Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli are busy. A few weeks after showing their spring collection, one of the best in Paris and the season overall, they are in the midst of pre-fall and a special couture collection to be shown in New York Dec. 10 as part of the blowout celebration for their sprawling new David Chipperfield–designed Fifth Avenue flagship. Those are just two of the seven women’s collections Chiuri and Piccioli will work on this year. Then there’s men’s, too.
Spring was Chiuri and Piccioli’s 34th women’s collection for the house. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes, and their designs have been impeccable of late, each collection a graceful, consistent evolution of the last. One might argue they’re just doing their jobs, but since being promoted in 2008 to creative directors of Valentino from accessories designers—positions they held as a duo for 10 years—Chiuri and Piccioli have accomplished what very few of their peers have in the succession game: They’ve created a crystal-clear aesthetic for a house that already had a very iconic one.
The new era at Valentino has become defined by an anchor silhouette: A slim dress with a slight A-line skirt, whether short or long, it often has long, lean sleeves and a high neckline. Chaste and modest yet acutely modern, it has opened up the house to a younger generation of clients without alienating the heritage grand dames.
“Regal minimalism,” is Piccioli’s description of the style. “You make people think about you rather than just see you.” Explaining the genesis of their vision, the designers reference Old Master paintings, the idea of portraits of women like the Madonna, etc. Indeed, the controlled lines and relatively spare shapes provide a canvas on which to flaunt the incredible craftsmanship that the Valentino ateliers can produce.
“When we started, people thought that it’s more feminine to show yourself, to be just a little bit more naked,” says Chiuri. “But we don’t think that’s necessary. We think that you can be really beautiful and sensual and regal and really covered.”
Chiuri and Piccioli are not an overnight sensation. They spent a decade working for Valentino Garavani, overseeing accessories as a tag team before replacing Alessandra Facchinetti and her blink of a stint at the house. Looking back to the beginning of their tenure, it’s obvious that Chiuri and Piccioli felt hemmed in by the heritage at first. Their debut collections were stiff and highly reverential to the fussy and formal aesthetic favored by Mr. Valentino. Seeds of the refreshing, modest modernity came gradually, visible in a cocktail dress here, a blouse there. Their first real high-profile moment was when Chloë Sevigny wore the finale gown from the spring 2010 collection to the Golden Globes (and garnered further attention when it was stepped on and torn as she was escorted to the stage to accept the best supporting actress in a TV series award.)
The very next season’s ready-to-wear show opened with a look that distilled the idea of regal minimalism in a single dress: a white, high-neck, long-sleeve style with a short skirt in structured scalloped tiers. There is a common thread of considered polish between Chiuri and Piccioli’s work and that of Valentino’s, but it’s mostly abstract at this point. The former make no apologies for breaking with tradition.
“Being relevant means creating a new aesthetic,” says Piccioli. “Our job is doing our idea of beauty, and our idea of beauty is more related to this aesthetic.”
“We can do flowers because Valentino did flowers, but we use flowers with our attitude. But, in any case, we all love flowers,” adds Chiuri.
More and more, Chiuri and Piccioli have been drawing on their Italian, specifically Roman, heritage. The spring collection was based on the Grand Tour, the 18th-century tradition of British post-university young men of privilege completing their studies with a sightseeing trip through Europe. Naturally, Chiuri and Piccioli concentrated on the Italian leg of the tour, which typically included Rome, Venice, Naples and possibly a beach excursion.
The travel theme gave them permission to take a roving view of the collection, which Piccioli explains as “our reflection of our memory and stream of consciousness about all the people and the past.” There were loud Baroque prints that resembled stained-glass windows and refined denim fit for a chic traveler; the coastline yielded lavish coral and starfish embroideries on gauzy gowns. The highlight of show was a series of delicate pastels, shown in vertical strips on filmy silk gowns and as crafty chevrons in linen broderie anglais.
When people speak of designer ready-to-wear as modern couture, this is what they mean. Chiuri and Piccioli have the luxury of dual rtw and couture ateliers at their disposal. The craftsmanship capabilities are incredible, and while the two ateliers work separately, the couture using only hand techniques, they do influence each other. But Chiuri and Piccioli have been savvy enough to democratize their vision with a bit of streetwear edge, particularly the best-selling Rockstud and Camouflage accessories collections.
“With accessories, with one piece you can [capture] the brand,” says Chiuri. “It’s something more modern—accessories are not only for few people, but for many people. Something that you believe is iconic, like the iPhone. In one piece, you have all that you want.”
Legacy house revival is an ongoing fascination in fashion, which refuses to let a name with an iota of market value go to waste. Christian Dior, Chanel, Lanvin, Givenchy and Balenciaga’s founders are purely historical at this point. Chiuri and Piccioli find themselves in a class of three—the other example being Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein—where the namesake is still part of the industry culture.
In the case of Valentino, the revered, living legend has been white-knuckling the limelight with his entourage since the 2008 documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor minted him a star outside of the insular world of fashion. Despite his grand retirement in 2008, Valentino and his business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, cannot seem to get enough of the public eye. Giammetti—@privateGG— has 167,000 Instagram followers. Garavani’s official account, @realmrvalentino, which does not appear to be operated by him, lags slightly with 138,000 followers. Last year Giammetti published Private: Giancarlo Giammetti, a tome of snapshots from his wonderful life with Valentino.
Valentino has been on his own book tour, signing copies of Valentino: At the Emperor’s Table, his guide to being the fancy host with the most, in London and New York. Longtime brand ambassador and pseudo p.r. man Carlos Souza, who is still employed by the house, also got in on the vanity book circuit with #Carlos’s Places chronicling all the fabulous trips he’s enjoyed as part of the Valentino inner circle. Garavani and Giammetti attend nearly every show.
Chiuri and Piccioli maintain that they are not bothered by the shadow cast by Valentino, describing him and his tribe as “family.” Asked if he ever weighs in on the direction of the collection, Chiuri says, “Oh, absolutely not. We have very a good relationship. We have never discussed in the past with him or the present. We respect him a lot and he respects us a lot. There is no problem.”
Continues Piccioli, “Mr. Valentino loves that we love the brand. We have a different vision, but we take care of the past.”
In some ways, having Valentino out on the town suits Chiuri and Piccioli, who both have families and are more private than PrivateGG and co. Piccioli lives in Nettuno, a small, seaside town where he maintains relative anonymity and Chiuri admits that she struggled with the public demands of the job in the beginning. Her children were young teenagers when she was promoted to creative director. “I’m really shy,” she says. “I don’t like to march on stage—it’s not my attitude. But after six years, I can speak about what I think.”
And after six years, fame has begun to find them. “I was walking in New York and a guy saw my sneakers and told me, ‘Beautiful shoes, Pierpaolo,’” says Piccioli. “In Rome, that doesn’t happen so much. By the seaside, never.”