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Women's Fashion

Valentino’s day

Since 2008, Valentino’s new creative directors have attracted a younger clientele while respecting its heritage – to the tune of doubled revenues. Vanessa Friedman meets the duo weaving glamorous understatement with decoration

March 15 2014
Vanessa Friedman

It has been a good awards season for Valentino, topping every best-dressed list for creating the louche deep-V-neck, two‑tone gown and cape that Amy Adams wore to claim her best‑actress Golden Globe, Katy Perry’s much-discussed, controversial music-note couture dress at the Grammys, and the tux for Brad Pitt’s Bafta appearance that matched – but not quite – the Saint Laurent one that Angelina Jolie wore.

In fact, it’s been a pretty great season in general, starting with the ready-to-wear show last October, which featured appliquéd and embroidered adornment on single layers of tulle with baroque references, and which had Style.com crying, “It’s exactly this sort of stagecraft that has the world’s most-photographed young women vying to wear Valentino.” There was the show in Shanghai in November – an entirely new collection of 82 red looks, including 22 couture ones – which raised the stakes for the whole luxury industry when it comes to demonstrating a commitment to the Chinese market. And then came the news that, with new owner Mayhoola, a Qatari investment vehicle, annual revenues had reached the €500m mark, which made 2013 the fourth year in a row that Valentino had grown by 20 per cent.

It’s hard to believe that just five years ago Valentino was being held up, regularly, as a cautionary tale about the trauma that can be caused by a founder’s departure, and the unhappy relationship between private equity and luxury. Yet so it was. Which begs the question: between then and now, what happened?

“Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli,” says Carlos Souza, the worldwide brand ambassador for the fashion house and long part of Valentino’s inner circle, referring to the creative directors. “They are what happened.”

“You cannot overestimate their contribution,” adds CEO Stefano Sassi, who has been with the company since 2006. “They changed everyone’s mindset about Valentino, and they did it in a very short time.”

“They somehow managed to make the brand much more modern, and younger, yet also keep its heritage and sense of grace,” says Tiziana Cardini, fashion director of the Italian landmark department store La Rinascente. “It’s an extremely difficult balance to achieve.”

To grasp how difficult, you need to understand three things: one, what an unlikely choice Chiuri and Piccioli were for the role of top designer; two, the extremely complicated situation they inherited; and finally, how ingeniously they have re-engineered the house of Valentino. After all, the brand image, as created by Valentino Garavani when he founded his eponymous label in Rome in 1959, was built on conceptions of Roman glamour and the colour red; on photos of the perma-tanned Valentino on his 152ft yacht, the TM Blue One; on Valentino schmoozing with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna; and on Valentino on his estate outside Paris, the Château de Wideville, one of his five homes, where besuited men rake the paths and pugs frolic on the lawns.

Now, however, it’s “this amazing combination of austerity and decoration,” says Cardini. It’s a front row composed of Florence Welch, Livia Firth and the Russian editor and social-media star Miroslava Duma – a front row a good two decades younger than it had been when Mr Valentino retired in early 2007.

That’s a major evolution, but unlike other houses where new designers have felt a need to raze old associations in order to rebuild in their own image – Dior, where John Galliano sent a deconstructed leather-clad “Matrix” collection down the runway that once was covered in dove-grey flannel, or even Céline, where creative director Phoebe Philo straightforwardly told the FT, “It’s really not relevant to me what Céline has been or where it has been. It will be whatever I make it for the time I’m there” – Chiuri and Piccioli have made the house their own, and the transition has been virtually seamless.

“Well, we never wanted to replace Mr Valentino as a personality,” the pair shrug. “We just wanted to do the job.”

Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, adds, “You know, they were part of the family. And in a way, that enabled them to do something that was, in fact, very radical.”

Although it seemed to most of the world that Chiuri, 50, and Piccioli, 46, sprang fully formed onto the catwalk in January 2009, just months after they took on the creative-director roles, they had worked together for 23 years, and known each other even longer, ever since they met at the train station in Florence. “A friend called me and said a good friend of hers was coming in, but he had drunk too much at a party and couldn’t drive. So could I go pick him up?” Chiuri remembers.

“I was doing my final work at school and I got in very late at night and saw her standing there with a board with my name on it,” says Piccioli.

“I’m a little older, so I was already working,” says Chiuri.

That might have been the end of it, except Chiuri and Piccioli, who both grew up in the capital, had also both attended the Rome branch of the Istituto Europeo di Design. Chiuri had gone to Fendi in 1991 to work with Anna Fendi, and a year later Piccioli showed up to be interviewed.

“I decided he was a good guy,” says Chiuri. They have not been separated since. “You know, it’s a little boring to be alone,” she says. “I need to speak to someone about my ideas. Sharing is very important, sharing creation–”

“But it’s not like we had a big plan to be a team,” says Piccioli. “It just happened.”

“They finish each other’s sentences,” says Souza. “The two of them balance each other.”

Though they have separate private lives – Chiuri has two children (a daughter, 17, and a son, 20) and her husband runs his own men’s shirting atelier; Piccioli is married with three children (girls of 16 and 7, and a boy, 14) – they tend to dress alike, both mostly in black (he in suits, she is skirts, both in sweaters). Chiuri favours a somewhat gothic vibe, with dark rings around her eyes and diamond rings of snakes and turtles on her fingers, plus a Codognato skull, and Piccioli likes skinny ties and has the lined, lived-in face of Serge Gainsbourg.

At Fendi they were on the same design team behind the various permutations of the iconic Baguette bag, a rite of passage for many accessories designers (Frida Giannini, creative director of Gucci, also trained at the Fendi Baguette factory), eventually coming to the attention of Valentino Garavani.

Though he was famous for his gala gowns and royal wedding dresses (such as for Marie-Chantal of Greece and, more recently, Princess Madeleine of Sweden), it had not escaped Valentino’s notice that the accessories revolution had occurred and had pretty much passed him by: as houses like Gucci and Prada built empires on their bags and shoes, Valentino was still dependent on the much more complicated, and trend-driven, world of apparel. In 1999, he approached the duo.

“It was a strange moment in fashion – the era of the family company was ending,” recalls Chiuri. “Fendi had just been sold, and we thought it might be interesting to go to a house where there was no accessory history.” Piccioli adds, “But it was a challenge: how do you express couture values in an accessory language?” Chiuri continues, “We had to think in a different way, about the vision of the company, not about one bag or one shoe.”

“The first bag we did we made with the oldest premier of the couture atelier: it was a shopper in white double-face cashmere,” says Piccioli. (It is impossible to ask a question without both designers answering, and often responding to what each other has said, so it can go on for a while.) In 2003, they also took on the design of the brand’s more accessible clothing line, REDValentino.

Then, four years later, the Italian manufacturer Marzotto, which owned Valentino, sold the house, along with associated fashion brands such as Hugo Boss and M Missoni (both part of the Valentino Fashion Group), to private-equity firm Permira, for the record-breaking sum of €2.6bn. Valentino announced that he and his longtime business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, would retire. They threw a gigantic 45th-anniversary bash, at a price tag that reportedly shocked the new owners, and passed the baton to Alessandra Facchinetti, a former Gucci designer who was brought in to update and refresh the house. She complied, and her collections were critically well received, but Valentino was shocked with the change in direction and complained vociferously, feeling that she had ignored his legacy. Orders and sell-throughs were down and Permira got nervous. “It was a quite peculiar moment,” Sassi remembers. “They had owned the company for less than a year and the figures were dropping in a way that the owners had never expected.”

Immediately after her second season, Facchinetti learned that she was out (she has since resurfaced as the womenswear creative director at Tod’s). Chiuri and Piccioli, who had toiled away happily in the shadows, were in.

“I felt they had the capacity to reinterpret the house – understand the past – while also building a strategy for the future,” says Sassi, who was the driving force behind promoting the two. “But externally, people were sceptical.” Specifically the fashion world, which wondered: was the in-house choice of unknown designers a retreat? Was this an attempt to copy Gucci, which had elevated its accessory designer to creative director? And who were these accessory designers, who had never managed to make an It bag in their nine year tenure, anyway? Could they be trusted with a couture house – one of the few that were left standing?

“I was very worried,” remembers Chiuri. “I understood immediately how hard it would be. And I was worried about my private life. I love fashion, but I decided many years ago to have a family and not live only for my job. I wanted to stay the same very simple Maria Grazia, for my children.”

Piccioli’s reaction was quite different. “I always thought opportunity can change your life, and when it comes, it is impossible to say no.” Chiuri adds: “Pierpaolo saw the positive and I saw the negative.”

“I said, ‘We can make it work, we don’t need to change our lives,’” says Piccioli. In any case, they took the job.

“The thing you have to realise about them is that they are incredibly ambitious for this brand,” explains Sassi. “They have gigantic dreams.”

“We had this idea that Valentino could be something timeless, elegant, cool,” says Chiuri. “We love tradition, but also newness. We are two people, and we work in this way, in synthesis. So you need to dream, but then make the dream happen, step by step.”

“And remember that it is about the human touch, most of all. And women – who are many things,” adds Piccioli.

Still, the first two seasons were rocky: a debut show of stiff rainbow satins, followed by a couture of nude and black had everyone scratching their heads. By season four, however, Chiuri and Piccioli had developed the style that has become their signature, a sort of extreme, nun-like silhouette – high, round-neck, slightly raised waist and full skirt – set against a highly decorated fabric, plus the equivalent of the couture T-shirt: wisps of lace and gazar that could be worn with jeans. From there it became ever more refined, as seen in January’s couture show, inspired by 55 different operas from La Traviata to Cleopatra, and as many different looks, from silk-burlap day suits hand-painted in leopard spots to gold‑embroidered lace gowns.

“It’s very contemporary in the way it combines a kind of puritanism with a richness,” says La Rinascente’s Cardini, and indeed, it has struck a chord with young women from Hollywood to Moscow. The young American actress Shailene Woodley wore white Valentino to the Oscars in 2012, and today, Elena Perminova, the 26-year-old partner of Alexander Lebedev, wears it – regularly. She even wore a baby-pink, lace dress paired with burgundy riding boots to January’s couture show, though she is heavily pregnant. “It’s very feminine,” says Perminova. “But, at the same time, it can be something sort of new-wave. Plus, it is timeless: I have a coat at home that I bought two seasons ago, black wool with studded collar, and I wear it everywhere – with jeans, out to dinner.”

In 2012 Permira sold the brand to Mayhoola, and since then, with the new owners, Valentino has been focusing on an orchestrated push into the menswear market. At the Paris men’s show in January, Chiuri and Piccioli included five “couture coats” (available from June, price on request), and they have dreams of opening a couture atelier for menswear. At the moment, menswear only accounts for about seven per cent of sales (accessories are 45 per cent; womenswear just under 40 per cent). Chiuri and Piccioli also plan to open a “sartorial” school to havetheir petits mains teach young craftsmen the art of couture. They are proudest, they say, of the fact that the couture atelier has increased its number of employees to 60, many of whom are in their early 20s. They envision creating a Valentino Museum in the Rome headquarters in Piazza Mignanelli (there’s an archive at Wideville, but it is, not surprisingly, dedicated to Valentino Garavani’s work). Sassi points out that the brand doubled its revenue between 2009 and 2013, and thinks they can double it again, to become a billion-euro company – or more – though he won’t put a time frame on it.

“Every show feels like a step forward,” he says. “Every show gives us more credibility.” As Valentino has become bigger and more successful, Chiuri and Piccioli have been willing to play the part – both have had something of a makeover: Piccioli now wears suits when he takes his runway bow; Chiuri recently chopped her dark hair into a very contemporary pixie crop. They have installed a gym in the office and try to work out every morning; they have become quite fluent in English – but only up to a point.

“They are still very quiet,” says Shulman. “Extremely modest, very down-to-earth,” says Cardini. And “very family-oriented,” adds Souza. The pair are famous for treating their colleagues at Valentino with respect, and affection. “Everyone adores them,” says Souza. “They work so hard.”

They reportedly pushed for key employees to be given shares in the company, and Chiuri still takes her closest assistants on holiday after the show – to relax. They are also notoriously organised.

“Baby, they run those ateliers like little laboratories,” says Souza. “One day, just before we were going to Shanghai, I was looking at the moodboard. It had all changed, so I said, ‘Oh, it’s different now?’ and they looked at me like I was nuts. ‘That’s the next collection,’ they said.”

“We are very decisive,” agrees Chiuri.

“But you should have seen our office two weeks ago,” says Piccioli. “Like a bomb had gone off! Stuff everywhere.”

“Ideas,” says Chiuri.

“But it’s OK,” says Piccioli. “We want to tell the same story, in the end.”