Pierpaolo Piccioli

Over the years, Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli has “learned to become less thoughtful and more intuitive,” following his own vision. This has served him well, as the designer has carved out his own path in the industry, breaking new ground and becoming an inspiration, which led to being the recipient of the first WWD Womenswear Designer of the Year Honor.

In a conversation with WWD executive editor Bridget Foley, Piccioli spoke about his learning curve, how “dreams help make a better reality,” how he likes to see couture on the street and on real people, and what working with Naomi is really like.

WWD: [When] you took over as creative director, it was a process but you immediately brought in such a different look to the house of Valentino, one that was not typical at the time, it was lyrical and romantic and you pushed it even further with a new amazing integration of beautiful power and gentleness, and it resonated  immediately. Your influence is everywhere, all the tent dresses you see on the runways and it’s coming from you. Why do you think it resonated so powerfully?

Pierpaolo Piccioli: I don’t know why [laughter in the audience].

WWD: Give us something more.

P.P.: I just felt the urgency to go deeper into myself, because I think my job, as I said many times before, is about giving my idea of beauty for the time we live in. I think in this moment everyone is looking for more poetry, more romance and more dream, so I think this idea of volumes, of colors and of fashion as something that makes you dream — something that everyone would love to see, even if they didn’t know. I learned in these past years, to be less thoughtful and to be more intuitive, to follow intuition and sensibility with less thoughts, for sure.

WWD: Where does the emotion come from and how do you channel that into clothes, into a collection?

P.P.: Every time I start a collection with a reflection or just an intuition, something that can come from one word or from one painting. I learn to not think too much about it. When I have a vision, I try to follow that vision with sensibility and emotion. I think that If I get emotional, maybe I can deliver emotions and dreams, if not it’s just cold.

WWD: We recently had a conversation, you said you totally believe in the dream of fashion but it can’t be too far otherwise it’s just a utopia. What do you mean by that?

P.P.: Dreams have to be approachable in a way. That’s why I like to infuse dreams into reality, I like the tension between the idea of dreams and the idea of reality. I love the idea you can make reality better with dreams and that dreams can help to live a better reality so they have to touch each other. That’s why I love to see couture in the street, to see humans, not only the jet set. I love couture in reality.

WWD: Valentino was a couture house and to you that has a very specific meaning and you talk about couture values. What do you mean by that?

P.P.: Couture first of all means uniqueness and individuality. The main difference between couture and ready-to-wear is that it’s made to measure so it underlines diversity, I am not really into the idea of couture as craft. For me couture means humans, people who work on couture, who spend every day for three months on what it is, so it’s not about fabrics or all the embroideries, it’s about people. It’s also for the final results, the boldness, the extravagance you can express through couture. Even the last [couture collection] is about humans and diversity.

WWD: Can you tell us a little bit about the people who make the clothes, who do the embroideries, who do the work, because they are so passionate about it, right?

P.P.: Of course they are so passionate. They are different because they are. I don’t like to talk about people in general. I can name every person in the atelier, and if I give a sketch to one of my seamstresses I know it will come out very different from one person to another. I like to involve them into my idea of dreams. It’s not about one centimeter or one ruffle. I like to explain what I want to deliver, the meaning I want to put in the collection and I involve them. They can put their passion. If you involve people, it’s different, I don’t want people to just execute, but contribute with love and passion, the care they take every day on the clothes, and I think you can feel it. The starting point of my last collection was that one of my seamstresses told me that 10 years before she was working on a collection and then she re-saw the dress she was working on at the Victoria & Albert Museum. She told me that in that moment she felt as if her father was alive and she was working on the collection. I think sometimes emotions pass by the clothes, clothes are instruments to feel love and passion.

WWD: So she worked on that dress while her father was alive and perhaps ill and that reminded her of that, right?

P.P.: And she felt the emotions she was living in the moment.

WWD: We talk so much today about cultural and  social issues and inclusivity, diversity and sustainability. What’s the importance of clothes, do clothes matter anymore?

P.P.: Of course.

WWD: Because I think the clothes and fashion often get lost in the discussion.

P.P.:  I think that a designer has a voice and fashion is my language, so I want to express my idea through the clothes, I don’t want to talk about my ideas just through the words. I want the clothes themselves, they are the instrument to talk, the image can be strong, you don’t need to add words. If you are a good designer, you don’t need to add words, that’s why I think clothes matter. I am very proud of the last January couture show when the we saw all the girls, with Naomi.

WWD: Just a little background on that, you saw a famous Cecil Beaton photograph of women in the 1950s all done up in Charles James couture and that inspired you?

P.P.: Yes, it inspired me, the idea of couture as I was telling you it’s about uniqueness and individuality and actually it was not meant to be for black women, so magazines were not allowed to shoot the clothes on black girls, they had to buy the clothes, not borrow and this was just 50, 60 years ago, not that long. What if that beautiful image of Cecil Beaton rather than shot with WASP and beautiful swans was with different girls? That was the beginning of the idea, and the finale of the show, with the girl in that kind of very couture attitude with different women, the image itself already talks about my idea of the collection, so sometimes you don’t need to add words. Hopefully with an image, you deliver ideas and values.

WWD: What’s your approach to casting generally and how do you cast for shows and campaigns, recently for campaigns you have shot Adut [Akech] for fragrance and Naomi and Kendall Jenner- all very different so how do you approach it?

P.P.: I think inclusivity means complexity and tolerance, what life is today. If you want to reflect what life is today you have to reflect diversity and complexity. I am not just talking about Adut or Naomi, but even Kendall, who is something completely different from them.

WWD: But why is Kendall unusual for Valentino?

P.P.:  She comes from pop culture and the digital world, she is not a model but she is more a girl, a woman and she comes from a digital world. I think she is different from the supermodel, she reflects the society of today.3

WWD: Naomi is not only a supermodel, she is a goddess and icon. What was she like to work with?

P.P.: I think Naomi is a very special woman because of course she is a supermodel, but I really respect what she is doing for Africa. In that show she was representing a dream for those girls, many of them were there because of her, of Iman, the women that already did that job, so in that moment in the show so there was an emotion. They were feeling it was a moment for all of them together to express a different idea of beauty and you felt that emotion.

WWD: That’s the emotion of the magic perhaps, on set when you have Naomi there, and she has all that experience and all of that Naominess, how does that impact the way the shoot goes?

P.P.:  I love her because when she is on set you don’t feel that she is all of that, she is a woman and she is unfiltered also fragile, you can feel that tender romance on set.

WWD: That’s not the word I would think of for Naomi, it’s not naturally descriptive, fragile, but you feel it?

P.P.: I think so. When she is in front of a camera she doesn’t play any role, she is a woman in front of the camera and you can also create an intimate relation.

WWD: You said fashion is your language, and Italian is your language and Roman. I recently talked to Silvia Fendi and she said there is Italy and then Rome. How does your personal history and the Valentino history in Rome impact the collection?

P.P.: Roma reflects this idea of complexity and diversity because  Roma is made of  many different layers, from the Imperial Roma and Pasolini to Catholicism and paganism, all of these layers live together in a kind of magic balance, and it’s very unique. In Roma if you walk around you can feel all these layers and I think it gives you an inspiration if you are Roman and I am definitely  Roman.

WWD: Inspiration- everyone knows designers do inspiration mood boards and yours are magical. Typically there will be Roman references, Renaissance references and things right up to today. Are they a vanity play or do they really play a role in the creative process as it translates to the runway and how do you pull it together?

P.P.:  Of course they are part of the creative process, but at the beginning mood boards start with the same word or same piece of art or whatever comes to my mind but then they become more complex, in the end the collection is ready when the complexity is solved and it becomes kind of  simple, the idea of effortless beauty which is also another Roman value. Also the mood boards become full of images and full of other worlds and then as the collection progresses also the mood boards reflect that.

WWD: Do you archive the mood boards?

P.P.: Of course, I do archive them. I started doing these books for every collection because I wanted to keep all the pictures of the casting – it became like a book for every collection with the sketches, the mood boards, the pictures, they are part of the process. Every journey is a different one.

WWD:  Let’s talk about your history a little bit. You came to Valentino by the way of Fendi and we all know of the Fendi sisters and that Karl was there for 50 years but you were there when it was really a family company. What was that like?

P.P.: It was like we were a family, and Karl was coming some times, it was like living in a very serene way. I was very young but I never felt I could not be allowed to say what I was thinking so everything was possible. Anna Fendi I think gave me one of the best [pieces of] advice that everything is possible. Even if I was only 25 or 26, I was feeling that I could do everything.

WWD: What was the dynamic among the sisters?

P.P.: It was so fun. The day when Karl was coming, was the day that something important was happening, hair and make-up day [laughing].

WWD: Dressed up for Karl.

P.P.: We were all waiting for Karl, it was the moment when everything was kind of happening, we all of us were waiting for him but also having fun.

WWD: Did you have any direct working relationship with Karl?

P.P.: Yes, on a few things but we were on bags so it was different.

WWD: When you went from Fendi to Valentino was there a culture change?

P.P.: Actually, maybe it had to, but it didn’t [to laughter] and I felt the same freedom, to say my ideas and opinions, so it becomes natural to be like this, but it was kind of strange.

WWD: You told me you spoke about an elaborately embroidered jacket and you suggested putting  jeans with it?

P.P.: Yes, it was at the very first fitting we had with Mr. Valentino and we were all of us there, and there was this very basic denim and T-shirt not very fashion, and Mr. Valentino was thinking of this embroidered jacket, and I said this is beautiful [with the jeans]. He thought it was too much, but then he said maybe you are right. It was not very kind [for me] to say it so directly.

WWD: Mr. Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti are at the shows and it seems to be a fabulous relationship which is unprecedented in fashion. Usually the founders cash out and that’s it. How does that work and why does it work?

P.P.: It’s very real and authentic the way it happened.

WWD: They seem genuinely proud when they are sitting there watching your work.

P.P.: We have some discussions. Just this morning, I had a call with Giancarlo because I am [curating] A Magazine, there are pictures, I am shooting and I shot him. So of course [laughing] there was this big issue about his picture, but I think it is very authentic the way we talk to each other. I love what Valentino did, I feel I am in the house that better reflects my values. I don’t think I work for Valentino, Valentino is a home, the place where I can better show my ideas and my values. The people working with me, my team, they are my family, they support me every day. Of course I thank Mr. Valentino and Mr. Giammetti for what they did, it’s really authentic the respect I have for them. I don’t think every collection I need to say this comes from the inspiration of that collection, he did that in 1967 and I am doing this now. It’s part of MY job, it’s 20 years I am there, many of the creations are part of my roots and background, and I feel they respect this and they have the same the respect is sincere.

WWD: When we spoke in Paris, we talked about the difference between  fashion and marketing – you said they are very different things and my job is fashion.

P.P.: I think so, I am much like Diana Vreeland: Don’t do what people want but let them want what you do. I feel this is fashion, marketing is when you cover the needs of people and you give a different packaging. I think fashion talks about you and your sensibility and the way you reflect the world and you face life. Fashion and marketing can integrate with each other but success in business comes from fashion, not marketing.