Modesty is a key pillar of Middle Eastern style, but often in short supply amid the international fashion collections – this is an industry prone to dramatic displays of ego and excess – but it is now at the heart of the house of Valentino, thanks to the creative directors, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, and the Qatari owners. I’ve witnessed their quiet approach behind the scenes, during the run-up to half a dozen shows; and on each occasion, they remain calm, composed, and clearly supportive of each other and their team of assistants and white-coated seamstresses. But it’s not just their gently collaborative way of working that suggests a lack of arrogance; their signature designs for Valentino turn modesty into a fine art. Consider the chaste floor length gowns, long sleeves, high necks and graceful decorum that have become such a key part of the Valentino aesthetic; as integral to their collection as the delicate embroidery and subtle embellishment that emerge each season from the house’s couture ateliers in Rome. It is in Rome that, for the first time since 2007, the house chose to show its haute couture collection in July, transporting the fashion industry en masse from Paris to the Italian capital, even closing the Vatican so guests could enjoy a private tour. Harper’s Bazaar Arabia was one of a handful of titles from around the world who secured immediate access to the autumn/winter 2015 couture collection in order to photograph the autumn/winter 2015 haute couture pieces for the September issue, in an unforgettable Roman setting.
It is in the Eternal City that I meet the designers, at the Palazzo Mignanelli, a grand 16th-century mansion close to the Spanish Steps, that has been Valentino’s headquarters since 1988. A team of builders is in situ, restoring the Renaissance palace, but Maria Grazia and Pierpaolo retain their characteristic good humour despite the intermittent drilling that punctuates our conversations. We are sitting in one of the Palazzo’s high ceilinged salons, where pots of vivid pink orchids are arrayed alongside piles of books (some of which give clues to the designer’s sources of inspiration: Deborah Turbeville’s photography; the paintings of John Singer Sargent; the art of Vermeer and Caravaggio; the history of the Gothic). Both, as always, are wearing pieces of their own design: Pierpaolo in camouflage jeans, a navy-blue fine woollen jumper and trainers, Maria Grazia in black trousers, a simple white shirt and metallic-spiked Rockstud shoes. The latter are significant, for this particular style has played an important part in Valentino’s recent and remarkable success. First introduced in 2010, the shoes added an unexpected touch of cool to a house more often associated with traditional notions of elegance, and have regularly sold out ever since. In 2014, Valentino reported a 57 percent increase in earnings, and a 36 per cent gain in revenues; sales have doubled since 2010, with half made up of accessories, and market gains proving to be as impressive in Europe and the US as in Asia.
As it happens, Pierpaolo and Maria Grazia first proved their talent by designing accessories, initially at Fendi, where they worked together for a decade, from 1989 to 1999. The pair had been introduced by a mutual friend, and discovered a shared love of fashion that had developed along similar lines; both studied at the European Institute of Design in Rome, although a couple of years apart (she is now 51, and he is 48). When Maria Grazia started at Fendi, she asked Pierpaolo to join her; they still talk warmly of the creative atmosphere that flourished there, under the aegis of the Fendi sisters. “There was a real sense of democracy”, says Maria Grazia. “Also passion”, adds Pierpaolo, “and community with the seamstresses, which is so important. That’s why we continue to work in this way – we share our ideas with the seamstresses, but they don’t only execute our ideas, they put their own passion and love into the collection. It is like a journey we all do together every season, so we share the dreams we want to deliver at the end…There is a lot of care in every single dress, in every single detail, and you feel that it is something very precious.”
This commitment to the heart and art of fashion stood them in good stead when they joined Valentino in 1999, having been hired as accessories designers by Valentino Garavani himself. The legendary ‘Sheikh of Chic’ (as Women’s Wear Daily dubbed him) had served his apprenticeship in Paris couture houses in the 1950s and launched his own brand in 1960, developing a fabulous vision of jet-set glamour that was embodied in his supremely luxurious lifestyle, as he gilded between his French chateau, private yacht, Gstaad ski chalet, Roman villa and Manhattan apartment. Following Valentino’s retirement in 2007, and Alessandra Facchinetti’s short-lived stint as his replacement, Maria Grazia and Pierpaolo (by then in charge of the brand’s Red diffusion line, as well as the entire accessories range) were promoted to co-creative directors in 2008. But although they have been close friends, as well as professional partners, since the 1080s, they are not romantically linked. Pierpaolo is married with three children, and lives in the same town on the Italian coast where he grew up; Maria Grazia is also married, with two teenagers, and live in Rome. She describes their relationship as “healthy, because we are different, and so probably our vision is more multifaceted.” They work in close proximity – literally, with desks in the same office, facing each other – and their starting point for each collection is a story that first appears in the form of evocative mood board. “We have an idea that we want to describe and so we try to find some inspiration, a book, a picture that could be helpful to describe the atmosphere that we want to communicate,” says Maria Grazia. “After, we look at the fabric, the material, the embroidery, the colour. And finally we arrive at a dress – a dress that describes that story.”
So beguiling are the stories they tell – inspired by sources as varied as Dante, Marc Chagall, Celia Birtwell, Roman opera, Flemish art and the aristocratic tradition of the Grand Tour – that demand has increased sufficiently for them to have added a third couture atelier at Palazzo Mignanelli. As a result, they have employed and trained a new generation of seamstresses, and are also planning to open a couture school in the building, to ensure that the necessary skills and craftsmanship will continue in the future. Maria Grazia is herself the daughter of a seamstress, and although she says her mother tried to encourage her not to go into fashion – “in her mind, the best life was to study” – it is clear that the chance to train at this freshly invigorated couture house is proving to be an inspiring one. “We really feel that there is a new energy,” says Pierpaolo, “with very young guys and girls arriving here – they want to learn and choose to make these dresses. There is a dignity in this job, but it is also fun to see a punky girl in her Doc Martens working beside a 60-year-old lady in her slippers – two generations together, sharing the knowledge and expertise.”
And it is this rare combination of youthful style and enthusiasm, flourishing alongside a profound respect for tradition and legacy that has helped shape Valentino into the contemporary powerhouse it is today. “The company was a little more formal before, says Maria Grazia, “and I think we have added just a bit of subversion.”
Intriguingly, both she and Piccioli make the point that the demure gracefulness that defines their aesthetic is also, in its own way, challenging the norms in fashion (and the wider culture) that equate attractiveness with overt sexualisation. “For us, modesty was a reaction against all the short skirts and nudity, towards a different vision of beauty,” says Maria Grazia.
“We felt that this new grace was more subversive than vulgarity,” continues Pierpaolo. “And it was more sensual, as well.” Their designs have remained true to Valentino’s original idea of elegant femininity – he was, after all, the Italian couturier who dressed Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn – but they also appeal to a new generation of celebrities, including Keira Knightley, who wore a long gown to the Oscars during her pregnancy earlier this year. The look has its roots, in part, with the Renaissance masters who form such a vital element of the Italian culture that the designers revere; but it also seems appropriate for the Middle Eastern couture clients who have been drawn to Valentino (including the Qatari royals, whose enthusiasm was such that their investment group bought the company in 2012 for over Dhs2.8 billion).
But despite the almost monastic purity of their aesthetic, they are sufficiently relaxed to be able to joke about the fashion world that they inhabit. Hence the surprise appearance of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as their Zoolander characters on the Valentino runway in Paris last March; a publicity coup that also produced delighted laughter from the audience (including the more-often poker-faced front row). Needless to say, there was an instantaneous cascade of global social-media coverage – all providing useful pre-publicity for the forthcoming Zoolander sequel (and diverging attention from Maria Grazia and Pierpaolo themselves, who prefer not to be the centre of attention at fashion shows or parties). But despite the designers’ relaxed enjoyment of the stunt, they remain devoted to the real craft of their work, rather than the chatter and white noise of an online world.
Both are clear that Valentino must exist first and foremost in authentic environment – from the couture ateliers of Palazzo Mignanelli to the beautifully considered store that has opened next-door, designed by David Chipperfield. “The problem is that if everything is so accessible online, you don’t use your imagination,” says Pierpaolo. “You can see everything immediately, but you don’t dream.” “And for our job, for this brand, you have to dream,” adds Maria Grazia. As often happens during their conversation, Pierpaolo echoes what she says, in a heartbeat: “You have to be free to dream. Emotion is the only way you can be really free. When you create that connection, you are most subversive…”
They are sitting side by side, opposite me, as they talk, but at this moment, they turn to one another and smile. Who could ever have guessed that these two shy yet disciplined designers would prove able to create such subtle subversion, while also maintaining the romantic vision of their founder? And in a world more often associated with pomp and vanity, what a pleasure to discover that real beauty can be created from the inside, after all…
Styling by Katie Trotter. Photography by Giovanni Zaccagnini. Words by Justine Picardie. This article first appeared in the September issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia