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Prêt-à-porter would not do.

In the middle of a week filled with endless pre-fall appointments and small talk about nice, commercial clothes, Valentino’s creative directors, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, flew in from Rome to stage their first-ever runway show in New York, and it had to be couture.

This story first appeared in the December 12, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We wanted to present our core to New York, and Valentino is a couture house at its core,” said Chiuri backstage before the show. On Wednesday night, Manhattan was home to Paris’ sacred tradition of haute couture as Valentino took over the former Whitney Museum of American Art to flaunt the glories of its ateliers — and a special Fornasetti exhibition — in front of a 500-person audience. The turnout was more consistent with a grand social engagement than a fashion show. Wealthy clients were seated with celebrities, such as Ben Stiller, Katie Holmes, Seth Meyers, Emma Roberts and Olivia Munn. Then there was the local design elite, including Calvin Klein, Peter Copping, Prabal Gurung and Derek Lam, with his husband, Jan Hendrik-Schlottmann. Franca Sozzani was there, and Anna Wintour, who squired around Munn. Plus, Peter Dundas, Ginevra Elkann and Tommy and Dee Hilfiger.

Chiuri was dressed in an elegant white ensemble, just like every model in the spectacular 47-look show.

Titled “Sala Bianca 945,” the collection was a special couture enterprise created expressly for this New York City shebang to celebrate Valentino’s behemoth Fifth Avenue flagship, opened in August. Chiuri and Piccioli decided the occasion called for an homage to Valentino Garavani’s legendary 1968 White Collection, the one from which Jackie Kennedy chose the dress she wore to wed Aristotle Onassis. Originally shown in Florence’s famed Sala Bianca halls at Palazzo Pitti, Valentino’s white concept was revised for his spring 2007 couture show the year before he retired. For Wednesday’s festivities, a modernist version of the Sala Bianca salon was re-created in the now-vacant Whitney, where Jackie, a New York woman and true-blue Valentino client, did the ribbon-cutting when the museum opened in 1966. Thus, the synchronicities between White Valentino couture and New York were many. It was meant to be, even if white was an ambitious and intimidating undertaking on several levels.

“It’s really a big chance for us because it’s so famous, the White Collection, that to do something at the same level is not so easy,” said Chiuri backstage, as she and Piccioli walked Giancarlo Giammetti and Valentino through the racks of white couture.

“White — if you do something wrong, if it’s not perfectly made, it’s a disaster,” said Valentino, before delivering his verdict: “Exceptional.”

It was impossible to not be impressed by the workmanship, flawless on grand cashmere capes molded in spare, neo-retro silhouettes that recurred through the show on daywear, such as a suit in tonal checkers of crocodile, leather and ponyskin. Sleek accessories, including white leather booties with thick, rounded gold heels inspired by Brancusi sculptures, underscored the Sixties mood. Show notes called out the Valentino swans of yore. Look 26 was “C.Z.,” a checkered, felted cashmere suit; 27 was “Peggy G,” a Chantilly lace dress with a patchwork skirt; 39 was “Jackie O,” a pleated muslin dress with gardenia-colored guipure lace and a Carrera marble-colored ribbed cashmere cape. While the retro references were more pronounced than what Chiuri and Piccioli typically deliver, the show remained a captivating allusion to the past rather than a period piece.

Delicate tulle blouses and dresses concocted of muslin, Chantilly lace and guipure were rendered in shades of ivory, parchment, plaster — plus a little champagne and heather gray. The regal austerity for which Chiuri and Piccioli have become known was lightened to a virtually angelic state by all the sheer, airy whites. Among the finer details, sculpted plissés, undulating ruffles and an incredible micro embroidery in leather flowers on an organza dress. The finale gowns processed like a series of ivory tulle clouds, before the show closed with a structured, double-cashmere column embroidered with “Love NY” in Pop Art script.

Valentino’s new white haute couture was outstanding on its own and even more so considering that this collection is in addition to the upcoming spring couture that Chiuri and Piccioli will show Jan. 28 in Paris, one week after they show their men’s collection on Jan. 21, which comes on the heels of their women’s pre-fall to be presented in private appointments in Milan in early January. That is an immense workload, a testament to the designers’ focus and creative aptitude, and the investment Valentino SpA considers the American market is worth.

A well-produced ready-to-wear runway show can cost upwards of $1 million, so imagine the cost and labor of producing a couture collection, for which the samples probably cost in the five-figure range, and staging it in a landmark venue. The couture client base is small — 25 of Valentino’s top clients and their significant others were flown in for the event — but presumably the marketing reach of such an event, which was ostensibly to promote the Fifth Avenue store, is vast. The show was live-streamed on Valentino’s Web site, receiving 280,000 viewers; Instagram influencers were posing and posting.

New York seemed to love Valentino, too. A capsule collection of all-white accessories and rtw emblazoned with red hearts inspired by the I (Heart) New York logo sold out within two hours of hitting the New York store on Tuesday. In addition to Valentino’s in-house team, a confounding amount of publicists, including Noona Smith Petersen, Vanessa von Bismarck and Karla Otto, were on hand to guide their constituents through the festivities — which included an interactive Fornasetti exhibition that celebrated the five senses — to complement a capsule collaboration between the brands to be sold in limited supply in Valentino’s New York store. One room featured dangling cardboard cutouts of Fornasetti hands that “touched” guests as they walked through. “It’s a bit like getting felt up, isn’t it?” said designer Misha Nonoo. The “taste room” had a table full of candy and one wall covered with Fornasetti plates and another, a giant Fornasetti face with its tongue out.

Postshow, a lower level of the museum was set up like a lounge with a dance floor and stage for a live performance by Skunk Anansie. Guests drinking pomegranate Manhattans had to mind the white couches.

Perhaps only the most devout fashion fans comprehended the context of the fixation on white and the fact that very few get to witness a live couture show. Lam raved in unsolicited commentary at a pre-fall appointment the next day. It was his second fashion show ever as a guest, “and it was couture,” he said. “The patchwork, the organic shapes in double-face, the ‘I Love New York’ — I was blown away. There is so much work involved. And white cashmere — to work cashmere that way, especially in white. I was overwhelmed by the brilliance.”

Those with a passing interest in fashion were pleased with the evening’s entertainment. “I’ve never really been to a fashion show,” said James Marsden, one of the stars of the “X-Men” franchise. “It feels like a good one to pop my cherry to.”

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