Pierpaolo Piccioli, the great thinker behind the Roman fashion house, looks to sculpture to inform his beautifully poetic vision.
Against an uncharacteristically gray June Parisian sky, veined with fine clouds like marble, Pierpaolo Piccioli, the 52-year-old creative director of Valentino, crouches contemplatively, brow furrowed, chin resting on fist. He’s mimicking—intentionally—that famous Auguste Rodin sculpture The Thinker. A bronze cast is poised over his right shoulder, in the gardens of Rodin’s former home on the outskirts of the city. It’s the day after Piccioli’s Spring 2020 menswear show and less than two weeks until his Fall 2019 haute couture show. Piccioli has plenty to think about.
That said, the pose is somewhat paradoxical. Not that Piccioli isn’t a thinker: His work is embedded with intellect, often referencing works of art and literature. The latter reflects his studies at Sapienza University of Rome in the 1980s, before he switched to fashion design at Istituto Europeo di Design. Nevertheless, Piccioli works not from the head but from the heart. Or maybe the soul. “I follow my instinct now,” he says. “I think with this job you can change people’s perception.”
Incidentally, Rodin initially called that crouched-up, contemplative bronze “The Poet,” which is definitely Piccioli. There is a poetic bent to his vision, one that involves chiffon and bows and cascades of taffeta and ostrich feathers in the brilliant, vivid colors of romanesque frescoes. Even his ready-to-wear is poetic: his Fall 2019 collection literally so, inspired in part by the Movement for the Emancipation of Poetry, the Italian organization that anonymously plasters the streets of Rome, where the Valentino studio is based, with its works. That was mirrored in the cut-and-paste motifs of amorously embracing neoclassical statues, flowers, and snippets of text that decorated the clothes. The prints were a collaboration, or to borrow Piccioli’s turn of phrase, a “conversation” with Jun Takahashi of the cult Japanese label Undercover, which crossed over from his January menswear show and heightened the idea of the Valentino man and woman as star-cross’d (and well-dressed) lovers; the words were culled from spoken-word prodigy Mustafa the Poet’s performances.
Poetry and couture are things that can belong to the past. I wanted to do it in a new way so poetry could be a common language, more modern and contemporary.
On every seat Piccioli placed a book of poetry, titled Valentino on Love, featuring Mustafa’s work along with that of three other contemporary poets: Yrsa Daley-Ward, Robert Montgomery, and Greta Bellamacina (incidentally, the latter two are a couple). Behind the runway, an illuminated, text-based installation created by Montgomery bore the refrain the people you love become ghosts inside of you and like this you keep them alive. “Poetry and couture are things that can belong to the past,” says Piccioli, lighting a cigarette. “Doing this at Valentino could be very predictable. I wanted to do it in a new way so poetry could be a common language, more modern and contemporary. I like to work on something very known sometimes and give it a different conception.” He pauses, wreathed with smoke. “I didn’t want to get pretty. I wanted to get passionate.”
I’m painting a slightly incorrect image of Piccioli, as someone brooding and serious, intense. He’s nothing of the sort. He is, of course, serious about his work—and he does a serious, intense amount of work, showing eight collections a year for Valentino, one of fashion’s most influential and successful fashion houses. For almost a decade, he led the brand alongside Maria Grazia Chiuri; she left in 2016 to become creative director of Dior womenswear, and since then Piccioli has helmed it alone. His talent is immense, his work internationally lauded and much beloved. Specifically over the past few years, Piccioli has let rip with a series of staggering collections that showcase the breadth of his imagination, the ingenuity of the Valentino workrooms, and a passionate love both for women and for fashion as a whole. Heady are the evenings spent at the close of each Paris Couture Week in the salons of the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild watching Piccioli’s vision unfold.
And when you ask Piccioli about certain subjects—couture for one, Rome being another—what pours forth is pure poetry. “Roma is very different from all other cities,” he says of the Eternal City. “It’s a lot of layers of eras, of different experiences that changed the city. You can see Pasolini, and Catholic and Baroque angels, and you can see the paganism, which is still there. And Rossellini and Cinecittà, and the Fellini feeling. You can feel the loneliness of Antonioni, the kind of melancholy. But still the grandness of the empire.”
But for all that lyricism and for the undeniable,
blow-me-away beauty of the clothes he makes, Piccioli is also a normal
guy: He’s funny, unassuming, gracious, kind. He has three tattoos—the
initials of his three children on one arm, and that of his wife, Simona,
above his heart. The most recent addition is a tiger on his thigh. And
he doesn’t live in Italy’s fashion capital, Milan, or even in Rome
itself. He lives in Nettuno, about 40 miles south of Valentino’s
creative headquarters on Piazza di Spagna. It’s the town where he was
born in 1967, seven years after the founding of Maison Valentino by its
fastidiously elegant namesake, Valentino Garavani, and his business
partner, Giancarlo Giammetti.
It was Mr. Valentino (as Garavani is known) who recruited Piccioli and Chiuri from Fendi to head the Valentino accessories team in 1999.
Garavani’s dedication to fashion and particularly couture was evident from an early age: He has recalled throwing a tantrum at age six when his mother forced him to wear a bow tie he considered coarse. There are no such anecdotes, apocryphal or otherwise, about Piccioli. “Valentino is known as a very exclusive brand of haute couture, where lifestyle is part of the dream,” says Piccioli. That’s certainly the case of the idealized lifestyle of Mr. Valentino, with multiple palazzos, châteaus, and yachts. “My luxurious way of living is living outside, by the sea,” Piccioli says, smiling. “My big aim is to change the perception of luxury from a certain lifestyle to a community of people who share values.”
My big aim is to change the perception of luxury from a certain lifestyle to a community of people who share values.
That’s an idea that really fascinates Piccioli, the exceptional thing being that he can work, with apparent ease, both in micro and on macro scale at Valentino. His shows make grand statements but are still embedded in the craft of fashion, a sense of the human hand, and firmly rooted in reality. “Daywear for me means streetwear,” he explains. “I think every single piece has to have its own dignity.” He’s speaking specifically of his fall ready-to-wear collection again, where the poetry—and poetic imagery—is embedded in pragmatic sports-influenced pieces like sharply cut overcoats and sweatshirts, with the same kind of elegance afforded the dreamy, drifty chiffon evening gowns in the Valentino tradition. “My idea of beauty is about diversity; the idea of beauty of Mr. Valentino was a certain kind of beauty,” says Piccioli. “I feel that I’m not imposing a look, but I propose pieces. The difference is not to deliver an ideal woman but the idea that individuality is beauty.”
Still, Piccioli’s vision manages to cross worlds: Mr. Valentino and Giammetti are generally the first to leap to their feet to applaud his collections, often moist-eyed with paternal expressions of pride for both their children: Piccioli and the business. It’s rare that founders are so emotionally entangled with their business after they step away—and especially rare that they give it such a resounding seal of approval. It also, interestingly, evokes the words of that Montgomery piece on the Valentino runway, keeping alive the spirit of the ones you love.
Given the inevitable evolution during his decade and counting helming the post-Valentino Valentino—by Piccioli personally, both as part of a dynamic creative duo, and latterly solo, and of the world at large—I wonder what Piccioli wants Valentino to represent today. He thinks Rodin-like. “I think it’s more about life today,” he says. “And for sure that’s what I want to do, face reality. Not to escape from reality.” After our meeting I read up a bit on what Rodin’s Thinker was really thinking, what the sculpture really means. It’s a great man, lost in thought, with a powerful physique suggesting an immense capacity for action. Maybe Piccioli is more like him than I realized.
Models: Blésnya Minher and Jarrod Scott; Hair: Jonathan Dadoun; Makeup: Meyloo; Production: Céline Guillerm and Ben Faraday for octopix.fr; Set Design: Les Décors Papillons; Prop Styling: Bertrand d’Amiens. Special thanks to the Musée Rodin Meudon.