Fashion designers have the gift of transformation, and on a sunny late afternoon, Giambattista Valli’s studio, located on the Rue Boissy d’Anglas in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, resembles a garden in full bloom. Hanging from rails that shoot through two connecting showrooms is a stunning display of silk faille, gazar, cady and tulle gowns, poplin blouses and long-line organza skirts that glimmer with mosaic-like patches of sequins. One ivory chiffon gown features a burst of hand-sewn wisteria-hued petals around the décolleté; another outfit has a vast, trailing skirt made from hand-tufted tulle tiers that ripple in a wave of sunflower yellow and ivory; while more modestly (if you can ever call haute couture modest), there is a waisted, sinewy dress in vivid green and yellow “daisy” macramé and embroidery. Every piece in this homage to botanical wonders aches with beauty. The atelier’s petites mains have spent thousands of hours making the collection.
“On one side of the room is the show collection and on the other there are runway edits. It is editing that makes a strong movie, a collection, a life – it’s true,” says the Rome-born and raised Valli. Unlike his exuberant creations, the designer is anonymously dressed in a black sweater, jeans, clear-framed glasses and his signature string of “good luck” 17th-century Mughal pearls. It’s the day after Valli presented his haute-couture collection, entitled simply No 7. “I don’t like names, I prefer numbers. Each number is like a new chapter in the same story,” he muses, while his young, platinum-haired male assistant Elia places down a cup of black tea. The novelty mug, which sits rather grandly on a napkin-covered saucer, features Miss Piggy – also in a string of pearls.
“The collection starts with memories or flashes of things that come to mind, and in this case it was the Alhambra gardens for both their eclecticism of cultures and their atmosphere. Gardens and flowers are part of the ABC of Giambattista Valli – they just look so good on women,” says Valli. He also drew inspiration from the gardens and masterfully depicted light in the work of Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923). There is an echo of Sorolla’s era in the fishtail skirts, and a Moorish influence in the swooping, cape-backed black silk-cady gowns. “My woman, she’s not a fashion icon or a fashion queen – she’s a person, a human being. She’s always in love, or near to love. I imagine her taking a morning walk in her lover’s pyjama jacket and a ballgown skirt from the evening before. Three words: ageless, timeless, effortless – that’s the DNA. I see this collection on friends and customers. It could be worn by Bianca Brandolini d’Adda, Eugenie Niarchos or Charlotte Casiraghi.” In one flourish of open-ended sentences, Valli has framed himself as the romantic “poet”, the astute brand director and a designer with a vision that appeals to a collective sentimental sweet spot.
From this Paris address, where his studio, showroom and boutique are located, Valli creates two haute-couture collections and two ready-to-wear collections, plus resort and pre-fall, handbags and shoes, every year. This week has also seen the Milan catwalk launch of a younger “sister” line called Giamba (the designer’s nickname) that has been in the planning for 18 months. There are two main collections and two pre-collections, as well as accessories, and the maison has recently been extended to a fourth floor to accommodate the enlarged team.
The Giamba line (produced by Italian manufacturer BVM SpA and distributed by GBO, a firm established by Valli in partnership with entrepreneur Mario Bandiera, the founder of BVM) is about easy, eclectic, free-spirited everyday feminine pieces, and has a target of about 500 retailers globally. It promises to significantly boost the estimated €22m in wholesale revenues made by the Giambattista Valli and accessories collections from over 300 stockists (including Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman in the US). Every season has seen a growth in sales, and for autumn/winter 2014, ready-to-wear has increased by 20 per cent and shoes by 50 per cent compared with the previous season. It is unusual to find a major designer who runs and owns his own business, and Valli, who launched on his own nine years ago (after leaving Paris house Emanuel Ungaro), is determined to stay independent, operating as sole owner, CEO and creative director.
“I look over everything,” says Valli, “not because I’m egocentric, but because I write the philosophy in every aspect, from commercial and business development to boutiques. Sometimes designers are only involved in the styling and creativity; I like the art of business. It’s important to be strategic in all the processes and to be faithful to your customers, so you evolve as they do.”
The maison is elegant but not extravagantly decorated, and the two stores (in Paris and Milan) are furnished with a mix of contemporary objects and antiques. Giamba will be the designer’s most commercial gambit to date. Where collection dresses start at €1,200, a dress from Giamba will hover around €800. In retail parlance, other designers in the same sort of bracket include Isabel Marant, Alexander Wang and Kenzo, and are sometimes termed “contemporary designers”. “The brand offers customers timeless sophistication,” says Anita Barr, group fashion buying director for Harvey Nichols, which has been stocking Giambattista Valli since the label launched in 2005. “Valli is one of the few designers who possesses the technical expertise of couture and offers this through his ready-to-wear line – we find his clothes appeal to customers of all ages. We have clientele who are loyal Valli customers, buying the label every season. However, we also see one-off sales to customers who are looking to invest in a statement piece.”
Valli’s success may be attributed to talent, hard work and business acumen, but the main driver is a clear vision of the women he designs for. “The biggest secret behind the growth of my business is that I am not intimidated about making beautiful clothes. Sometimes designers are scared because they want to be avant- garde or edgy. I want to dress a woman and for her husband to say, ‘You look beautiful.’ I love women who are comfortable being women.”
As much as such statements can sound like designer rhetoric, Valli’s sense of luxury and beauty appeals because it is both artful and straightforward. The fashion landscape has been dominated by so-called “urban cool” (skinny jeans, biker jackets, fetish-tinged eveningwear) for the best part of the past decade. Yes, dazzling digital prints, hyper-feminine pastels, circle skirts and utilitarian luxury have had their moments, but Valli’s strain of pretty has proven staying power. It is never overly saccharine or too nostalgic. He works between the extremes of architectural and fluid, of modern and decorative, of charming and erotic, and that zigzag gives his designs personality. Crucially, they also have flattering form and structure.
“The story of Giambattista Valli is a story of duality, in which the exuberance of his Italian roots is artfully coupled with the formal rigour of the French,” says Pamela Golbin, chief curator of contemporary fashion at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris, in the 2013 Rizzoli book Giambattista Valli. “As if to deepen the imprint of his signature, Valli returns tirelessly to his origins. He creates and intimately orchestrates tensions, drawing from Italian cinema and the art of the 1960s – a pivotal period dear to Giambattista, during which the expression of a new modernism emerged and flourished.” She continues, “Complicity with women – through their body language and the gestures they adopt – is central to Valli’s practice because, like a film director, he directs his models as if they are actresses.”
From a retailer’s perspective, Sasha Sarokin, buying manager at Net-a-Porter, pinpoints the dresses and maxi skirts as bestsellers and the UK, US and Hong Kong as key markets. “Giambattista Valli offers statement, fashion-forward pieces in beautiful fabrics and prints with attention-grabbing appeal. All of his designs are occasion-appropriate and feature the brand’s signature silhouette. The floral-printed asymmetric skirt [£524], drop-waisted mini dress [£730] and cashmere coat [£1,040] from the autumn/winter 2014 ready-to-wear collection are incredibly fun and feminine.”
The sophistication of the brand is rooted in Valli’s training. “It was a biological necessity to set up my own line. Beforehand, it was like being the voiceover in a film when you really want to act.” The “beforehand” Valli refers to is the many years he spent working for different houses. The Rome-born designer, who attended a Vatican school until the age of 13, studied fashion at the city’s Istituto Europeo di Design in 1986, followed by an illustration course at Central St Martins in London. He was introduced to the world of glamour in 1988 in his first job – as an assistant to Roberto Capucci, a flamboyant designer, known for his lavish sense of colour and sculpted gowns, who became a magnet for Roman and Parisian high society during the 1960s and enjoyed a renaissance in the late 1970s. “From Roberto Capucci, I learnt the philosophy of not being a trendy fashion designer – to step a little bit out of the spotlight of the moment and also to keep the human side intact,” says Valli.
He went on to work for Fendi in 1990, and with Karl Lagerfeld at the creative helm and supermodel-powered fashion shows, there was an “international flavour that I had not smelt and seen before”. On moving to Paris in 1997, he experienced his steepest learning curve at the atelier of Emanuel Ungaro, where as first assistant he learnt about the art of flou drapery, tailoring and the rituals of the couture atelier. “In that role you are expected to do everything. You pass the pins and never disturb the master’s work,” says Robert Forrest, who was a consultant at the house at the time. Ungaro was so impressed by Valli’s talent that he made him creative director of ready-to-wear in 2001. “Giambattista has always been very driven, and his work for Ungaro was light, fresh and young, all about colour, texture, fabric and luxuriousness – he totally got that. The stores loved what he did,” says Forrest.
“It was a beautiful moment in Paris,” reflects Valli. “John Galliano was at Dior, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy and Stella McCartney at Chloé. It was a ‘super-genius’ era. I think it’s a British attitude, but everyone supported one another. Today, it is much more fragmented, with everyone in his or her tower.”
At the same time, the late 1990s witnessed a sea change in fashion. A surge of new designers, including Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, ushered in a view of Parisian luxury that reflected urban life, style, culture and a savvy attitude. The staging of shows shifted from the tidy, polite atmosphere of the Carrousel auditorium underneath the Louvre to historic and industrial buildings where designers were able to project a “vision”.
After Valli left Emanuel Ungaro, he set out on his own, showing his first autumn/winter collection in 2005. Italian manufacturer the Gilmar Group produced and distributed the line for the first five years. Valli’s trademark of relaxed dress-up – cashmere sweaters with pouf skirts; ruched evening gowns with flourishes of lace and velvet; exaggerated embellishments – had a freshness and exuberance that hit a nerve. Retailers were lacking a new voice in what had become a staid occasionwear market. His “flower explosion” party dresses, volumes, kinetic ruffles and furls soon became moneymaking signatures. In 2007, he also became the designer of Moncler Gamme Rouge, the fashion-led collection launched by the Italian outerwear brand.
Shoe designer Charlotte Olympia Dellal worked as an intern for Valli, both at Ungaro and later at his own label in Paris, while she was a student at Cordwainers at the London College of Fashion. “He works incredibly hard and his attention to detail and craftsmanship is perfectionist,” says Olympia Dellal, who owns several of his party dresses, jackets, pencil skirts and leopard-print pieces. “He loves to know that you had a good time in a dress, even if it ended up being a little trashed after a fantastic night out – he’d much rather you did that than spend an evening sitting down trying to preserve it.” Olympia Dellal called on Valli to make the wedding gown for her marriage to financier Maxim Crewe in 2010. “I thought I would be so controlling over what my wedding dress should be, but I handed it over to Giambattista and did not interfere.” What emerged was a grand design featuring a vast, cascading ruffled‑tulle skirt tied at the waist with Valli’s signature grosgrain ribbon. After the ceremony, Olympia Dellal stepped out of the skirt to reveal a “second” dress that exploded into a fishtail: “I wore minimal make-up and a silk flower in my hair – the dress was magical and felt like a second skin.”
Fine art, pop culture, photography, erotica and sculpture are all part of Valli’s world. He has a love for the work of Piero Manzoni and Alberto Burri, as well as the photography of Wolfgang Tillmans and the late Corinne Day, with whom he worked on haute-couture campaigns for Emanuel Ungaro. He calls Elia for the Rizzoli book and leafs through the pages with nimble fingers, flipping from a Louise Bourgeois sketch, to abstract work by Burri, to a portrait by a friend, Francesco Clemente, and through to images of his collections in the making. His illustrations are always on tall, long-legged, oval-faced figures that look a lot like Elia. “Maybe that’s why I chose him,” Valli jests. The book is a key to the Valli world and is 400 pages long.
The influence of Rome is explored in a brilliant short film that was on show at this year’s Glamour of Italian Fashion V&A exhibition. Images of baroque architecture are spliced with clips of Antonioni and Fellini heroines, creating a collage that bounces to and fro between decadence and solemnity, bathos and grace. In the book and in the short film, you can witness Valli’s vivid, sponge-like mind at work. He assimilates and “computes” at speed. When work is done, he closes the door and heads to his airy apartment, which also houses an impressive collection of art. “US Vogue shot my apartment – I had to take down the erotic work,” he laughs.
His front rows always attract a cross-section of the jeunesse dorée – young, glossy heiresses, entrepreneurs, actresses and party girls who over the years have regularly included Bianca Brandolini d’Adda, Elena Perminova, Tatiana Santo Domingo and Eugenie Niarchos. In Valli’s brightly coloured, flirtatious dresses and strappy heels, they exude a confident, fun-loving sense of glamour. His flounced skirts, feathers and ruffles are made for dancing.
“I always think that I’m still at the beginning – there’s so much to do. What have been the main challenges? You know what – I did not stop to look at the problems, but have been running to resolve everything. The moment you stop taking risks is the moment you get old. When I started the business I was 38 and wanted to take that risk because I knew it would be now or never. I looked back when I did the book and really saw that what I have started is not finished at all. If it was ‘done’, I would want to change job.”
At that point, Valli excuses himself. An Italian editor has arrived to view the collection, and the designer nimbly leaps up to continue his call of duty.