Rome to celebrate the opening of its largest retail outlet in the world, on the legendary Piazza di Spagna which already housed its headquarters and incredible ateliers. Crushed behind barriers onlookers came en masse to witness the spectacle. Under the watchful gaze of Valentino Garavani accompanied by Gwyneth Paltrow, the first model stepped onto the runway as the setting sun kissed the Piazza di Spagna. More than a simple fashion show, the event provoked a palpable emotion that rippled through the audience… And it’s this very emotion that sits at the heart of Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli’s intention to restore the aura of haute couture by highlighting its aspiration to rival works of art and embody the timeless essence of beauty. “Emotion is the very substance of fashion,” nods Maria Grazia Chiuri in the offices where the duo receives us the next day. “And haute couture is a value, a culture,” continues Pierpaolo Piccioli. “These last few years have seen its role restricted to only image and communications, and it’s high time to restore it to its proper place.”
As infinitely cultivated art lovers, the two creative directors start each collection with a journey of inspiration through the marvels of the Eternal City. Last July, a temporary exhibition accompanied the show affirming the vital link that unites the Valentino haute collections with Roman history. Using the model of the 12th century tourist guide, Mirabilia Romae saw the opening to the public of historic locations such as the Biblioteca Casanatense, a sublime 18th century building whose reading room served as a cabinet of curiosities for some of the Fall-Winter 2013-14 Valentino pieces. The Gabinetto di Ferdinando, the Medici Villa, received dresses from various collections whose plant motifs echoed a fresco adorning the ceiling. The Mirabilia Romae exhibition also threw a welcome light on Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli’s creative process, and in particular their way of envisaging the relationship between exquisite detailing (embroidery, weaving, appliques, tailoring and the other prodigious activities carried out by their in-house experts) and the general line of the garments, i.e. between the micro and the macro. This question of scale is an integral part of their work: for while every detail is a work unto itself, a relief or tableau fresco, it’s assimilated into an architectural entity, a science of proportion and volume that borrows its rigour from the harmonious research typical of classicism.
“First of all we think of a story, then the colours, the materials, the silhouette, the music,” Maria Grazia Chiuri explains, “We work like movie directors, the challenge is to make a film. We work with the best cinematographer, but that doesn’t mean we’re aiming for every scene to look like a photograph. Even if it has its own beauty, every individual shot must, on the contrary, be a harmonious part of a whole.” At the Piazza di Spagna on July 8th, a long ecclesiastic-inspired cape-dress with a heavy drop graced the catwalk, as did asymmetric furs and splendid transparent dresses with draping inspired by neo-antiquity (the pre-Raphaelite and symbolist painters as well as dresses from the ancient period clearly provide regular sources of inspiration for Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli). The eagle that adorned a long black dress, symbol of Imperial Rome, also sits above the seamstresses in the ateliers (it was discovered during the building renovation).
A natural extension of Roman history, the designers weave their own network of symbols. Prolonging the legacy of the House of Valentino, its creative directors are introducing new codes into this network, such as their famous studs. “We love symbols, and symbols can change meaning,” says Pierpaolo Piccioli, “In Rome pagan symbols were assimilated into Christianity and this is the way we work. When you add studs to an elegant shoe, you’re taking it beyond a rock or alternative culture; you give it a new dimension. This is how we work, by giving new life, new meaning to existing elements.” The intimate knowledge of culture and art history that nourishes the world of Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri doesn’t however turn their runway shows into arduous academia. By sublimating their knowledge into a graceful and natural research they magnify women, giving them a new card to play in an era where sexy and gaudy are the easiest ways to seduce. Theirs is a more complex, elaborate seduction. It’s the seductiveness of a constructed, intelligent and self-affirmed woman who’s mastered her sartorial choices and has no need for reassurance or to endorse a brand or disguise. And that surely is the best possible guarantee for durability and timelessness.
By Delphine Roche