All fashion sells a narrative, but these were clothes that touched the imagination while also appearing to be an extension of the wearer. There’s a sense of uncanny intimacy when you see something of yourself in a designer’s work, and Piccioli has set out to deepen that relationship between designer and wearer by following the philosophy that a truly contemporary definition of beauty is expansive enough to appeal to both rap stars and princesses, an ingénue at a premiere and a mother marking the occasion of her daughter’s bat mitzvah. Individuality, in clothing terms, means collections that are filled not just with dream dresses (though oh — the dresses!), but also pieces for the hours before dusk. Real life is composed of not just big events, after all, but also daily ceremony, and whatever the distance between our fantasy selves and actual selves, the confidence one wants to feel in one’s skin — in one’s clothes — is real and universal. Piccioli’s designs are distinguished in part by their generosity: They are otherworldly in their ambition but magnanimous in their wearability and multigenerational appeal. This isn’t a coincidence; Piccioli, a low-key father of three, lives a very earthbound existence. “Today, beauty is about diversity, it’s about the freedom to express yourself,” he says. “This is what I want to stand for.”
The challenges of ushering a big heritage brand into the 21st century are manifold: Just ask Alessandra Facchinetti, who lasted less than a year at the house after Garavani, along with his business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, retired in 2008. Overseen by its founders for longer than many other great houses — Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Chanel — the house of Valentino was an especially weighty inheritance. It is not only one of the world’s last couture ateliers, but in its 10 annual collections — spanning men’s wear, women’s wear and couture — it must translate the ethos and aesthetics of a brand associated with a lost era of Italian glamour to a fast-moving fashion world governed by an attention economy. In Facchinetti’s wake, Piccioli and Chiuri stepped in from the company’s accessories department, delivering clothes of deeply feminine loveliness that modernized the house while revitalizing it, reportedly quadrupling profits over seven years. When Chiuri left in 2016, everyone wondered what Piccioli, literally the straight guy in the house, would produce on his own. Many believed the diaphanous, delicately embroidered Guinevere dresses and flamenco frocks that had distinguished the pair’s successful tenure had surely come from the mind of a woman. But the romantic mood has only continued under Piccioli, combined with a cooler, more subversive poetry. He’s also infused the house’s couture with a sculptural purity and an unparalleled color sensibility — a revelatory and accessible suggestion of what modern made-to-measure should be, revealed in even the quietest moments in the show, like a butterfly-knotted, shoulder-exposing top in celadon Mikado silk paired with petrol wool pants: the highest form of luxury found in a laser-sharp simplicity, a strikingly focused vision.
“My job as a designer is to reflect an idea of the times we live in,” says Piccioli. “And in Valentino, I feel that I’m in the right place, because the values of the house are my personal values. I’m Italian, I’m Roman, and so Valentino is part of my own culture, my own story. This idea of craft, of beautiful tradition, is expressed through the human touch. A couture house means people. It means a personal approach. And that’s as important now as it was in the ’60s.”
ROMANS MAY SIMPLY be better than the rest of us at remaining on nodding terms with the past. Living in the shadow of the Colosseum, it’s hard not to cultivate a sense of history lightly worn, a respect for old rituals that give shape to the day: a late-morning espresso, an early-evening passeggiata. Valentino’s story began in Rome in 1960, before ready-to-wear exploded in Milan; these days, the city remains somewhat apart from both the industry and pop culture, making it an ideal place to explore fashion’s superconsciousness of time, which in Piccioli’s solo collections, as in Garavani’s, has found its expression less in iconography — say, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel re-created on a skirt — than in deeper archetypal coding, with silhouettes and colors that echo the religion and culture in which they were born.