Pierpaolo Piccioli remains remarkably discreet in a culture in which privacy is an endangered condition. He bears none of “The Last Emperor” hauteur of house founder Valentino Garavani, whose aristocratic bearing and grand lifestyle helped secure his brand’s position in the world of haute couture. Piccioli doesn’t even live in a major fashion center. Rather, he commutes to Rome, the city he loves and which has deep emotional resonance for him and his work, from Nettuno, a seaside town an hour away.
It’s from that vantage point that Piccioli has changed fashion, reframing the Valentino identity with a lyric grace expressed in major volumes and a daring way with color that rivals that of Yves Saint Laurent.
That arresting oxymoron of power and gentleness initially took fashion by surprise and has continue to enthrall customers and inspire designers around the globe. Piccioli believes steadfastly in fashion as a creative source for good, something that can uplift, inspire, motivate. Most importantly, he believes in the contemporary validity of couture based on a value system which he views as about far more than exquisitely crafted, very expensive dresses.
At the 2019 Fairchild Honors, WWD will honor Piccioli with our inaugural Women’s Wear Designer of the Year award. A year puts artificial brackets on accomplishment, especially in a creative discipline with no clear metrics for such qualities as beauty and emotion. There, the metric is reaction; you know it when you see it, when you feel it. Influence is more quantifiable, at least anecdotally. By both measures, Piccioli has had a magical year, with four stellar women’s runway shows, two couture and two ready-to-wear, and a fabulous red-carpet season, including Lady-in-Blue Gaga at the Golden Globes and at the Oscars, a testament to glorious diversity in Frances McDormand at the Met and Gemma Chan at the Oscars. All looked stunning.
Here, the designer talks about working with Valentino himself, intuition, his upcoming show in Beijing — and the importance of sticking to “couture values.”
WWD: What do you mean when you talk about couture values and making them relevant for today?
Pierpaolo Piccioli: This is the main goal — to bring a company that is a couture house, which means exclusivity, into the contemporary world so it’s facing a different reality, facing contemporary life, the world of inclusivity. It means also daywear, streetwear, but keeping the values of the house, keeping the DNA of the house, otherwise you become generic.
WWD: What are couture values?
P.P.: So that is important, too, to keep the values of the house as couture. Couture to me means a uniqueness, it means one-of-a-kind, it means diversity, it also means extravagance, the freedom to be whatever you want to be. And so translating these values into something which is more daywear, more contemporary. Because I think the dream can’t be too far. If it is [too distant], it’s just a utopia.
WWD: The process of couture is remarkable — the work that gets done, the skill. You maintain that the studio relationships are just as important as the skill of the artisans.
P.P.: I think the process is interesting. But for me, what’s more interesting is the relationship I have with my seamstresses, the way I work with them. I think that changes the perception of couture. Before, say, 10 years ago, couture was kind of belonging to a dusty past because everything was about how many stitches, how much embroidery, the fantastic and super rich fabrics. Today, I feel that it’s not so much about the stitching but it’s about the people and the time they put into working on the fabric and the talent they put to it and the love and the passion they put on the dress. I am not the kind of couturier or designer that says “half-centimeter,” and that’s it. I try to explain what I want to deliver as an emotional piece, a kind of delicacy, grace, boldness, whatever it is. I try to explain to everyone where we’re going so that their passion, their love goes into it, too.
WWD: They have an ownership.
WWD: At your most recent CK couture show, everyone came out for the finale. It was amazing.
P.P.: We didn’t plan it, actually.
WWD: How did it happen?
P.P.: I just felt there was emotion in the room, and also backstage; everybody was super touched and emotional. I saw from the video that the audience was warm and so I thought that was a moment to share with them.
WWD: Your entire atelier staff went out and acknowledged Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti. It was incredibly moving. The relationship those two men have with the house is remarkable. That doesn’t happen elsewhere once the founders sell.
P.P.: In a way, it’s the best compliment when you have the founder of the house there, being proud of the future. You remember at the end of the movie, “The Last Emperor,” Valentino said as it was ending, après moi, deluge. And I am the deluge. He kind of likes the deluge. So it’s good, too.
WWD: Let’s talk about your history. You worked for Fendi when it was really a family company, with the five sisters all involved.
P.P.: Very Italian.
WWD: What was it like?
P.P.: When I was starting at Fendi it was mostly the family, because Karl [Lagerfeld] came in once a month. We were working as a family, and everybody was allowed to say your point of view.
P.P.: Yes, sure. I worked with Anna [Fendi]. She was super open, and this was very important to me. When we arrived at Valentino we didn’t know about the rules, that it was much more formal. But when you’re not aware, you say whatever you think because you used to do it. It just happens because you’re not aware of the rules. We were young. I was 30 when I arrived at Valentino.
WWD: You just thought that the way Fendi was, was the way it is in fashion generally.
P.P.: I remember my very first fitting with Valentino. Everybody was doing the fitting and someone came out with an embroidered, sequined jacket. We discussed something matching and Giammetti asked me, “What do you think?” I said, “I love it, but maybe with a pair of denim. This doesn’t look cool. It’s better with a pair of denim. Why don’t we do a pair of denim?”
WWD: What was the reaction?
P.P.: Everybody was terrified. And Mr. Giammetti said, “Yes, let’s do a pair of denim.” And if you remember, it was a collection when Valentino did the denim in the show. For me it was natural [to speak up]. It was nothing offensive. But for the people who were in suits and tie and everything, it was a surprise.
WWD: How do your experiences working under major designers inform the way you are as creative director? You talk about being inclusive and wanting to involve everyone.
P.P.: I have been on the other side so I know very well how you feel when you have a voice and you can express your opinion rather than just execute something. It changes completely when you tell people what to do or when you involve people in your vision. It’s different.
Last season, for couture, I thought about something one of my seamstresses told me. She mentioned that she went to the Victoria & Albert Museum and saw a dress from 10 years before. She told me, “When I saw the dress I remember my father, because for the three months I was working on that dress, my father was alive.” Seeing the dress triggered her emotion. I started thinking of the time that you spend working on something and all [that it relates to in your life]…the memories it will impress. And then it was the starting point for the collection.
WWD: Let’s talk about inclusivity. For your Born in Roma fragrance, you went contrary to Roman stereotypes, casting Adut Akech and Anwar Hadid.
P.P.: L’Oréal asked me who would be the face for the fragrance. For me, it was kind of spontaneous talking about Adut. She has opened and closed the show many times. I was not aware of this, but they said [it’s not typical] that a black model is chosen to embody a fragrance…it’s so crazy, if you think about it. Black girls have done many makeup campaigns because you show makeup on different types of skin but not often the fragrance, which means universality. It means just one girl embodying the [spirit of the fragrance].
WWD: What did it mean to her? You must have discussed it.
P.P.: Of course, we discussed it. She was of course very, very, very proud to be part of the process. That’s why the [spring 2019] couture was so touching for all of us, also for Naomi [Campbell], and for [all of] the girls.
WWD: You’re talking about the casting of mostly black models.
P.P.: Yes. The girls were emotional to be cast, not the exotic touch of the show, but to wear the classic couture. And they were excited to be there with Naomi. It’s because of her that many of them are modeling now.
It’s very subtle…I wanted to do a very classic couture, the Cecil Beaton kind of couture, the salon and everything, but with black girls. So the garden parties and everything.
WWD: Very different than that famous Cecil Beaton picture, which was part of your inspiration.
P.P.: I think that when you see just a picture with all the black girls wearing the super classic salon couture dresses, even if you don’t know the process to arrive there, you see the picture and it looks normal, you don’t have to explain. You just have the picture…and you change the perception of people.
I didn’t read the reviews right after the show because I received one e-mail from the night of the show and I said, “for me this is done. I already accomplished everything.” I read the reviews two days later. The e-mail said, “With this collection, it was like for the models, it allowed them to dream.”
WWD: Who sent you that? You can’t say?
WWD: It sounds like André [Leon Talley]. [Knowing looks between Piccioli and his PRs offer tacit confirmation.] Years ago, W magazine did a story in which André talked about his grandmother and Mrs. Vreeland. I read it and cried at my desk.
P.P.: He wrote me an e-mail that gave me goose bumps.
WWD: You mentioned Naomi, with whom you’ve become close. She did a handbag campaign, shot in a New York City subway station. Describe the power of Naomi.
P.P.: I love Naomi. She’s a fierce woman, so she’s not, she’s not a little girl. She closed that show in haute couture. She represents this kind of diversity…she empowers a lot of ideas. She’s not only pretty.
WWD: You also cast Kendall Jenner in a handbag campaign, which just broke, which you consider an unusual choice. Do you think Kendall is not a typical Valentino girl.
P.P.: I feel that inclusivity also means including people that maybe are not part of your world. I love this, just embracing a different kind of culture, different people. Kendall is beautiful. I’ve never cast her in my shows…I feel that the brand Valentino has to keep the identity of the couture but has to embrace a different way of being today, so different people, different characters.
WWD: You’ve faced some criticism for some of your choices, specifically when you and Marie Grazia Chiuri did an African-inspired collection and the casting was mostly of white models. That seems like a very long time ago, but it wasn’t — spring 2016. There are so many creativity minefields for creatives today.
P.P.: I think you can go in territories where people can get offended, even if it’s not intentional. You have to be careful. You intended [homage], and [there was a] process you went through to arrive there, but they see something offensive. You have to be careful, because they’re still offended.
WWD: The red carpet. Frances McDormand and Gemma Chan. So different and both fabulous.
P.P.: And they’re both looking themselves. Different people wearing their own personality. Because I think this is important not to give the same dress to different people but to underline their personality.
WWD: And looking interesting. Do you accept credit for helping to change what was a long stretch of boredom on the red carpet — fishtails, sheer, the occasional retro ballgown. It had converged to a few mundane norms. You’ve brought something, particularly by opening up the red carpet to major volumes.
P.P.: I think this is important also for the people watching. In a way our job is about trying to expand the choices, not only of the artists, but also the people that look at them as examples. Sometimes, if the artists are more brave in showing their personalities rather than just opting for the sheerness of the dress, it can change people’s perceptions. I like what Diana Vreeland used to say: “Don’t give them what they want but let them want what you give them.” When you do fashion, I think you have to move forward, not to give people only [what has worked]. That’s marketing. It’s a different story. It’s not fashion. I’m not a marketing person. I prefer doing fashion. And when you do fashion, you have to deliver values and you have to change. You have a voice and you have to use it to say something.
WWD: Define fashion.
P.P.: My job is about expressing my idea of beauty in the time that I’m living. This is very important — relevant to the time I’m living. If not, I’m only doing half of my job. So it’s important to face the times and even react to them.
WWD: Up until Maria Grazia Chiuri went to Dior, you worked in creative partnership with her. Since then, you’ve worked alone. How are the processes different?
P.P.: Together, you share a vision of beauty. Everything is made from two people so it’s more thoughtful, in a way. Being alone — I was not aware before but I am now — is very intuitive. It’s much more emotional, the way you react.
Mr. [Roberto] Capucci told me this. I met him maybe one or two months before my first [solo] show. And he told me, “This is a good thing, to do it alone.” I said, “But it was so good working together. It’s a different way. But it’s still creative.” Then I met with him one year later, and he said, “I told you. Now, now I see you.” It’s more emotional.
WWD: You talk about making couture contemporary. Do you constantly feel like you’ve got to be up on every element of pop culture? Everything moves so fast now. How do you do it, and funnel the shifts into fashion?
P.P.: I think it’s kind of intuitive. You can think about it, of course, but it also just happens. You have to feel the world’s people, and then you have to react to the world in a different way.
WWD: Casualization. You’ve done amazing day clothes for both ready-to-wear and couture. But today, a lot of people run around in yoga pants. Does it worry you?
P.P.: The world is changing. You have to give people items that [reflect] couture, not giving them bulls–t. Even something that is just a white shirt. [Piccioli opened the Spring 2019 RTW show with a major study of the white shirt.] Even a white shirt has to have the same care. Being a couture house means that you have the cache of couture, and so it has to be applied also in everything, in a T-shirt in terms of the care you put into it. I think that people feel this.
WWD: So again, those universal couture values.
P.P.: Yes. Because today the perception is different. I think that young people are super interested in couture because it means boldness, it means extravagance, it means the freedom to wear something that is maybe out of the ordinary from what you’re used to every day. It’s an expression of freedom for young people. You don’t need to own couture. You don’t go to a museum to buy a Picasso; you just enjoy it. This is kind of the same. You have an emotional sensation. You can own the emotion and not the dress.
WWD: Your next show is right around the corner — in Beijing, on Nov. 7. It’s not pre-fall but a whole new couture show, correct?
P.P.: I’m doing a new collection of haute couture and we are opening a store in Sanlitun, which is the youngest area in Beijing, and then we’re doing a party. The collection is not a collection about China, of course. It’s called “Valentino Daydream.” Especially because it’s a very young area, I wanted to make a show which is very classic couture Valentino…I want to show the heritage. [The collection Piccioli will show on the runway is haute couture. The store will open on Nov. 6 with a related “Daydream” capsule collection, exclusive to China.]
WWD: How important are itinerant shows and that direct outreach to different markets?
P.P.: I think you have to be closer to people; sometimes you have to go to where they are. It’s important and respectful.
WWD: To add an entire couture collection — I can’t even imagine the stress on the atelier. How does that work out?
P.P.: It’s difficult to manage that, but it’s another opportunity for me.