Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli

Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, the creative directors of Valentino, have achieved a rare form of success in luxury fashion — they’ve pinpointed the elusive magic that transforms a major heritage brand into a leading fashion force across couture, ready-to-wear and accessories. It’s an impressive feat that luxury conglomerates constantly struggle with and all the more so considering Chiuri and Piccioli have built up the house while its founder Valentino Garavani remains, if not active in the business, a constant presence on the fashion scene.

Chiuri, who was nursing a bad cold, and Piccioli were in town from Rome, where Valentino is based, to talk with WWD executive editor Bridget Foley and give a window into the creative process that fuels the business.

The house of Valentino was far from irrelevant at the time of Garavani’s retirement in 2008, yet under Chiuri and Piccioli’s stewardship, the brand’s influence has amplified. Their runway shows are considered among the best in the world, as they continue to raise the bar at fashion’s highest level with couture, whether staging a special all-white show in New York as they did in December, or putting a spotlight on their native Rome with a breathtaking local extravaganza this past summer. Then there are the rtw collections: The past two shows have been scene-stealers of the seasons. Fall was a stunning collection on two levels — the spectacular fashion and the surprise finale that left guests laughing out loud when Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson closed the show in character from “Zoolander.” The spring show held last month also had attendees shocked and awed, as Neiman Marcus’ Karen Katz told WWD as she left the venue, “This is why we’re in fashion.”

Katz’s reaction was emotional, which is a word that comes up often in conversation with Chiuri and Piccioli.

“Fashion is about emotion,” said Piccioli. “Our job is about delivering an idea of beauty of our time, and our time is about individuality, beauty and emotion for sure. Everybody is looking for emotion. You don’t really need clothes, you need emotions. When we work on a collection, we first try to focus on the message we want to deliver with the collection, then we make the collection. It’s like creating a movie in a way. You want people to leave with a dream in their minds. That’s what fashion is.”

The designers were not new to Valentino when they were appointed creative directors. They had spent 10 years as accessories designers within the company, well-versed in its history, which put them in a unique position when they were asked to assume creative direction of the entire brand. Plus, they both said that, being from Rome, they literally grew up with Valentino since it is the city’s most famous fashion house.

Garavani himself remains a supporter, attending almost all their shows. While he doesn’t have input into the collections, they do show them to him and the duo goes out to lunch with him after each of their shows. As for the advice he gave them when they took over the creative reins, Piccioli recalled that Valentino told him not to design in all black — which is what Piccioli tends to wear. He told Chiuri, “‘Don’t design for yourself,'” Piccioli recalled.

He described his and Chiuri’s approach to the Valentino heritage as giving a new picture of the same landscape. “It’s like when you see a postcard,” said Piccioli. “You know it’s beautiful but it’s not new. When you get a personal picture, you see the same place with a personal angle. We wanted to give a deeper perspective, more languid, more graceful, more individual.”

In a phrase he used repeatedly, Piccioli said their creative process and ideas for a show are “like a movie,” where they build their stories frame by frame until the film is complete.

Chiuri articulated the brand’s values thusly: “It’s a culture of couture. It’s very close with craftsmanship and quality, but also the tradition that’s part of our past, like Italian. In Rome, you feel that really strongly. In any case, it’s very close with the heart with the idea that the profession is something artistic, something has a human touch and we really believe that has made a difference in our brand.”

Speaking of human touch, the spring collection was inspired in large part by the global issue of immigration. Chiuri and Piccioli chose to zero in on African tribalism and cross it with Valentino’s classical romanticism. The result was incredible fashion, topical but not political, despite the current events nature of the inspiration. Asked what role fashion should play in culture and politics, Chiuri said, “It’s strange to speak about that in the U.S.A. because it’s a different country. But in Italy, we feel being open-minded to other cultures is a big opportunity for us. It’s a completely different place and we believe fashion can do a lot, that it can be a message. It can help people to know each other. That’s what we like to do with our job. We go around the world, but other people don’t travel so much. If you introduce other cultures with fashion, you give another point of view so people have a reference to know each other.”

On the idea of fashion as a point of reference, nowhere is that more potent than in accessories, which act as commercial pillars for the brand. Chiuri and Piccioli have interesting thoughts on the subject, as they were hired at Valentino from Fendi during a time when accessories as a category were driving fashion sales. “When they called us, it was because accessories were a very important business and they wanted us to bring a line of accessories to Valentino,” said Chiuri. “We really believe that accessories have to translate in an object the value of the brand.” The designers have done that exceptionally well during their own creative tenure, launching the successful Rockstud collection and Camouflage sneakers.

A question from the audience pointed out that when the Rockstud and Camo collections came into play, the studded motifs and camouflage were already ubiquitous up and down the food chain, yet they still took off at Valentino. Why?

“It was subversive, for sure,” said Piccioli. “To use punk elements on something sleek and bourgeois — we love to work on symbols, changing the meaning. It’s really interesting the way you can change the way you see things you already know, when you see a Rockstud, it’s a punk shoe, it’s a bourgeois shoe, so it’s a new balance between different cultures.”

Chiuri added that when it comes to design and deciding which symbols to use and how, “There are no rules,” she said. “If there were rules, anybody could do our job.”

At this point, Chiuri and Piccioli have been creative partners for more than 20 years. They said their process is truly collaborative. “We have an idea, we think about it and we have a mood board,”said Chiuri.

“Day by day, we work on it and we pick out different ideas,” added Piccioli. “At the end, what comes out is really something from two people who share the same vision.”

Do they fight?

“Of course,” said Chiuri. “Nothing is a fairy tale.”