True romance - Issue 161 - Magazine | Monocle

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Pierpaolo Piccioli is an outlier. In an industry where designers tend to hop from one fashion house to the next, Valentino’s creative director has been mastering his craft at the same company for more than 23 years. After nearly a decade at Fendi he joined Valentino in 1999, working his way to the top after the retirement of its co-founder, Valentino Garavani, in 2008. Piccioli inspires a sense of trust and stability in those around him, not only because of the length of his tenure but also his romantic attitude to design. He is one of the few fashion creatives who still recognise the value of honouring the past – and making time to dream.

Understated in a black outfit, Piccioli is committed to the house’s existing codes, presenting them through a modern-day lens, rather than chasing disruption for its own sake. “I’ve always felt that I can express my ideas and values using the same codes that Mr Valentino used,” he says. “As a designer you need to bring a new perspective that’s related to the times that you live in. You’re painting a new picture of the same world.”

It was this approach that saw him being named designer of the year at the most recent Fashion Awards in London. The morning after, MONOCLE meets him in a gilded suite at Claridge’s hotel. Despite the grandeur of his surroundings and the headlines that he has just made (he was up against heavyweights such as Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons for Prada and Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia), Piccioli remains grounded. He gives everyone in the room a hug while holding a toastie in one hand and his phone in the other as he shares the video of his celebratory dance from the previous night. “I wanted to highlight my own vulnerabilities when I accepted the award,” he says. “The American stereotype of the almighty winner doesn’t belong to this moment.”

“I’ve known Mr Valentino as a creative but also as a human being, so I’ve always wanted to keep his spirit and his idea of beauty alive”

Piccioli seeks to use fashion to tell powerful stories and make statements about the world. He staged the brand’s latest haute-couture show on Rome’s Spanish Steps, dressing men and women of all ages and shapes in soft tailoring and striking gowns. That inclusive vision, presented during the far-right Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s election campaign, served indirectly as a manifesto against “anti-democratic practices”. 

“We have to use the power of image,” says Piccioli. “There was no loud declaration during the show but we made a statement through beauty. It hits the audience’s hearts before it hits their brains and that can drive our message home quicker. We need to lead the changes that we are hoping for, not just watch from the periphery.”

Creating emotional, sensory experiences for his audience is a large part of Piccioli’s formula, helping his work to stand out. He says that he achieves this by staying instinctive – a rather forgotten trait in modern design studios, which are increasingly run on data and digital trends. “I used to be very rational but I’ve learnt to let my emotions flow,” he says. “The way that I relate to colour, embroidery and volume is a lot more spontaneous.” 

Creating his celebrated all-black and all-pink collections was another instinctive decision. “I was in Paris scouting a location and reading about Lucio Fontana’s concept of spatialism,” says Piccioli of his inspiration to create monochromatic settings for the two collections. 

By stripping away the extraneous details, he highlighted the quality and impeccable construction of Valentino’s garments, while his pink shade made it into the Pantone Color Institute’s colour-matching system; it is now officially registered as Pink PP. “It’s an invitation to see fashion from a different perspective,” he says. “Using a single colour means that we must experiment even more with cuts and volumes. You must go deeper if the collection is monochromatic.”

As personal as his work is, Piccioli also makes room for other voices during the design process. “I start with a reflection of the moment but, when I know what I want to say, I explain the pitch to my team and ask people to put their own stories into the designs,” he says. “I don’t just ask them to execute them. Historically, especially in Italy, designers have been depicted solo, alone with their big egos. You need an ego to do this job but you can also share the work.” At Valentino’s haute couture shows, Piccioli makes a point of taking his bow alongside the house’s team of seamstresses to acknowledge their contributions. 

In the same spirit, he still makes space for the co-founder’s presence in the company. “I’ve known Mr Valentino as a creative but also as a human being, so I’ve always wanted to keep his spirit and his idea of beauty alive,” says Piccioli, who works from Garavani’s office in Rome’s Renaissance-era Palazzo Gabrielli-Mignanelli, a sun-filled building with fresco ceilings and plenty of wood accents. “The space might be used differently but the ceiling, the floor... Everything has been kept the same. There’s an obvious parallel between our works but they are different, worn by different people, presented in different ways and telling the stories of two different men. Fashion can tell you something about the people who created the clothes.”

The creations of Garavani and Piccioli are also “in conversation” in Forever Valentino, an exhibition that debuted in Doha last year and runs until April 2023. Marking Garavani’s 90th birthday, it juxtaposes the work of the two designers to highlight some of the house’s most enduring values. “I didn’t want a retrospective but rather a perspective that takes away time,” says Piccioli. “It’s only when you’re aware of the past that you can create a different future.” 

Alongside the two designers, Rome is the exhibition’s third main character. Not only is it the birthplace of the house but it has also been Piccioli’s home since he studied there. “Rome is the story of us all,” he says. “There are so many layers to the city, from imperialism to paganism and Pasolini’s Rome. But the real beauty is in how all of these elements live together harmoniously. Every corner has a different charm but Rome’s beauty always feels effortless. That has influenced my approach to design.”

Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of New York’s New Museum, and fashion collector Alexander Fury experienced the pivotal role that Rome plays in Valentino’s story when they collaborated with Piccioli on the exhibition. They also point to the house’s own contributions to the city and Italian culture. 

“As an Italian, working with Valentino means confronting more than 60 years of fashion history that is deeply woven into the history of our country,” says Gioni. “Garavani and [his partner] Giancarlo Giammetti are a direct conduit to Rome and la dolce vita of postwar Italy through their legendary relationships with figures such as Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn, while Piccioli’s work today is reinventing a certain image of these places with new ways of imagining communities.”

As for Fury, spending time sifting through the Valentino archives in the Palazzo Gabrielli-Mignanelli offered a more quotidian perspective of Rome that informs the brand’s design values, such as its idea of timeless beauty and its appreciation of the past. 

“As a designer you bring a new perspective that’s related to the times that you live in. You’re painting a new picture of the same world”

“We look at Roman landmarks such as the Spanish Steps as monumental, whereas for Valentino they are part of everyday life, part of a passage through the city, a place to grab a coffee,” says Fury. “This fascinating idea of living within and alongside history, as well as creating the new, is a vital component of the house’s identity.”

Piccioli plans to keep Valentino relevant through a gentle evolution and by introducing new ideas that reflect shifts in society. “Even today, when fashion seems to be about hyperrealism, you can still use the power of beauty to reflect what we’re all wishing for, rather than the agony of our times,” he says. “Beautiful images can form a manifesto and stand on their own without needing to be explained.”

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