The fashion industry loves its pecking order and fashion people love showing how important they are. Where you sit at a show matters, but to signal you're really, really important you also have to make a very grand and well-choreographed exit, hurrying from a venue like a rocket as soon as the last model walks out and the designers take their bows. So many shows, so little time! Who has the time to linger on the front row?
There's one show, however, that every season invariably melts the frozen hearts of jaded editors. Valentino haute couture is where even the founder of the house, Valentino Garavani, stands up to applaud his creative heirs, shedding tears and congratulating them along with a very emotional crowd.
It wasn't always meant to be this way. When Garavani retired in 2008, the transition was far from smooth, with a few seasons when the brand seemed to be in limbo, still reeling from the departure of its founder, who had always been its face and soul. This situation took a different turn when Garavani's former assistants, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, quietly took over, instigating a mini revolution and turning Valentino into one of the most watched and copied labels around.
The two have been working together for most of their lives, honing their skills at another Roman house, Fendi, before moving to Valentino. Plucked out of obscurity, they came from the accessories department and were faced with the challenge of helming one of the few houses that still produces couture.
What they've managed to accomplish in their seven-year tenure, however, has been remarkable. They have modernised a brand that didn't have to be revived from oblivion but definitely needed a shot of energy; safeguarded the tradition of haute couture so beloved by their master; and, most important, built thriving accessory and menswear businesses, which led some industry insiders to say that this was a rare case of the pupils outshining the master.
The duo celebrated their achievements with their autumn/winter 2015 haute couture show, Mirabilia Romae, held in Rome instead of Paris at the end of couture week last July, delighting press and clients with a moving spectacle that, once again, brought the crowd to their feet for a standing ovation.
The collection skewed to the romantic and ethereal vision that the designers have turned into a Valentino signature, a covered-up and almost monastic look that has been embraced by old and young alike, and that debuted at a time when the general mood, especially in Italy, was about showing off lots of skin and screaming sex in capital letters. When asked about this change of aesthetic that they triggered, during a conversation in their office in the heart of Rome, the designers admit that it was perhaps a reaction to the times.
“It wasn't something calculated,” explains Chiuri, still exhausted from the previous night's show but looking immaculate in a white dress and with the heavily khol-rimmed eyes that have become her trademark. “It was rather an interpretation of our times and a reaction to it.
“When we started, there was an obsession with showing too much of yourself and too much homogeneity ... We wanted to create another language and show that even without showing too much you can have a strong sensuality.
“We were talking about values such as grace, a beauty that derives from grace, which comes from an attitude rather than a stereotype. It was a time when plastic surgery was dominating and making everything the same – you couldn't even tell who was the mother or the daughter. Now this race to be one and the same is less prominent and there's a newfound emphasis on individuality.”
Piccioli, whose striking features and lined face recall the looks of an Italian debonair from the dolce vita era, adds, “The idea of femininity is not that representation any more but more like a portrait, like a master painting for us. Master painters used to make portraits of women with such dignity and respect, which is also linked to our times, because there was a time when femininity was all about sexiness, so we wanted to talk about a beauty that went beyond image and was less about surface and more about inner beauty. This gave us a strong connection with current times, because we came at a moment when people were looking to find a way to talk about femininity in a new way, freer and more nuanced and less stereotyped.”
It is true that if you want to look like a princess or a heroine out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, Valentino is the label for you. Admiring all the Valentino-clad guests who attended the Rome show revealed how the two designers aim for nothing more than celebrating beauty in all its forms, with no conceptual tropes attached to their vision. Their lack of cynicism and embrace of unfettered grace may come across as naïve and corny, but is in fact well thought-out and planned, something that became clear when the first models walked down the runway in Rome. They were wearing black, a hue that's not often associated with the high-octane glamour of couture, let alone the nymph-like elegance of Chiuri and Piccioli's oeuvre, but it quickly became clear that only in the hands of these two can black feel and look as light and demure as gossamer white lace.
Their devotion to couture and their decision to stick to it while many other houses have discontinued the service to focus on more profitable ready-to-wear is something the designers can't emphasise enough when they talk about the DNA of the Valentino they inherited and the one they built.
It's a well-known fact that many fashion houses use couture only as a facade, a marketing gimmick that generates publicity and helps sell the more accessible ready-to-wear lines, not to mention fragrances and beauty products. This doesn't seem to be the case at Valentino, where a pre-interview visit to the couture atelier revealed seamstresses hard at work on evening gowns and wedding dresses for Middle Eastern sheikhas and European jet-setters.
“Valentino was born as a couture house, so we actually serve real clients, as you could see in our atelier, where dresses are being made for them. It's a real and effective sartorial service, like Savile Row in London,” says Chiuri.
“Our average client has changed from about 60 to 35 years old,” adds Piccioli, “which is incredible because actually for young people it's not now what's new but what they don't know and perceive as new, so for them not knowing couture means discovering something new and special, something that's done just for them, modelled on their body, based on their measures. It's a different experience and actually couture today is cool. It's an adjective you wouldn't use for couture but it's true.”
Although couture is undeniably a viable and even remunerative business, the bread and butter of the brand – indeed, what propelled its turnaround in the last five years – is the incredible success of its accessory ranges, from Rockstuds to Camubutterfly, which season after season become cult favourites and have now reached the status of modern classics. It obviously helps that they came from the accessory ateliers before taking the mantle of creative directors, but Chiuri believes that there's little difference when approaching the design of a pair of heels or a couture gown.
“I think that creativity is not linked to a category,” she explains. “You're either creative or not. If you're creative, you can do accessories, haute couture ... It's like saying that an artist who makes oil paintings can't make sculptures or collage or ceramics. You're either creative or not. It's the same whether we design a couture dress or a bag.”
Creating hits season after season, however, is no small feat and is something that the two seem to pull off with aplomb no matter what they try their hands at, whether it's the studs or the camouflage patterns that have now become signatures.
“Symbols are very important for us, but we love changing their meaning,” explains Piccioli. “If you think of studs, you think of punk or maybe of the corners of luggage, so putting them in another context and applying them to a shoe that's very elegant de-contextualises the symbol and changes its meaning, though the symbol itself remains the same. This is something that in accessories is very immediate, something you see right away.
“Take camouflage, the symbol of something so strong, but then we link it to couture; it's like bringing the street to the high. In this tension between high culture and street culture, high and low you find contemporaneity. These contradictions between high and low, street and couture create image and consistency.”
From couture gowns to leather goods, Italian savoir-faire is ultimately at the heart of everything Chiuri and Piccioli do, which is why they recently opened a couture school in Rome. “There has been a lost generation of people with parents who, because they didn't have an education themselves, wanted the best for their kids and had the dream that their kids would study and wouldn't do something manual because they saw it as demeaning,” explains Chiuri.
“Recent generations obsessed with new values of success and stable jobs left this artistic vein because they thought it would be risky. But more recently the crisis has shaken up the situation because as people lost their security, they felt freer to make different choices, so you have to look at the crisis not as something negative, but in this case as an opportunity. I have no doubt that between working in a call centre or sewing a dress, I would definitely choose the latter.”
“It's the atmosphere that's beautiful,” adds Piccioli when describing the ateliers. “It's like a passing of the baton. Seeing these young people who are enthusiastic about learning makes the older generations happier with what they've accomplished, so we established this couture school, which is a way to give the young the opportunity to discover this work and gives it dignity, because it used to be a second choice as a career but now it's a choice that even educated people make after university. It's making them understand that learning a metier has dignity, and establishing something official like a school makes the point even better.”
In spite of all these accomplishments, Chiuri and Piccioli are probably the most successful fashion designers whose names you're likely never to have heard, let alone be able to pronounce if Italian is not your mother tongue. The two, however, like it that way. Based in Rome, far from Paris or Milan, they're both married with children and prefer to be out of the spotlight.
“Everyone is free to be as they are. Our choice has never been to dedicate our lifestyles to the brand because Mr Valentino himself had already identified his life with the brand, but we want to identify the brand with values such as couture and art, and not our lifestyle,” says Chiuri.
“We also believe that the designers that we really hold in high esteem have a very personal and intimate vision. We're not the only ones to be like that. There are many like us. Phoebe Philo is almost invisible and so is Nicolas Ghesquière or Miuccia Prada. Others find pleasure in showing their life to everyone. It's a choice. I believe in being private. You're actually much freer if you're anonymous, you can do whatever you want. Just the idea of leading that lifestyle makes me exhausted.”
These two behind-the-scenes players know what their priorities are and have found the magic formula that creative directors inheriting heritage houses are still trying to figure out: focus on making beautiful pieces; leave the rest outside; and if the effort is truly genuine and honest, the public will recognise – and most important, buy into – what is ultimately a genuine celebration of beauty.