The world is changing — and not necessarily for the best, believes Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli. His response to today’s ugliness, the dangerous loss of human rights, the surge of reactionary movements, is beauty and creativity.
“Beauty is resilience, not escapism, and creativity is the only means to contrast dictatorial decisions,” Piccioli said.
That may very well be, but the beauty of the wondrous couture designs he showed on Friday evening was simply dreamy and left many teary-eyed — literally, including Giancarlo Giammetti and Naomi Campbell, who sat at the bottom of the Spanish Steps with Anne Hathaway, Ariana DeBose, Ashley Park, Kate Hudson, Florence Pugh and Andrew Garfield.
As the sun set behind the Roman landmark, 102 models walked down the steps — Piccioli’s light gowns fluttering in the evening breeze — singer Labrinth performing live at the top of the monument, and people gathering all around from Piazza Mignanelli, home to Valentino’s headquarters, to Via Condotti and as far as the eye could see, cheering and clapping. It made for quite the spectacle even for the most jaded fashion insider.
Piccioli, however, insisted before the show that this stage was a way to speak up about issues that are dear to him. The Spanish Steps are not only known internationally, but in the ‘80s and ‘90s was the set for a televised multibrand fashion show called “Woman Under the Stars.” Piccioli recalled watching the event from the sidelines several times as a young student — hence his decision to invite 120 fashion and art students to the couture show.
“Nothing has changed but everything has changed,” said Piccioli. “People are what makes the difference, the Valentino palazzo is the same, the Spanish Steps are the same, but the brand has changed: It’s no longer about embracing a lifestyle but it’s rather about a community sharing the same values.”
So much so that he decided to make a statement that is entirely in line with his more inclusive views of fashion, casting 40 Black models, as well as models of different ethnicity, age and body size, and men to walk the show.
“There is an opportunity to offer such an important stage with such a massive diverse representation on an iconic monument, which makes the inclusivity official,” he claimed. “The location gives dignity and centrality to what is peripheral and becomes institutional. Beauty stems from harmony. It is not an aesthetic dictatorship, and does not obey predetermined and fixed rules.”
This modern take on couture has been easily embraced by Valentino’s seamstresses, who took a bow with Piccioli, as is customary for the designer. He recounted how Antonietta, aged 82, responded when told that a boy with long pink hair — fond of skating and rap — would be wearing a lime chiffon and organza ruffled dress for the show: “Let’s just make sure to measure his waist so that the dress falls over his hips the right way,” she merely said, showing no surprise or misgivings.
The collection was called “The Beginning,” which Piccioli said may sound counterintuitive after his 23 years at the brand, “but in couture it’s always a new beginning.”
He admitted this was “a very personal collection,” and that he engaged in an imaginary conversation with Valentino Garavani, not necessarily paying homage to the couturier, who turned 90 this year (incidentally he did not attend the show). There was also no trace of nostalgia. “I was considering how much of me is in Valentino and how much of Valentino is in me,” said Piccioli.
While he does not believe in simply and directly referencing Garavani’s work, examples included his take on the first Valentino red dress, the Fiesta, which debuted in 1959. Piccioli created a stunning lightly padded taffeta jacket drowned in red roses.
The roses also appeared as oversized intarsia on a floor-length black cape, offering a less romantic and more assertive version of the flower. Three-dimensional roses were applied on a fire-red cashmere purlin skirt and bra combo.
Lightness and volume were key attributes of the lineup, which made for an ideal combination on the Spanish Steps, swaying in the mild ponentino wind and as the models carefully descended the monument. A skirt made of azure feathers under a mustard-colored cropped top seemed weightless, as did a coat made with strips of cashmere and nylon.
Feathers were a recurring embellishment, embroidered on a red peacoat, for example, or on a neon green chiffon and organza pleated dress.
An absolute stunner was a black-and-white organza ruffled cape encrusted with tulle flock, Chantilly lace and gazar — reminiscent of antique Roman mosaics — worn over a black tulle minidress with white chiffon ruffles.
A soft, sequined black tuxedo suit, worn with one of the spectacular Philip Treacy hats — again with feathers — created for Valentino, further blurred the lines between designs meant for men or women, a distinction Piccioli never makes.
The craftsmanship was exquisite, embroidered sequins sparkling here, rhinestones shimmering on a black guipure tank top there. The perfectly tailored capes, printed and flocked silk and wool cady pants or a black silk and organza dress encrusted with Chantilly lace telegraphed the expertise of the Valentino atelier.
While Piccioli has left a mark with his recent flurry of monochromatic bright pink designs — worn head-to-toe by most of the celebrities in attendance — the designer shifted his gaze to a rainbow of hues, often in contrast — in addition to the classic Valentino red, and occasional pops of orange, purple and emerald green.
In the end, the models posing for the finale made for Piccioli’s perfect postcard from Rome.