Ask anyone in the world of fashion to nominate their recent favourite industry moments, and the odds are Pierpaolo Piccioli was the architect behind them. The elegant designer stole all the headlines at couture week last summer, when he presented the model Kaia Gerber wearing a giant confection of pastel-pink marabou and super-volumised bouffant hair. Two months before, he escorted Frances McDormand, resplendent in an aquamarine cape and a feathery headdress recalling a halo of butterflies, to the Met Gala. Earlier this year, he dressed Lady Gaga, magnetic and majestic in a showstopping periwinkle ballgown that was custom-dyed to match her hair, for the Golden Globes. She may not have won all the awards, but she stole the show.
In an industry driven by sales figures and costs per unit, Piccioli’s designs are a haven for fashion purists. Not that his designs aren’t commercial; they are. But they have a sense of exuberance and joy about them that seems to recall another, altogether more wonderful, era. Born in Nettuno, a coastal town just outside Rome, in 1967, Piccioli has always lived and worked near his birthplace. He studied fashion design at Rome’s Istituto Europeo di Design in the 1980s, and it was in the city that he met Maria Grazia Chiuri, a fellow Roman designer with whom he was appointed, in 1990, to work at Fendi. He joined Valentino in 1999, crossing Rome with Chiuri to work on shoes and accessories under the brand’s charismatic founder Valentino Clemente Ludovico Garavani. Following a short interregnum period after Garavani’s retirement, the pair were appointed creative co-directors of the house in 2008. They transformed its profits with their clever commercial focus – the spring/summer 2011 introduction of a superstar accessory, the Rockstud shoe, in particular helped drive brand revenues beyond the €1bn mark.
Piccioli was made the sole creative director in 2016 following Chiuri’s move to Dior womenswear. But it was only last year that his solo vision for the house seemed to take flight. His womenswear shows garnered unanimous critical praise and brought audiences to their feet. Most satisfying of all, the spring/summer 2019 collection, shown last September, found the designer evoking the mastery, skill and precision of the couture atelier on which the house was founded in 1960, and translating it into ready-to-wear. His voluminous black summer gowns with knife-edged pleating (from £1,890), crisp cotton shirt dresses (from £1,890) and velvet jacquard pyjama suits (tops from £3,450, trousers from £4,500), decorated in Persian-carpet patterns and in kaleidoscopic colours, elicited a rapturous response. That he had an exceptional year was confirmed in December when he was anointed The Fashion Awards’ International Designer of the Year.
“I’m very in my shoes,” says Piccioli, of his feelings towards the house that has been his creative home for two decades. He is wearing his customary uniform of black trousers and T-shirt, over which he throws a long black overcoat when the temperature requires. His deep tan face, slight features and neat moustache lend him a slightly melancholy expression – he might be Steve Buscemi’s chicer Italian cousin – although when he smiles, which he does often, his whole demeanour changes.
We are meeting not at the maison’s headquarters but in a rather arid business complex in Ginza, Tokyo, where the Valentino team has taken up residence to prepare for a pre-fall show presenting designs that will go on sale in April. The jet lag and the intensity of the schedule are only slight inconveniences for the designer, who has perched an espresso beside him. As anyone who works around him will attest, his energy levels are immense. “I think I’m very aware of myself and that I’m managing such a great company,” continues Piccioli, of the position he now finds himself in.
With such a long period of experience at the label before assuming sole creative control, he felt no need to effect any major change when Chiuri left. Nevertheless, these last years of independence have allowed him to spread his wings. “My way of working is different maybe,” he reflects. “When you work together, you have to share your thoughts, and sharing thoughts means everything must have a reason; the process becomes more academic and everything is more structured. Now, things float more between thoughts and emotions: if I feel something and I feel it’s good, I go for it, even if I don’t know why. I’ve definitely become more instinctive as a designer. The process is more free, more fluid.”
Certainly, the great success of Piccioli’s ready-to-wear collection for this season was found in its sublime simplicity. “It was absolutely beautiful, a standout of the season,” says Natalie Kingham, fashion buying director at Matchesfashion.com. “It really encapsulated the couture mood we saw coming through [in ready-to-wear].” Kingham was quick to buy in many of the collection’s more rigorous designs: in particular a black cotton dress with a structural silhouette (from £3,450), a pristine white shirt dress with a scarf-neck detail and gently pleated skirt (£1,890), a white cotton blouse with large bell-sleeves and a round neck (£1,590) and another white shirt with exaggerated proportions (£1,000).
“Pierpaolo understands what confident women want to wear today, from the flat shoes that allow you to run round effortlessly to his cleverly cut dresses that are long and voluminous, or shorter and colourful. We think it’ll really resonate with our customers,” says Kingham, who also seized upon the Escape sandals (£575), which have a detachable strap that fastens to the heel like a feathery fender. “The head-to-toe separates in one colour felt modern and polished. The jewellery, in matte gold, was super-clean and sculptural to complement the clothing. Every look was desirable and it felt very empowering.”
Maria Milano, head of womenswear at Harrods, was equally enamoured. “I felt Valentino’s spring/summer 2019 runway show was the highlight of the season,” she says. “It was so elevated and chic, but without being fussy. Pierpaolo put black back on the fashion agenda, and the caped gowns (complete with pockets), micro-pleated dresses, raffia bags and feathered sandals will perform very well.”
According to Milano, Piccioli’s solo collections were a “smash hit” from the outset. “They strike just the right balance between being demure and fashion forward,” she says. “The long-sleeved gowns and the saturated colours – particularly red and pink – will be a big pull factor [for our clients]. Valentino is an important business for us across the board and a solid performer.”
The brand’s Tokyo trip coincided with the opening of a pop-up Valentino store, selling everything from the maison’s own womenswear, menswear and accessories to locally sourced artisanal products, branded phone holders and limited edition collaborations with Japanese labels, such as the popular streetwear brand Undercover. Walking around the store provides a clear insight into the demands on a modern creative director, and the need, within an ever-fluctuating global economy, to develop a range of products that will satisfy a spectrum of Valentino women.
“Japan has always fascinated me, because it has a different kind of beauty,” says Piccioli, reflecting on the tastes of his clients. “The western idea of beauty comes from a Greek tradition of perfection, harmony and symmetry. The Japanese idea is more intimate: it’s not about physical attributes, it’s about innate grace and the romantic gestures, transience and beauty of imperfection. That technique, kintsugi [where cracks in pottery are repaired with gold lacquer, highlighting the value of its faults], is interesting to me because it suggests that time adds something to beauty. In the west we tend to look for surface perfection – so I find this idea very romantic.”
In a luxury world that now does much of its business with millennials, Piccioli’s appreciation for a more mature definition of beauty might sound counterintuitive. Doesn’t he have to focus his efforts on youth and its passion for streetwear? “I don’t think about millennials, not really. You can’t target them; that’s a marketing operation and I don’t do marketing, I do fashion. I want to deliver values through clothes. You have to look for emotional connections with your collections, otherwise it’s just about surfaces. And I don’t think that’s enough.”
That said, Piccioli has been keen to recast Valentino. Under Garavani, the couture house embodied a very singular definition of luxury. One of the great challenges that Piccioli has had to address is how to transpose the values of couture and make them work for today. “Years ago, Valentino was about lifestyle, no? The idea of dreams and castles and private jets. But I hate the word lifestyle; it’s an old word. Today, I think lifestyle is more about communities: you love the same car, the same kind of furniture, the same type of books. You share values. I want to get Valentino away from the exclusive world of castles and into a world that’s deeper. I don’t want a beautiful, dusty brand. I want something that is alive.”
But how do you share values at a modern luxury fashion house whose clients are based all over the world, and whose tastes may differ widely? “I think it has to be personal. You have to be closer to people,” says the designer. “I hate the word exclusivity.”
On the catwalk, Piccioli does still conjure a dreamy kind of aesthetic, evoking fashion at its most extravagant and delirious. But he baulks at this suggestion. “I don’t want to present the dream,” he says. “I want it to be a kind of streetwear – but not in the western sense, where streetwear is a sweatshirt. This is about rethinking an old Valentino dress from the red carpet, but using its ruffles on a trench coat and making it in nylon.”
In essence, he translates the grandeur of haute couture by rethinking the designs in more quotidian materials. Instead of silk taffeta, for example, he might use more accessible cotton or nylon. “It’s not basic,” he says, motioning towards a tunic dress covered in tiny fabric petals. “It’s a real dress. The techniques echo the culture of the house, but the clothes are for everyday: a trench, a shirt, a tunic. I think the risk at this moment is doing something that is generic. But this is not generic, because you’re keeping the Valentino codes in the details. You retain the romanticism of the pieces, but in a different way.”
Romance is a word that creeps often into conversation with Piccioli. And his clothes are deeply, unashamedly so. His exquisite colour palette – with its blush-rose pinks, turquoises and carmines – might have been mixed by Michelangelo. It’s this exuberance that makes his clothes so arresting… The sorbet shades and silhouettes cause even the harshest of critics to melt. The clothes are emphatically feminine without appearing too girly; sensual but not sexual. They grab attention and make women look positively regal. When I borrowed a white one-shouldered dress for an awards ceremony, I was struck that, despite the puritan rigour of its silhouette, it was phenomenally easy to wear. A master example of the goddess gown, it also made me feel divine.
Piccioli has an instinctive understanding of designs that flatter. Since becoming the sole creative director at Valentino, his silhouette has become kinder and more relaxed as well: the waists are lower and less princessy, and he has placed a focus on layering that allows for more coverage, if so desired. Of the summer collection arriving in stores, most of the pieces have long sleeves, and almost all are long length themselves. Of course, some of the designs have sheer lace panels and frou-frou feather embellishments, but Piccioli’s work shows a respect for women’s bodies that is often lacking elsewhere.
If he has identified a shift among his female clients, it is found in their attitude. His clothes are meant for people on the move. At the spring/summer 2019 show, models pacing the catwalk in the aforementioned flats, their clothes billowing behind them, looked dynamic and confident. “I never imagine clothes as still,” says Piccioli. “Everything is always moving.”
He has even embraced the most modern of fashion trends, the logo – which this season stars as 1970s-style hardware on thick leather belts (£630) and smart bags (V-Ring, £2,100). He was tentative early on about using such visible branding. “I’m part of the generation that maybe felt the logo was too close to the commercial pieces I didn’t like. I didn’t think of it as fashion,” he says. His mind was changed when he noticed the younger members of his design team wearing branded pieces from the ’70s they had bought on vintage sites. After all, if modern luxury brands are all about shared values and community, he shrugs, the logo is a pretty effective way of becoming part of the club. “The logo today is more about being part of the same gang. It shouldn’t mean, ‘This is an expensive object’; it should express the essence of the brand. I’ll use it in daywear, for T-shirts, for sweatshirts – but it depends how I feel.”
In 2016-17, Piccioli delivered seven per cent growth for the house, which is owned by Mayhoola for Investments, the fund overseen by Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, mother of the Emir of Qatar. Women’s accessories account for 50 per cent of all sales, and in recent years Piccioli has been haunted by the phenomenal success of the Rockstud, which saw Valentino sales more than double in the five years following its launch. “When the Rockstud was introduced, it revolutionised the shoe market and made the kitten heel cool again,” says Milano at Harrods.
Can that lightning strike twice? Piccioli is sanguine about the commercial pressures he faces. “I’m not a very strategic person – and it’s not because I don’t want to stay in safe territory. I like to be free to do whatever I feel.” He’s wary of becoming too enslaved by the bottom line, or too bogged down by the industry. “I’m doing the job of my dreams, for sure. But I have a life, and the job is part of it. I have friends. I have a family. I have a wife, kids. My job is not the only thing.”
Piccioli manages his ego by engaging closely with people, both outside the office and in the design team. “Of course, at the end, you’re alone. And sometimes it’s difficult to communicate your ideas about Japanese iconography, or how you want to do an embroidery – but it is much more interesting, and more intimate, to involve others in your creative process. I also think that sometimes you need to work on something you don’t like, or you didn’t used to like, because it takes you away from safe territory. I work with young people, in their 20s, so I appreciate that they think differently. Filtering something with a new sensibility is good. It’s interesting to be out of your comfort zone, and to experiment not only with the techniques, but with your mind.”
Piccioli’s mind is vivid with ideas right now. The past year has thrust him on a trajectory that few designers ever experience. And his work has been wonderful. Long may the experiments – and the dialogue – continue.