“Do you know this technique, called grisaille?” Pierpaolo Piccioli queried about a 16th-century painting process. “It consists of taking off in order to give life and shape and to go to the essence.” Piccioli spoke during a preview of the Valentino collection he showed on Sunday, one both lyrical and grounded. The creative director is devoted to the brand’s position as a couture house. He believes deeply that couture is about more than exquisitely wrought dresses that take forever to make and cost a fortune; that it is about a set of values of respect, aspiration and inclusivity, not in terms of purchasing power but in telegraphing messages of beauty and open-mindedness. As part of that, Piccioli maintains that the physical components of couture — silhouettes, embroideries, etc. — can be adapted for a wider audience. Hence, his grisaille concept for spring.

Yet paring down is about more than translating a dramatic haute sleeve at a ready-to-wear price point; sometimes, taking away allows the woman to emerge more powerfully from the clothes. “[It] brings the attention from the dress per se to the personality that gives life to it, from object to the individual,” Piccioli wrote in his program notes. That sentiment echoes what Miuccia Prada said of her collection in Milan, “the person is more important than the clothes.”

Such similar thought processes articulated by two of the world’s most prominent designers plays into the sea change that continues to upend fashion, making it volatile, fascinating and ultimately, introspective to a degree that has been missing in the past. Not that Piccioli, Prada, or any other non-sociopath designer has ever deemed a dress more important than a person. Only, now, they feel the need to state the obvious, verbally and on their runways.

Piccioli did so by starting his spring collection with a study of the white shirt, calling it “one of the most universal pieces, and very common, in a way.” He had his couture way with the basic, showing it in numerous proportions, as dress and tunic, utterly simple and with varying degrees of froth. The point was to “make the culture of couture more visible,” and also, inspired by Avedon portraits of people in white shirts, to use that singular item as a conduit for self-expression.

Which is not to say Piccioli has sworn off color; it’s one of the hallmarks of his work, and he continues to love it. In fact, the collection pulsed with many of the themes he has developed while catapulting Valentino into the forefront of fashion influence — color, volume, embellishment — but here with newfound restraint. Or maybe that’s the wrong word. While a dusty blush pink trench dress looked quietly chic, there was nothing restrained about the fanciful Rousseau-inspired tropical imagery that Piccioli translated into bold, intricately worked intarsias for feisty column gowns. The models wore these looks with flat rope sandals and a casual aura Piccioli would call a couture attitude for today.

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