Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Emanuel Ungaro, Balmain, Jean-Louis Scherrer and Hanae Mori were among storied houses to discontinue high-fashion operations in the years preceding, and the rarified, costly enterprise seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
Yet Valli thrives on risk, recalling a piece of advice from the late French media baron Jean-Luc Lagardère that “the moment you stop taking risks is the moment you are getting old.”
Valli also took a risk when he first trotted out tulle dresses the size of compact cars on his ready-to-wear runway, raising a few eyebrows. But such extravagant confections have become a key calling card for the designer, and a mainstay of his haute couture business. They’re also emblematic of his desire to stoke the dreaminess of fashion, and to preserve a painstaking craft synonymous with French culture.
Pre-pandemic, Valli mounted a few still-life exhibitions of his haute couture in lieu of runway displays, and opened them up to the public, attracting a steady stream of enthusiastic visitors, and not only fashion fanatics.
The designer thrives on seeing the wonderment haute couture summons. Few people — whether it’s a princess in the front row, or a workman stapling carpet to the Valli runway during rehearsals — are unmoved by its presence.
Over iced tea and brunch at Mariage Frères, Valli reflected on his first decade in haute couture, a term he vigorously defends, bemoaning that it’s become as bastardized as luxury. “I want to talk about excellence,” he said.
The Rome-born designer launched his signature brand in Paris in 2005 after spending seven years designing rtw at the elbow of Emanuel Ungaro. Before that, his résumé included stints at Roberto Capucci, Fendi and Krizia in Italy.
Once on his own, he quickly attracted attention from a young band of stylish women including Diane Kruger, Bianca Brandolini, Charlotte Dellal, Princess Maria-Olympia of Greece and Lauren Santo Domingo, to name a few.
“I was speaking to a new generation, what became known as the Valli girls. The couture houses that were closing were dressing the grandmothers of this generation. I preferred to address a new generation of customers, stylists and celebrities,” Valli said, musing, “I brought something different. Even the ready-to-wear collections were haute couture in a way. This new generation is very independent in their choices; they don’t want to be trendy.”
He took the plunge in July 2011 as a guest member, and was granted the official haute couture appellation by the end of the year. Charlotte Casiraghi wore a Giambattista Valli haute couture gown to the wedding of Prince Albert II of Monaco that year, days before the first show.
The designer said weddings account for about 60 percent of the haute couture business, and his first commission actually dates back to 2005, when Maya Askari wed Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Rania Al-Abdullah, Queen of Jordan, and Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser were among his first loyal clients when he officially launched the appellation, and more followed from all corners of the globe.
“They buy with a collector’s point of view,” he said of his couture clients. “They come knowing exactly the piece they want to buy.”
These women are also keenly aware that they are supporting part of France’s cultural heritage and a unique savoir-faire, from Valli’s in-house seamstresses to the specialty ateliers that offer embroideries, feathers, pleating and other specialized techniques.
Celebrities are also drawn to Valli’s haute couture and having Rihanna and Ariana Grande at the Grammys and Zendaya at the Oscars in his dresses are just a short list of career highlights, not forgetting creating Jessica Biel’s and Amal Clooney’s wedding dresses.
Asked if he has any couture heroes or role models in haute couture, Valli cited Capucci and Ungaro; the former for his “bold colors and extraordinary volumes” and the latter for the “rituals, and the art of doing this profession.”
Valli is upfront that haute couture, which requires heavy investment to create, mount and sell two collections a year, is a challenging business, especially before he received an investment from Artémis, the private investment arm of the billionaire Pinault family, back in 2017.
“We always cover costs,” he said, acknowledging that some seasons are more successful than others.
But the benefits to his brand of having haute couture are incalculable. “It’s a laboratory for experimentation that nourishes every single product that comes from our house,” he said, describing how an embroidery on a couture gown might find its way on to a shoe, for example. “It pushes the boundaries of your creativity and your research. There’s always something extraordinary that you can push.
“It’s the most beautiful window we have for the external world,” he added.
Valli flicked through his phone to find a David Sims photo of Daria Werbowy in one of his dreamy tulle gowns from one of his rtw collections. Once published in Vogue, he received a flood of calls from women in North and South America interested in special dresses.
“It creates this dream, it sparks imagination. People want the extraordinary,” he said, citing his 2019 holiday collaboration with H&M as yet more evidence that a wide swath of women, not only the most wealthy, are drawn to the extravagant magic of haute couture.
“We did this huge, fuchsia pink dress and it sold out in seconds around the world,” he said. “If you look at Instagram, you can see so many people wearing it to weddings or parties.”
The project was emblematic of what motivates Valli.
“I’ve always loved to be part of the happiest times of people. I want to be with them. I want to support that kind of happiness. If I can give to you more happiness, beauty, confidence in you, I’m here. Everybody has a mission the life mission,” he said. “The biggest treasure that I have in my life is to give pleasure to other people.”
Valli argued that haute couture brings out the best in people, voicing his gratitude for his tailors and seamstresses who share their passion and skills, giving the best of themselves.
“It’s fabulous. I become another person when I start to work on an haute couture collection,” he said. “You elevate yourself. There is something about haute couture that elevates the soul.”
Indeed, Valli is convinced that haute couture has a bright future. As the coronavirus pandemic eases, people are searching for exceptional products, whether it’s a dress, a vacation, or an interior design.
“When you address this kind of clientele, they really want something extraordinary right now, more than ever,” he said.
In that vein, Valli recently teamed up with Moda Operandi to launch a high-end line of tableware realized with artisans including Augarten Wien, a Viennese porcelain house founded in 1718. The range — with plates painted with peonies and butterflies retailing for up $1,025 — are to debut at a couture week event in Paris on July 5.