On the eve of Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino haute couture show in Beijing’s storied Summer Palace the designer was walking through the improvised couture atelier—where most of the house’s tailors and seamstresses have been transplanted from the brand’s Palazzo Mignanelli HQ at the foot of Rome’s Spanish Steps—pointing out the many wonders created by these alchemists of cloth. The 45 masterworks designed by Piccioli but executed under the direction of Valentino’s brilliant premieres, or heads of the ateliers—Alessandra, Antonietta, Elide, and Irene—and their respective teams have been designed especially for this moment and with an eye to the bevy of glamorous, free spending clients from the region. Piccioli, however, averred that it is “a real Italian haute couture collection—not anything to do with China. It’s important to keep your identity,” he added, “especially when you bring your culture to another world and use it to evaluate the diversities.”
But alongside those diversities, Piccioli found dynamic synergies, too. His inspiration board was filled with images of the masters of the early Italian Renaissance that he loves—Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico, among them—alongside photographs taken of the Summer Palace itself, and of portraits of the emperors and empresses who once ruled here, revealing unexpected aesthetic dialogues, “two moments of grandness of old cultures,” as Piccioli explained, “of history and heritage.”
On the worktables, some of the very grand ballgowns, sheath dresses, and wide-legged pant ensembles were worked with elaborate intarsia and appliqué techniques to suggest the swirling brocades in a Bronzino portrait. Others took the leitmotifs of Valentino’s ultra-romantic work from the ’70s and ’80s—point d’esprit ruffles, over-scaled rose prints, and a passion for bows, as well as classic haute couture fabrics including gazar, cigaline, silk velvet, and duchess satins and failles—and amplified them into the extravagant volumes and dimensions that characterize Piccioli’s recent haute couture collections, which have been known to bring grown editors and global superstars alike to tears.
“Today Valentino—especially for young customers like in China—is daywear and streetwear,” Piccioli explained, hours before a lavish new David Chipperfield-designed store opening that was to be thronged with the country’s hippest young actresses and music stars. “That’s great to get the brand alive and to face reality, but I also like the idea of the extravagance and boldness and uniqueness of the couture. Today Valentino is streetwear and couture, and the two work together to create a new way of being. Modernity to me is about this high-low, present and past, couture and streetwear, all treated with the same sensibility, the same kind of daring and fantasy.”
In homage to the Valentino haute couture craftspeople, the run of show noted the names of all those who had worked on the respective garments, along with some salient details that emphasize the “uniqueness” that Piccioli was talking about—facts and figures laid down in print that take the breath away. A dress entirely covered in hundreds of shaded pink bows of various sizes required 350 meters of fabric, for instance; a voluminous ballgown composed of ruffles of cherry red point d’esprit—600 meters of tulle in total—took 1,300 hours to complete; and a silvery dress and balaclava were entirely embroidered in more than 32,000 silvery sequins (for the show, beauty maestro Pat McGrath silvered the model’s face to match). Meanwhile, an intarsia opera coat composed of swirling sections of Oz green sequins, ivory wool, and soft pink crepes—eight different types of fabric in all—worn insouciantly over wide pants and a turtleneck top in a smaller scale version of the pattern took a cool six-and-a-half months to complete.
Small wonder that Piccioli dubbed the collection “Valentino Daydream.” The clothes looked magnificent enough in the final moments of assembly on the workroom tables, but the following evening, in the atmospheric, high-ceilinged rooms of the Aman hotel in the bucolic grounds of the Summer Palace, and before an audience of local clients in statement gowns from the designer’s last collection, their commanding volumes, idiosyncratic colors, and superb detailing made for a presentation as stirring as the operatic arias—Je Veux Vivre from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, and Vissi d’Arte from Puccini’s Tosca—that opened and closed the show. “I have lived for art,” sang Tosca, an appropriate cri de coeur as the bride stepped out in a dress and hood entirely covered in trembling tendrils of flowers glittering with beads and sequins: a Midsummer Night’s Dream made real.