THE ARTISTIC VOICE OF FASHION. Pierpaolo Piccioli is Creative Director of the luxury fashion house Valentino S.p.A. based in Rome. His July 15 2021 couture show at the Venice Biennale of Architecture was acclaimed as being at a new level of meaningful collaboration between the worlds of art and fashion.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Pierpaolo Piccioli, you have a wife, children, a dog. Your work is very glamorous but you don’t even live in Rome. What kind of life do you live?

I don’t want to change my simple life in Nettuno, the place where my wife Simona and I grew up, and the place I wanted to escape from when I was a kid. Our children grow up there and it’s where we feel most comfortable. As a kid in Nettuno I dreamed of couture, fashion, even cinema, and it all looked so far away. I was looking at couture through images, not in reality. When I saw the reality of the clothes, I understood that when you see an image there is always a projection of yourself, and I wanted to keep my identity in that projection. I love my job and I want to be faithful to who I am, because that’s very important.

You are very interested in the movies of Pasolini, Antonioni and Fellini; actors like Marcello Mastroianni; Italian writers, and artists, painters and so on. Why did you decide to go into fashion?  

It just happened. When you’re young, you don’t really plan what you want to do and follow your instincts. I was interested in the images of fashion as cinematic ‘frames’. I wondered what had happened before and after the taking of the picture, and understood that you can tell stories through fashion as you can with cinema.

Was Valentino Garavani your maestro?

In the 80s and 90s Valentino was part of Italian culture. When I was younger I was obsessed by the maestros of couture: Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga. The drama of couture moved me, but I also saw it as work, not just a passion or a hobby.

Does being Creative Director of Valentino mean that you are not only the stylist, but oversee all that is created inside the Maison Valentino?  

As a Creative Director, you are the designer of the clothes, accessories and so on, but you are also responsible for the brand’s values. Collections become the keys with which you can deliver those values, ones that hopefully you believe in too. That’s why Valentino is my place. It’s where I can easily talk about my aesthetic and my vision. At the end of the day, our job is about witnessing our time through our vision of beauty.

“Fashion is not art because the purposes are different, but fashion can have the same dignity as art.”

Pierpaolo Piccioli

Finale of Valentino Des Ateliers at the Gaggiandre in Venice, July 15th 2021. The Gaggiandre consists of two magnificent shipyards with a large internal dock, built between 1568 and 1573. It is part of the Arsenale, which hosts the International Art and Architecture Exhibitions and the International Dance, Music, and Theatre Festivals of La Biennale di Venezia.

Pierpaolo Piccioli, the fashion capital of Italy is Milan. Do you feel far from the centre of your field? 

To be a Roman is to absorb the effortless beauty of the city. Its many layers create a sort of life balance, because the past is part of the present. I’m very proud to be Roman, and our atelier is predominantly made up of Romans. We are unique in that way. When I was young, being Roman you were the uncool guy of fashion, but now it’s fine.

You just held a spectacular haute couture show in Venice, Valentino des Ateliers. How can haute couture survive in a world where most people buy their clothes from brands like Zara and Uniqlo?

Haute couture is the ultimate limited edition. Women that buy couture also wear denim and sneakers and things from Zara. It’s not dictatorial anymore, couture today is about the self-expression of women that want to be bold and unique. A celebration of one-of-a-kind-ness, you can embrace a different world through couture. It’s fine when a woman buys an haute couture coat and wears it with denim jeans and a t-shirt. Couture is not meant to be a total look.

Is this a big shift from when Valentino was very well known for its ‘lifestyle’?

I’m trying to include people that can appreciate beauty. I want to create a community of people that share the same values rather than a ‘lifestyle’. When celebrities like Frances McDormand and Carey Mulligan wear my collection at the Oscars, they are beautiful and glamorous as in the past but they also stand for the same values I stand for. It’s a link which goes deeper than just the aesthetic. It’s more emotional.

Valentino is famous for the use of red, but in Venice you used many other strong colours. Were you influenced by the sixteen artists you worked with?

Art is for art’s sake, fashion has to be related to the body. They are different languages with different purposes. Being in dialogue with artists, mostly painters, I didn’t want just to create a couture dress with a painting applied on top, like a museum t-shirt. Talking with the artists changed my ideas, because I wanted not only to translate the space of the artwork but also to get the same spirit of the artist, to create movement and dimensionality. The painter Jamie Nares, with whom we did the last dress of the show, uses these big big brushes to make just one sign. We met in a moment of transition at the age of sixty eight, and so I decided not to do a coat that I had in my mind but to do a very feminine and dramatic dress, because it was more meaningful. Seeing this very feminine dress which came from our conversation as the last dress of the Venice show was an emotional moment for me that was both professional and personal.

Art has no practical purpose and is made to last. Is fashion made to last?

Fashion is not art because the purposes are different, but fashion can have the same dignity as art. Fashion is not forever as art should be, but our wish is to be a lasting witness to our times. Yves Saint Laurent led the change for women in the 70s. His collections in the 70s and 80s were of the moment, but they will last forever because they witness a change of society, not only of clothes. A designer has a voice. Hopefully, as a designer doing couture you use your voice to lead change in the world of men and women.

How do you witness this Covid time, which none of us could have imagined before?

By hoping for a world with no boundaries, of genders, characters, sizes, ages, whatever it is. Values are much more important than barriers. Two years ago I had decided to do this collection as a classic collection. I was looking at pictures from the grand haute couture days in the salon and thinking that when haute couture was born it was meant to be for beautiful women. Haute couture is a celebration of uniqueness, but in those days black women were not even allowed to use the same toilet as white women, and so I was trying to say, “What if you change the face of the women wearing those clothes, but do the same kind of clothes?” I did a collection full of clichés of couture but worn by 50 black women rather than the stereotypes of the girls you used to see in couture. The image at the end of the show of all these black ladies being celebrated, and giving them this dignity of wearing the grand haute couture, meant much more than words talking about black lives matter. And when you see on the runway of Venice men and women sharing the same wardrobe, you don’t really feel they are men or women, but just people on the same runway. You have a picture of a world with no boundaries and don’t need to talk about equality because the idea of equality is there. If my neighbour sees the runway and thinks that it’s normal, my mission is accomplished. I work through the image because I am a designer and I use that as a language. In this collection I used some coats and hats I had used before. A language has a vocabulary, and you can reuse your own words in a different way to tell a different story.

“I want art and fashion to be in conversation”

Pierpaolo Piccioli, the fashion show as spectacle is something quite new. Are shows like the one in Venice cultural events?

I start every collection with a very precise picture of the finale in my mind. I work back from that and start creating the collection, the colours, the casting. I want to involve all the people who work with me every day in that picture. I want them to give a feeling of lightness. I don’t want to see the technical, because when you show too much technicality you miss the magic about fashion. I explain my final picture to them because when choosing between two good colours I want the one that is closer to my final picture. In fact, I’m more interested in the balance of colours, because you don’t invent colours but you can invent a new balance of colour. You can link two things together that usually are far, and immediately, if it works, you have a new balance, a new harmony. That’s the real thing, the feeling of joy and hope that I want to deliver at the end of the show. I want art and fashion to be in conversation, and being in the Biennale, in that metaphysical space, was the real thing to me.

You like to listen and learn from young people, but can they afford to buy Valentino?

I love young people because they are free, and maybe most young people cannot afford the beauty of couture, but when you take your kids to a museum you don’t promise to buy the paintings. You educate them to beauty, to the fact that we are all different, all witnessing something through painting from our point of view, from our own deep emotion. Kids stand for the values that they believe in, they are not careless. Even in couture you educate them to lead change.

In the Italian Renaissance bottega Raphael or Michelangelo involved many other people. Do you need people around you?

For decades designers in Italy have been depicted as this solo big designer alone in their room with flowers and inspiration. If I didn’t have people with me, I couldn’t make my dream come true. I thank them every day for their passion. You need people that are involved with you.  I have to inspire them, to explain to them, because every day I want them to put their passion, their fear, their love into a dress. I have two age groups in the atelier. People in their 60s and people in their 20s and 30s, mostly graduates, choose to be here. The generation in between do not, because doing something like a métier does not dignify the passion of career women. It’s important from my side to give people dignity, to give them value, because if not couture won’t exist anymore in Italian culture.

Is it difficult to create something new all the time, to change and to adjust?

Every day I try not to forget I was a kid dreaming of doing fashion and being in this world. This is a great opportunity for me, and I still feel lucky. I’m not obsessed by doing something different, with ageing I let my emotions and thoughts flow in a more fluid way. I was dividing my job from who I am, but now everything is much more overlapped. Humanity is the real inspiration, always.

Pierpaolo Piccioli

Pierpaolo Piccioli’s haute couture collection Valentino des Ateliers: “Serena T.”, aubergine bouillonné light faille draped mini dress. Hat by Philip Treacy for Valentino.

Pierpaolo Piccioli

Pierpaolo Piccioli’s haute couture collection Valentino des Ateliers: “Giuseppe, Debora, Laura, Nina, Bianca, Lea, Sara”, minirobe boule de radzimir bordeaux, taffetas brique et crêpe cerise. Hat by Philip Treacy for Valentino.

Pierpaolo Piccioli

Pierpaolo Piccioli’s haute couture collection Valentino des Ateliers: “Anara, Oriana”, combinaison short bouffante de faille moiré et organza chocolat. Hat by Philip Treacy for Valentino.

Pierpaolo Piccioli

Pierpaolo Piccioli’s haute couture collection Valentino des Ateliers: finale Valentino Des Ateliers fashion show. Floating hats and grandiose ball gowns, vibrant colors, nonchalant draping and movements.

Pierpaolo Piccioli

Pierpaolo Piccioli’s haute couture collection Valentino des Ateliers: (1st look from left) “Giuseppe, Anna, Riccardo, Elena, Cristina, Sara, Alessandro Teoldi”, long dress with mixed intarsia techniques and applications of peau de soie and faille in the reds of the artist’s red series.

Artwork “Untitled (Alitalia, American Airlines, Iberia, Qantas), 2019” by Alessandro Teoldi.

720 hours for the creation, 10 different fabrics.

(2nd look) “Daniela A., Francesca, Ylenia, Annamaria, Jamie Nares”, oversize cape in ivory satin with a print of cut-out and re-applied brushstrokes. (Blues in Red). The 5-color screen print uses heavy inks to echo the gestural work of the artist. Given the great size of the piece, the printing frames had to be custom-built and printed by hand. The garment is treated with the same technique on silk cady (It’s Raining in Naples).

Artworks “Blues in Red 2004 – It’s Raining in Naples 2003” by Jamie Naries.

700 hours for the creation, 107 meters of fabric.

Pierpaolo Piccioli

Pierpaolo Piccioli’s haute couture collection Valentino des Ateliers. Finale Valentino Des Ateliers fashion show. Performance by Cosima, the London born and raised artist.

Soundtrack: CALLING YOU, Hank William Sr; J’ADORE VENICE, Ivano Fossati; BY YOUR SIDE, Helen Adu, Paul Denman, Andrew Hale, Stuart Matthewman; THE FUN IS HERE, Cosima; SUPERNOVA, Cosima; TEARDROPS, Womack & Womack; NOWHERE TONIGHT, Cosima; WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS LOVE, Burt F Bachrach, Hal David.

“I want to propose values to fashion. I want to be relevant, to embrace the world of today.”

Pierpaolo Piccioli, before the Venice show did you have the same sort of fear or preoccupation that you had at the beginning of your career? And are you already thinking of the next step?

I’m a control freak, so in the moments just before the show I was talking with all the models, trying to explain to them that they were not modelling for me, they were just persons who should be proud of being in this big feature of equality. I was trying to involve them in my own dream, because if they’re not part of that it’s difficult and you just have models who don’t give you a piece of them self on the runway. Cosima was performing the music, and we were talking together about our feeling at that moment. I only relax when everything is done. And yes, of course, I’m already working on the next collection. 

What do you have in mind?  

I don’t really change the big values I want to deliver, I just want to change the way you talk about the same big dreams. It will be different, it’s important to move on and not to indulge in something that was good. I try to look for the mistakes, because I always start the next collection from the mistakes.

What is Valentino today?

It is freedom. It is equality. It is still beauty, but more beauty of identity than beauty of aesthetics. It’s deeper, multi-dimensional. I want to propose values to fashion. I want to be relevant, to embrace the world of today. I want to face it and not live in the past. Mr. Valentino himself is part of my job; I worked with him, I have a lot of respect for what he did, but without nostalgia. This house welcomed me years ago, and I’m very grateful for this but I have to be faithful to who I am. Being in Valentino for twenty years is also part of my DNA, my identity. Like Rome, it’s a past that lives in the present. But it is definitely the present. Valentino today is about now.

If you were a professor with students from many different countries – boys, girls, Chinese, Africans, Germans, whatever – when they say, “Listen, we want to be designers, we want to work with you, we want to become the new fashion people,” what would you say?  

I would tell them to be faithful to who they are, not to change, and not to feel that they have to follow the  stereotypes, to be in a box.  I didn’t follow any rules. I come from the seaside and that’s part of who I am today. A designer has to have something that is beyond fashion, to believe in something deeper, something more emotional that touched you.  It’s the same for fashion, for music, for cinema. You can create emotions through delivering your very personal idea of beauty.

Then ultimately you do want to make people beautiful?

I want people to be proud of who they are, exactly how they are. For both men and women I always look for grace, the harmony that comes from aura, more than beauty. It’s about something that comes from inside and outside together, and you can look for the same in both men and women. I think that it’s important today that we say, “Come as you are. You will be welcome.” That’s the most interesting idea of beauty for me. 

Thank you very much Pierpaolo. It was very interesting to listen to you.

All images courtesy of Valentino. Portrait of Pierpaolo Piccioli by Inez & Vinoodh.