FASHION // Read This Today - Eric Wilson on Valentino ( plus Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

It’s Valentino’s Name, but Their Vision
( From )

PARIS — The setting was a white-paneled reception hall in the stately Salomon de Rothschild mansion, where a long dining table had been set with blue-and-white Delftware candelabras and vases filled with irises and hydrangea blossoms. Among them, silver platters were piled, obscenely high, with unblemished raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and red grapes.

Standing in front of this table on Tuesday night were the designers who took over the Valentino label in late 2008: Maria Grazia Chiuri, kohl-eyed and almost nunlike in a black dress with a white collar, and Pierpaolo Piccioli, skinny in a Sinatra suit, with a boyish face. It was their party, to mark the reopening this week of the Valentino store on Avenue Montaigne, which had been overhauled by the architect David Chipperfield to reflect their vision of the label.

And to one side, though no less visible, was Valentino Garavani himself, with his business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, the men who made Valentino a household name, and a legendary one at that.

As they arrived, the guests, including the retail chiefs of Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman, the editors of international magazines, movie stars, socialites and the designer Alber Elbaz, first paid tribute to Ms. Chiuri and Mr. Piccioli. They complimented the designers on their fall collection of austere lace dresses and furs inspired by the paintings of Flemish masters, shown that afternoon in the Tuileries Garden.

And then, those guests stepped over to Valentino to kiss the ring. Mr. Elbaz even bowed to him.

“They get better every season,” Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis, Vogue’s style editor at large, said of Ms. Chiuri and Mr. Piccioli. Ms. von Thurn und Taxis is a princess who is descended from a long line of Valentino customers. “But it must be hard to work with a living legend,” she said.

More than any other designer who has walked away from a fashion empire — Hubert de Givenchy or Emanuel Ungaro or, to a lesser degree, Calvin Klein — Mr. Garavani, at 80, has remained in the spotlight since his ostensible retirement in 2008.

That year, the documentary “Valentino: The Last Emperor” made him a celebrity for a new generation of customers, and he and Mr. Giammetti have since created an online museum, in 2011, and also participated in a major couture exhibition that closed last week in London. Two weeks ago, they attended every major party in Los Angeles on the Oscars circuit, at the same time that the Valentino company was trying to lure celebrities with red-carpet dresses from the most recent couture collections designed by Ms. Chiuri and Mr. Piccioli. (There were two successes, with Sally Field and Jennifer Aniston, and one major embarrassment, with Anne Hathaway.)

When they first took over the collection, Ms. Chiuri and Mr. Piccioli were described as “very Valentino,” which was meant as a compliment, at least in the eyes of Mr. Garavani’s loyalists, if not critics who wanted to see something new. There was red, there was lace, there were cocktail dresses. Having designed accessories for Valentino for a decade, they understood, perhaps better than anyone, the codes of his house. Alessandra Facchinetti, a former Gucci designer, had immediately succeeded Mr. Garavani, but she was fired after two seasons of going too far in her own direction. (Ms. Facchinetti has recently joined Tod’s as creative director.)

Replacing any designer is like walking a tightrope; replacing Mr. Garavani is like walking on a thread. Ms. Chiuri and Mr. Piccioli have managed to do that better than anyone might have imagined, and they are now coming into their own.

Their most recent collections have included designs that are often regal and conservative in appearance, like church dresses, with high collars, but with lively filigree or floral lace patterns. It looks nothing like the Valentino of old, and no one has complained. Tuesday’s show included a Delftware-inspired dress made of five meters of fabric, each meter requiring 28 hours of handwork as the designers attempt to bring a couture sensibility to their ready-to-wear.

“It is wonderful what they are doing,” Mr. Garavani said. “This is how the future of Valentino can be modern.”

Ms. Chiuri and Mr. Piccioli are, as Cathy Horyn, the fashion critic of The New York Times, wrote of their spring couture show, “more self-critical and demanding.” It is probably not a coincidence that this change coincides with a restructuring of the Valentino business and a new investor that has put it on more solid financial footing. Valentino was acquired last July by Mayhoola, an investor group from Qatar.

And Ms. Chiuri and Mr. Piccioli have no complaints about Mr. Garavani’s enduring public profile. They enjoy discussing the days of Studio 54, Halston, Nan Kempner and Capri with him. But they are less social than him, and his continued presence serves a purpose.

“We love fashion more than we love the lifestyle of fashion,” Mr. Piccioli said.

Still, it is not as if they are the wallflowers they once were. Laura Brown, an executive editor at Harper’s Bazaar, described them as nice people with a rock ’n’ roll edge. “They are the only reason I would wear a black leather jumpsuit,” she said. “What they have done at Valentino is so on point. This is how a step forward for a house should be taken.”

But to understand how Ms. Chiuri, 49, and Mr. Piccioli, 45, work as a team, as they have throughout their careers, you have to go back to the beginning of their friendship, in the late 1980s in Florence, Italy, when the city was a lively center of international fashion. Ms. Chiuri was working for the designer Chiara Boni, and Mr. Piccioli was a design student in Rome. Introduced through a friend, they first met at a train station. Ms. Chiuri, holding up a sign that said, “Pierpaolo,” was wearing a jaguar coat. They just clicked.

“Florence was the fashion factory of the 1980s,” Mr. Piccioli said.

“But I had to explain to Pierpaolo that in Florence,” Ms. Chiuri said, “a jaguar coat is a basic.”

Fashion was a smaller industry then, the designers less competitive and less formal. When Ms. Chiuri was offered a job at Fendi, she asked Mr. Piccioli to join her. More than 20 years later, they describe themselves as “like an old couple.” They often dress alike. Ms. Chiuri, during a meeting in Valentino’s substantial offices on the Place Vendôme, wore a fine-gauge black sweater over a dress shirt with a white collar buttoned to the top. Mr. Piccioli wore a midnight blue sweater over a white buttoned-up shirt with an overdyed camouflage necktie. But each has an independent family life and a spouse, Ms. Chiuri with two children and Mr. Piccioli with three.

“We are two designers,” Ms. Chiuri said, noting the rarity of a team taking over an established house. “And how we work is very specific.”

In Rome, they share the office that once belonged to Mr. Garavani, with the same paintings on the walls, but with two desks and two computers facing each other, and only one phone. Internally, they are referred to as a single unit, MGPP. Under Mr. Garavani, everyone at Valentino had a specific function, making men’s wear or women’s wear or couture or, as Ms. Chiuri and Mr. Piccioli did for 10 years, handbags, but they bring the entire staff to work together in the days before any collection.

And if they do not argue over ideas, it is because they know each other well enough not to suggest something the other won’t like. This can also be a problem. They have too many ideas, and they have a hard time saying no to each other. Women’s Wear Daily wrote that their fall show “would not have suffered from a few less looks, gorgeous as they all were.”

Ms. Chiuri and Mr. Piccioli are becoming more recognizable as the faces of Valentino. The store design by Mr. Chipperfield, like the clothes, is intended to portray modernity. The walls and floors are made of gray terrazzo marble, and the once-white boxes are divided into smaller rooms to differentiate shoes, ready-to-wear or evening wear. Valentino’s sales, $510 million in 2012, have improved, and lucrative accessories, like sandals studded with small spikes, now account for nearly half of sales in some stores. There is also a revitalized men’s wear business, with well-received collections and plans for new stores just for men.

“We are not trying to make fashion in the traditional way,” said Stefano Sassi, the chief executive of the label. “We should be more iconic, not just because of the red or the evening gowns, but because of this kind of statement, too.”

Of course, Valentino would not be Valentino without the glamour. Lavish dinners are part of the image, only now, instead of Jackie Kennedy and Jackie Collins, you will find a French actress like Cécile Cassel, or Jessica Alba. But not, at least at the dinner in Paris, Ms. Hathaway, a longtime member of the Valentino “family” whose last-moment switch to a Prada apron dress at the Oscars ruffled some feathers at the Valentino company. Oddly, they did not belong to Ms. Chiuri or Mr. Piccioli, who designed the dress but supported Ms. Hathaway’s decision.

“What we try to say as designers is that beauty is how you feel in the moment,” he said. “Respecting women means respecting their choices.”

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