Byline: Miles Socha

PARIS — In a rare and major rite of passage for a French couture house, Emanuel Ungaro is passing the reins for ready-to-wear, diffusion lines and accessories to his 34-year-old creative director, Giambattista Valli. Valli will be the one to take a bow after the Ungaro spring show, which is scheduled for Wednesday at the Carrousel du Louvre. Meanwhile, Ungaro, who is 68, plans to devote himself solely to couture, while keeping a watchful eye on the image of the French house, which just celebrated its 35th birthday.
In an exclusive interview with WWD, a relaxed and wistful Ungaro characterized his big decision as part of a tradition. “I was a pupil myself,” he said. “I was the student of Mr. Balenciaga for six years. I was in love with this kind of knowledge, in love with what I learned, in love with what I did with Mr. Balenciaga.”
Now it’s graduation time for Ungaro’s star pupil, Valli, who joined the house in 1997 and was named creative director in 1998. “It was my personal duty to give to him what I received,” Ungaro said of Valli. “Season after season, he has shown that he understands the spirit of the house. He’s clever; he’s young. And of course, after so many years, he understands the culture of Ungaro. He’s gathered the power and the knowledge.
“Of course, I’ll stay here with him and the whole team, not to control, but to assist. The house still remains unified. The style will stay the same, the culture will stay the same, with an evolution, with renewal and with modernity.”
Ungaro recalled how Valli first came to his attention. He had told his longtime friend Fabio Bellotti, who owns the Italian fabric firm Rainbow, that he was looking for someone to help him run his house. Bellotti proposed Valli, who had been working in Italy for the likes of Capucci, Kenzo and Fendi, and Ungaro asked him to make some sketches of what Ungaro represented to him. “There was something in those sketches that I knew could be cultivated,” the older designer said.
In separate interviews on Monday at the Ungaro ateliers on Avenue Montaigne, both Ungaro and Valli repeatedly used the word “natural” to describe the evolution of their working relationship and the analogy of flight to describe the gradual transfer of responsibilities.
“It’s like a bird. When he has wings, he has to get in the air,” Ungaro said.
Meanwhile, Valli praised him for sharing his mastery in the making of dresses and encouraging him to push the boundaries of creativity and craftsmanship. “He flies high, and he wants people to fly beside him,” Valli said.
Passing the design reins to a principal collaborator is a rarity in fashion. Ungaro said that his friend Issey Miyake, who in 1999 put his longtime assistant Naoki Takizawa in charge of his namesake collection, is one of the few designers who has taken this step. With his trendy mullet hairstyle and streetwise clothing, Valli’s image is certainly very different from that of Ungaro, who always wears a white linen lab coat in the atelier. But Ungaro said that they share the same sense of rigor and fantasy and a devotion to the femininity and sensuality that define the house’s style.
“When I arrived [at Ungaro], I was so happy to work for a house with such a strong personality and DNA,” Valli said. “I’ve helped him to translate what was his style. But after four years, it comes out more and more what is my view of Emanuel Ungaro.”
Ungaro credits the young design team Valli heads with energizing the house and spearheading such new ventures as Fever, a sportswear line aimed at the 18-to-30-year-old crowd. “You have to be modern today, to be conscious of what’s happening,” Ungaro said. “There’s a new generation.”