Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli has long been beloved for pushing fashion forward with his magical yet meaningful couture. This season, he transcends the craft with the help of 16 contemporary artists

Don’t call Pierpaolo Piccioli an artist. He insists.

“It’s provocative to say this, I know, but fashion is not art to me,” the designer says in a hushed, thoughtful tone, his Rs curling through a thick Italian accent. “Fashion needs to work with the body, there is a practical purpose, but art is free from constraint.”

Piccioli is perched across from me on an ornate sofa, wearing his black hoodie-and-slacks uniform, square Ray-Bans firmly planted on his nose as he swings a sneakered foot over his knee. He continues, “Both are languages with which you can express yourself and your values. Fashion is my language.” On a simmering July afternoon, we are at a preview in Paris, beneath the chandeliered ceiling of a grand salon in Place Vendôme, several gowns dotted around us, each almost camouflaged against a corresponding artwork. I imagine it is what the inside of Piccioli’s head might look like.

The pieces, from cashmere capes to majestic ballgowns, are part of his latest couture collection, Valentino Des Ateliers, for which he enlisted 16 contemporary artists from around the world with the help of curator Gianluigi Ricuperati to partake in an “exchange of ideas”; he sees the work as more than just a collaboration. “I didn’t want to do an ‘artsy’ collection; I wanted to do a collection that’s inspired by a conversation between humans, that’s about empathy, about connection—especially during a time last year where there was no connection—and about love,” he says.

If this all sounds a touch saccharine, know that Piccioli, who has made Valentino synonymous with unabashed romanticism, is sincere. Since becoming creative director (for eight years from 2008 alongside Maria Grazia Chiuri, now artistic director of womenswear at Christian Dior, and solo since 2016), Piccioli’s ready-to-wear has had fans lusting over his indulgent designs—the Rockstud, a design he popularised on Valentino accessories, or the menswear collection he produced with Undercover’s Jun Takahashi featuring pieces printed with lines of poetry come to mind. But couture is where Piccioli’s vision thrives unfettered. “To me, couture is a philosophy and approach about people, it’s not just about technique.” This is something reflected in every element of his work, even down to the appellation: as per a tradition Piccioli started, each couture look is named after the seamstress who made it. 

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As such, Piccioli wasn’t interested in simply printing works of art on garments but instead sought to bring art to life through fashion. “In order to do this, I had to catch the spirit of the artist, not only their colours or the shapes of their brushstrokes,” he says. He points behind the sofa to a blood-red ballgown featuring what resembles a collage of arms embracing. The piece was created with artist Alessandro Teoldi, whose original artwork was recycled from old aeroplane blankets. Piccioli therefore chose to recreate the shapes with archival fabrics of the house, including those used by Valentino Garavani himself. “To me, [this work] is a story of how memories are part of our present,” says Piccioli.

Quite often those who are fortunate enough to be witnesses at his spectacles speak of being moved, sometimes even to tears. Perhaps it’s because Piccioli says he himself must first be moved by his own creations. What strums his heartstrings could be a particular shape draped just so, or a colour so succulent you can almost taste it. It is this criterion that Piccioli used to select the artists for the project. “I was just drawn to certain works where I felt something, so they’re all emotional and personal to me; only when I feel something can I deliver emotions to other people,” he says.

When Piccioli came across Chinese artist Rui Wu’s work, his interest was piqued by the subtlety in the way Wu mixed colours. Piccioli, after all, is himself a master manipulator of colour; he is lauded as the industry’s best since Yves Saint Laurent. The runway is his canvas and the columns of chartreuse, paired with aubergine gloves and topped off with a dash of pink, his sartorial brushstrokes. “To me, a new colour is a combination of colours,” he says. In a tête-à-tête with Wu, the artist told Piccioli that the distinct, icy blue hue was inspired by a Chinese legend in which a haughty emperor gave a porcelain maker the impossible task of creating a vase in the colour of the moon reflected in a lake. “That’s poetry, no?” says Piccioli, who studied literature at Rome University before his career in fashion. Piccioli attempted to mimic Wu’s colours with sequins for the resulting couture piece. “When he told me about this story, I was so moved, I wanted to pretend like I’m the porcelain maker and try to do something impossible.”

At times Piccioli tried to echo the artist; at others he responded au contraire, as was the case with Italian artist Benni Bosetto’s pencil sketches. “I love that her work uses these almost violent gestures to express her feminism and rebellion against a misogynistic society,” he says, his tattooed fingers tracing the lines. “But I decided to respond to her quick, aggressive strokes with something super slow like threadwork, so it’s like I’m trying to give her the calm and serenity she’s looking for.” The resulting work is a conversation in the most tactile form.

But sometimes, most excitingly, the result takes a form neither designer nor artist expects. As we stand to make our way to another room, Piccioli pulls me towards
a white opera cape marked by crimson brushstrokes created for artist Jamie Nares. “Jamie was actually James when I met her,” says Piccioli. “I didn’t even know she was transitioning; all I saw was the amazing power of the strokes in her art because she uses the strength of her entire body to make them. At first, I wanted to make a more casual shape, but when I learnt her story, I changed to this grand coat with full sleeves, almost like she’s a chrysalis becoming a butterfly.”

We exit the quiet salon and, in the halls, a sea of stylists, models and assistants are dashing about, pausing or parting ways respectfully to smile or nod at their commander-in-chief. The upstairs room is split down the middle by a makeshift runway, lined with heels in every colour of the rainbow and flanked by Piccioli’s mood boards of every design. Because he let his instincts guide his selection of artists, it is perhaps unsurprising that each of their work is laden with meaning, and several even with socio-political agendas. Rwandan artist Francis Offman’s landscape collages made from found objects, for example, are dripping with references to the Black Lives Matter movement, which Piccioli decided to translate into a men’s jumpsuit. “I wanted to emphasise the labour, and the social responsibility he felt as an artist,” says Piccioli. “His work is political, he is a witness of his times, which I share. I don’t want to be neutral or safe. This past year made me decide to use my voice in a more radical way.”

Indeed, Piccioli has never shied away from using his runway as a podium. Fashion, he says, is an action word, and every season is an opportunity to lend visibility to important issues. The social movements of the past year have galvanised him to further his mission of making the fashion industry more inclusive, so he has been starting with its most exclusive arena, couture. “You can do clothes and not do fashion,” he says. “Fashion for me is when you shift the tastes of people, when you allow people to think about things and not just to dream about things.”

His spring 2019 couture collection aimed to highlight the beauty of Black women, who were historically excluded from couture. The show, which made headlines, was a nod to Cecil Beaton’s iconic 1948 group portrait of models in Charles James ballgowns and is now seared into the memories of anyone who caught even a glimpse of it. For his couture show this January, he included men—another tradition-defying act, though not entirely unprecedented. “I was hoping we could come out of this pandemic with an opportunity for a better world with no boundaries for any culture or gender,” he says. “This season of course I have menswear again; you cannot stand for something for one season.”

Piccioli falls silent as one of his fit models emerges on the runway in a vermillion satin minidress and a matching hat by Philip Treacy, feathered tentacles trailing behind as she walks. We sit mesmerised as if suddenly catching sight of a rare sea creature. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Piccioli finally whispers.

Two weeks later, the world saw the collection presented at the Venice Biennale. “I always start every collection with a final picture, and Venice was the only environment I could imagine ending this conversation, a context where art and culture intersect,” says Piccioli. Under the serene light of a fading sunset, models of different genders and races moved gracefully between the white arches of the Gaggiandre, a former shipyard, before lining up along the water, the saturated hues of each gown spilling into the lagoon.

“I’m aware that images have the power, sometimes even stronger than words, to change minds” he says. “You don’t need to explain. When you see an image, you can feel something and maybe even accept an idea. That’s when your job is accomplished.”

Piccioli may not claim to be an artist, but what he creates are undoubtedly works of art—because what is art if not the daring to create something that wasn’t there before?

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