At Valentino, Pierpaolo Piccioli stepped away from red carpet, state dinner, or charity gala dressing. And it still dazzles
There are those who can accept the winds of change. They stand in the flutter—or blast—and enjoy the caresses of shifts and reversals (of time) around their bodies. Pierpaolo Piccioli is one of them. Not only does he embrace the currents flowing his way, he rides on them and soar. His latest couture for Valentino takes a break from the stupendous special occasion dressing that makes even grown men cry. They take into consideration, serenely, the unsettling time that is today. Called Code Temporal, the collection seems to address the question of what having the means to dress up really means at the present. And he does not need to suggest that it takes a village. Or a village wedding to give couture the reason to exist, to extol its time-honoured traditions. Just a stately home—the Palazzo Colonna in Rome, exemplar of the Roman Baroque, where an actual family, the Colonnas, still live (although part of the home is also a museum open to the public). It is in the ancient Great Hall of the Colonna Gallery, inaugurated in 1700, where Mr Piccioli sets the contrasting to his couture that, in comparison with his past output, is minimalist, the descriptor loathed by couture purists.
Haute couture has been in a state of protracted crossroads for as long as we can remember, and here we are again, considering not its survival or relevance, but how excessive or not it should be. There are couturiers who only want to whisk up volumes and those who can only design if they are in knee-deep vats of sequins and beads, even those based all the way in Beijing. The couture atelier was once known as a “laboratory” of ideas. Increasingly, they are more workshops of excess. With facilities that can output anything to indulge the couturier’s wildest fantasies, the clothes have been largely the basis for entertainment than the expression of a singular vision. Pierpaolo Piccioli shows that he is able to straddle both poles. And when the frippery of a former normal is shed, he shows himself to be a virtuoso of garments of technical finesse and beautiful proportions, of the tailleur and the flou, all the while not diminishing the specialness that is couture.
As if designed for (working from?) home that equals a chateau and the like, the clothes are pared down to respond to the needs of women in a domestic setting that might turn into a social gathering for a small intimate group, with not even a moment’s notice. Or for visiting the neighbour in the next palazzo down the road. Sure, the sensuous knit dresses can be worn to supervise the readying of the spring garden, but for most of the pieces, they require wanting to look this good when there is possibly no immediate audience. Dresses are sleek and not constricted; skirts—a couple with a train—swish or, with the slimmer pieces, lightly flap; cotton poplin shirts have the crispness of the ones you’re already used to, but look far dressier; supple coats, with their comfortable looseness, sheath like petals, while shorter, wrap-like tops swaddle like blankets. There is a noticeable lack of surface embellishment (save some embroideries and sequins), until the appearance of a pink open-work “bijoux” top (worn with bermuda shorts!), and you hope nightclubs will be back in business soon. Simplicity is no indication of lack of surprise: one sleeveless belted dress has a rear that looks like an unfastened gilet. Many outers are slipped off the shoulders at the end of the runway to reveal either simple separates inside or, in the case of one, a jaw-dropping top-and-pants-combination with ruffles and full sequins. Even a slip dress can have a double-boiler effect: the inner contained within an outer—one that threatens to slip completely off.
Valentino, to some, might not be Valentino if not for the ultra-feminine and, for a lack of a better word, the frothy. But there’s something to be said of designs so controlled in their execution, and colours and pairings so spirit-lifting: they convey real and rare artistry. Clothes of the highest calibre, conceived and made in rarified spaces that few find fathomable, can be this imaginable in a wardrobe, and can afford this palpability of elegance, deserve their place on actual bodies, not a collector’s store room or a museum’s archival facility. Valentino and Pierpaolo Piccioli should be accorded the honour.