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PARIS — He has Victoria Beckham and Mischa Barton on speed dial, and his name has been bandied about as a contender for a recent round of coveted designer jobs, namely Halston, Valentino and Ferré.
But according to Giambattista Valli, he’s focused firmly on his fast-growing signature brand. “Let’s just say I’m not looking for any wedding soon,” joked the designer during an interview at his atelier.
Indeed, his paper-strewn desk also sported two red high heels, a clue to the next step in extending his brand name, which includes a fur line, freshly signed with Ciwifurs SpA, that will debut with the designer’s pre-fall collection next year.
Since launching his line with Italian licensee Gilmar in March 2005 after a long design career at Emanuel Ungaro, Valli has seen his distribution vault to 75 doors from 18. Sales in North America, his leading market, have grown by an average of 90 percent each season. A New York flagship is also in the works, possibly for next year.
In a sea of luxury behemoths, small independents and not much in between, Valli appears so far to have cracked one of fashion’s enigmas: a creative free reign with commercial success.
“Giambattista has such a future,” commented Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York, who has been following the designer since his first collection. “He addresses a customer who loves classicism but wants to be sexy at the same time. His charm and trendy elegance are his DNA and that is a necessary element in creating the refined yet modern collection that he creates.”
Registered as a French company, with external press and celebrity agents in Paris, Tokyo and New York, Valli has also been running the company himself, with a view to lassoing a chief executive officer in the near future.
“It’s a small structure, but tightly interconnected,” explained the designer, who shows his spring collection here Thursday. “Of course, I’m Italian, Roman even, even if I’ve decided to show in Paris. Right now, it’s the most important place for me to be.”
His fashion roost is a far cry from his conservative childhood in Rome, where he attended one of the city’s Vatican schools. Amid snapshots of Queen Rania of Jordan, Barton and Penélope Cruz on his office mantelpiece sits a portrait of the Valli clan, taken with Pope John Paul I, when Valli was knee-high, in bright turquoise shorts.
“Even as young as five, I would sketch everything,” said Valli, who can recall being captivated by Italy’s “glittering” TV presenters. “I would draw their outfits and try to guess what colors they were as it was in black and white.”
Valli’s sensibility for fashion resurfaced in art school, where he would churn out copies of sketches by Yves Saint Laurent. “That’s where I learned how a silhouette gives a designer his own identity,” he said. But it was only when working for Cecilia Fanfani, who coordinated Rome’s couture shows, that Valli landed his first job in the industry, working in public relations for Roberto Capucci. Within months, he had been promoted to the design team.
“Capucci was the biggest schooling I had,” he said. “It wasn’t just about the technical knowledge, such as color and volume, but also about the secret rules, and the beautiful codes of respect between the atelier and the master.”
He would go on to work at Fendi and Krizia, and in 1997 was appointed as the art director of fashion and ready-to-wear at Ungaro. “Galliano was still at Givenchy at the time,” Valli recalled. “It was right at the moment when couture was starting to wake up.”
In 2001, Valli was promoted to art director of the house’s rtw and younger Ungaro Fever lines, as well as accessories and licenses. But after four years in that role, the designer felt ready to go it alone. The moment was marked by the addition of a new accessory to his daily wardrobe: a string of Bassora pearls.
“At some point you have to decide what you want to be — a translator all your life, or yourself,” Valli said. “If I look back then I think I was totally crazy, but at the time, all I was thinking was next, next, next.”
The designer credits early deliveries, consistent quality and a tight focus on consumer needs for aiding his brand’s growth. “[Saks Fifth Avenue’s] Joe Boitano told me always to put in a jacket for both the mother and the daughter,” Valli said.
Dressing his circle of celebrity friends, mainly gathered during his time at Ungaro, also helps fan business. But the designer insists the product must stand out.
“It’s not just about a label. The final customer wants to feel that a piece has been well-constructed when they wear it,” he said.
Valli has fed growth by layering on new products each season, including pre-collections and a capsule tailoring line. Last month, the designer introduced a customizable bag that he plans to present during a round of trunk shows. He said shoes and bags would be the brand’s next big drive — the customer willing, of course.
“I always do 50 percent of the job and leave the other half for [customers] to interpret,” said Valli. “If a lady chooses to wear one of my cocktail dresses with a pair of sneakers, say, then that’s all the more fun. The moment a woman chooses my dress, it’s already me choosing her. It’s a mutual first encounter.”