Languid and reflective in sharing his views with Alina Cho in an hourlong conversation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Tuesday night, he also was disarmingly direct about how essential the house’s seamstresses and the entire team is to the whole operation. Three years into his solo run as Valentino’s lead creative after his longtime design partner Maria Grazia Chiuri’s move to Dior, Piccioli spoke definitively, yet humbly about his outlook on fashion, diversity and the world.
“I always hope to tell different stories each season but to maintain the style. I think the values have to be the same,” he said. “It’s important to change fashion, but it’s important to celebrate fashion. For me, fashion is a territory of dreams. I love when you do even daywear, to do something that is fantastic in a way. I don’t think that you only have something very far away to dream about. I hope that people can dream in everyday life.”
On the eve of his resort presentation in New York, Piccioli explained how couture can be a gateway. “It’s like art. You don’t need to own art, you can just enjoy it. I’m not going to change the values of the house. I just want everybody to dream about it. To me, beauty is about diversity. I always say that my job is describing beauty in the times that I am living in.”
However lofty his life may seem, Piccioli’s roots remain unchanged. He lives in his hometown of Nettuno, 40-plus miles from Rome, with his wife Simona and their three children. Even in discussing his red-carpeted public life, he was drawn to the back stories. Asked about his Met Gala date, Joan Collins, he described the four fittings with her days before the event, and how she requested a tighter-fitting waist each time. After a seamstress worried about the dress’ zipper had indicated concern, she told Piccioli, “Darling, listen, you don’t have to treat me as all these young actresses that find everything uncomfortable. I want to be a diva. Look at my waist — I want everybody to see it,” Piccioli said.
As a shot of his Met Gala entourage — Naomi Campbell, Julianne Moore, Mark Ronson and Adut Akech among them — flashed on a screen, he said, “All of them together represent what I want from Valentino today: the idea of inclusivity, diversity, different kinds of people. They all look great in Valentino…Adut came with me to the Met Gala last year. I didn’t want to get ‘the model’ [making quotation marks with his hands for effect]. I really like her as a person. I really like them as people. It’s important for Valentino to go away from that idea of exclusivity to embrace the idea of inclusivity. And going away from the idea of lifestyle and embracing the idea of community.”
Cho noted how Piccioli caught the Costume Institute’s “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” during the preview. He said, “I really like the idea of camp. It’s the freedom of being whoever you want to be. I like that now is a different moment. Camp doesn’t mean the niche of extravagant people but the freedom to be whoever you want to be. That is the most inspiring thing that I got from this exhibition.”
Earlier this week, Piccioli was in Cannes for the premiere of Luca Guadagnino’s “The Staggering Girl” starring Moore and based on Valentino’s haute couture. Although he wanted to be a movie director as a kid, fashion allows him to tell stories, he said. There were also shots of Cho’s favorite Valentino red-carpet looks this year — Gemma Chan in a halter neck, hot pink, billowing gown and Lady Gaga in a strapless, periwinkle gown at the Oscars. “Don’t say blue,” Piccioli corrected Cho. “That was a big issue the day after.” A third image of Gaga in a pale pink feathery concoction at the Venice Film Festival won him over. “I was there. My favorite moment with the pink dress was when Donatella Versace came with Gaga on the red carpet. She said, ‘When I saw the dress, I wanted to burn it because it was so fabulous,’” Piccioli laughed. “I think this is the best compliment, when it comes from your colleague and friend.”
Landing on Time’s 100 Most Influential People list was a different kind of distinction. “For me, it is very important as a designer to have a voice and to deliver values through my job. You really understand that you can do fashion and say something that you believe in like diversity and other values. You can shape the world in a way. I think I am more relevant if I did fashion than if I did politics. [You can make a political statement] just with images, not with messages,” he said.
Still living in his coastal Italian hometown “far from everything,” Piccioli said he did not grow up “surrounded by people wearing couture or going to balls.” Fashion photography and cinema were his first links to fashion. “I’m sure I was dreaming to leave, but my imagination was bigger than everything else. I used to watch movies and read. When I first came to New York, I said, ‘So what?’ I already knew so much about this city. Then I understood it’s more about life and more about people,” Piccioli said.
As for why he never left home permanently, he said, “I live there because I want to maintain what shaped me in a way. The eyes that I had as a kid are kind of still the same. I have much more than I could ever imagine in my life so I don’t want to become a different kind of guy. I don’t want to forget how far everything changed for me. I don’t want today to be spoiled by all this world.”
His wife and three children help keep that in check. “They still are kind of surprised when people stop me for a selfie or something. ’Really?’’’ he asked, scowling skeptically “They love what I do, but for them, I am their father or husband. But they always support me. The only way to have a family and a job like this is to have people — even if they don’t really understand in all things — they support you. Good or bad, here we are.”
Piccioli refrains from offering his wife, who was his high school sweetheart, any fashion advice. “She told me once, ‘Please, don’t talk to me as a designer. Talk to me as my husband. So I’m beautiful however I wear [anything],” he said good naturedly.
The Baguette bag that he and Chiuri designed for Fendi in 2008 caught the attention of Valentino and led to their poaching. Piccioli showed up for his first day at Valentino wearing flip flops, which was “so wrong.” At that time, the office’s air conditioning was cranked up so that suit-wearing employees would always be comfortable. Twenty years later he is still based there. Piccioli said of the company’s namesake. “He was and is a legend. I learned from him to believe in yourself always and don’t try to please everybody else,” Piccioli said. “I know him very well. Leather shoes with evening gowns never.”
After Chiuri decamped for Dior and Piccioli took on the creative director role on his own at Valentino, he spent a week mulling over what his vision would be. At home one night his older daughter discussed Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophy she was studying for an exam. “She said, ‘In order for a man to look forward, he has to be aware of his past. But in a way, he has to forget his past.’” He said of the epiphany, “I had to forget all the thoughts and I just had to leave all my emotions altogether.”
Italian Vogue’s Franca Sozzani was a confidante at that time. “She knew me deeply. It was not about clothes, the romanticism and the ideas I have about life. She told me, ‘Be free. Be who you are and don’t think about people.’ I think that’s the best advice that anyone ever gave me.”
Another statement was made by naming couture dresses after his seamstresses. “People in couture are used to being called ‘petit mains.’ I hate these words, the little hands. Behind the hands are people and because of their love you can feel the emotion behind the clothes and the shows,” Piccioli said. “So I wanted to celebrate their work.”
He also spoke of the importance of having a predominantly young 70-person design team and how he always tries to understand their point of view. Piccioli said, “It’s very important to keep that imagination between the reality of things and the eyes you look at them with.”
Shooting Valentino’s most recent campaign on the New York City subway was another reality check. “I love to give Valentino life. I think the subway may be the most ordinary thing in life. To have Naomi in a sequin cape [on the C train] and the bag was [a sign] of street and public spaces where people are used to living every day in the most dreamy way. That was the link between dreams and streetwear and everything.”
The high-paced world of fashion is not something he ever questions. “I just love it. If not, it would be impossible. I don’t like people who just work with me. I like people who share my dreams.”
Asked if he could imagine a world where he wasn’t working in fashion, Piccioli said, “I could say a movie director or a writer or whatever. But in the end I would end up being a fashion designer.”