Rome is where the heart is: Valentino on bringing couture home

creative directors of valentino

Bringing Valentino couture home to the eternal city allowed creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli to underline the grace and dignity of one of fashion’s most desirable labels. 

God knows – to step for a moment into vulgar speculation about money – how much Valentino spent on its July couture show in Rome. Lavish moonlit dinners in the grounds of ornately stuccoed mansions and ancient ruins, plus the not insignificant detail of flying in journalists, models, make-up and hair people, and constructing a vast open-air catwalk in the magnificent Piazza Mignanelli, do not come cheap.

Never mind that excessive Chinese borrowing has been causing tremors in the upper echelons of the luxury market, or that the euro continues to slide. Fashion’s more famous names have entered into an arms race of spending. Louis Vuitton flew hundreds of guests to Palm Springs for a show in May; Chanel transported them to Seoul; Gucci took them to New York in June; Burberry coaxed them to Los Angeles… By staging its show in Rome and turning it into a two-day party, Valentino, which has always been a big name, if not one of the biggest earners, and is now owned by Qatar’s royal family, staked its claim as a major player.

But for Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, the two creative directors at the helm of this label, the decision to transfer this couture show from its usual location in a Paris mansion was more of a personal quest than a demonstration of might. Rome may have lost out to Paris two decades ago as a centre for showcasing fashion, but it has never relinquished its expertise or its peculiarly Italian-flavoured dedication.

‘We really wanted people to see that this city is our inspiration and to understand what that means,’ Piccioli explained before the show. ‘There’s something very particular about Roman couture. It’s different from Paris. In Paris tailoring and le flou (draping) are done separately. Here it’s all the same studio. We decided not to have rules… We might want to make a severe coat but with the hand of le flou. You can do that in Rome because they don’t care about ownership in the same way as in Paris and they’re more open to breaking the rules.’

Rules, rules – the fashion world, for all its apparent iconoclasm, is full of them. No wonder creatives want to smash them. The bigger Valentino becomes, the more Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli yearn to communicate their vision; to redefine its values as a maison and all the artisanal connotations that come with that. They are not alone in this. All mega-brands, it seems, are locked in a Faustian pact in which the prize of ever-more glittering sales figures must be offset against the dwindling pulse of their maison’s heart. 

A month before that show in Piazza Mignanelli brought the surrounding streets to a standstill, before the tourists began to cluster behind the barricades to watch Gwyneth Paltrow and Tilda Swinton in their Valentino evening gowns, I fly to Rome expecting to witness at least some level of hysteria in the workrooms and a degree of neurotic tension reverberating in the office that Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli share.

Though it is intensely hot, they seem almost preternaturally calm. True, they are exhausted. They were working until 5am on their pre-collection (one of the ready-to-wear lines that goes into stores next May). Physically, Grazia Chiuri does seem weary – the mere act of lifting her hand, with its multiple pile-up of heavily crenellated, Gothic rings, to push back a curtain of bobbed black hair, seems an effort. But the husky, nicotine-stained voice is animated.

‘Sometimes I want to kill him,’ she laughs, nodding blearily at Piccioli, her raisin-dark eyes making her tanned face seem pale in contrast. Piccioli, she makes clear, is the reason they were up so late. ‘He’s obsessed with details. Sometimes he’s too obsessed.’

Deep down, Grazia Chiuri knows that in fashion, obsessions are never a fault. She is not immune to one or two herself, according to Piccioli. ‘She’s intuitive. She likes speed. She’s always on WhatsApp.’ ‘True,’ retorts Grazia Chiuri. ‘We really don’t use computers much…’

‘It’s important with everything so digital, to feel the human touch of our seamstresses,’ Piccioli says. ‘But the phone is my life,’ concedes Grazia Chiuri. ‘We talk a lot. We draw. I like to send pictures on WhatsApp because it’s so fast. I want everything now!’

Interviews with Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli tend to proceed to the beat of a percussive riff, as each finishes the other’s thought. Theirs is a long and remarkably harmonious professional relationship. They met while Piccioli was still at fashion college – she is two years older – and have been working together since the late 1980s, when he joined her at Fendi. There they worked closely with the five Fendi sisters, particularly Silvia, with whom they launched the Fendi baguette, a bag that propelled a dynastic business into a global brand in which LVMH eventually acquired a majority stake for some €550 million.

They learnt a lot about ‘working with families’ at Fendi; about experimentation and about turning a venerable fashion name into a corporation. When they joined Fendi, accessories at all houses were an afterthought. By the time they left in 1999 – personally poached by Valentino to cast some magic on his bags – everything had changed. They worked with Valentino himself for nine years and still remember the first pair of shoes they designed for the house – a pair of red sandals with roses. Red sandals in winter. Very Valentino.

In the midst of their 21st-century preoccupations, Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli design clothes that are intensely romantic, fragile and historical-looking, but also contemporary. They don’t sit around second guessing their clients’ lifestyles. ‘One day you want to be a minimalist. But by the evening you may want to be in feathers. Fashion today is about wearing whatever feels right in the moment,’ says Grazia Chiuri.

There may be a deeper reason for not examining the interior lives of their clients too closely. While Valentino famously courted socialites, Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli like to keep it real – or as real as they can, working in a renaissance palazzo on clothes that cost thousands of euros. In ‘real’ life, Grazia Chiuri is married to a football fanatic who does all the cooking for her and their two grown-up children. Piccioli’s wife stays at home to look after their three. Unlike Valentino, they appear less interested in a jet-set, yacht-festooned life than in a balanced one. ‘For us Rome is baroque. It’s Visconti and Fellini. It’s imperial. It’s also rushing home at night to see our families,’ says Piccioli.

That neither of them leapfrogged, career-wise, suggests a remarkable degree of tolerance and lack of ego. Their working partnership is like a second marriage, they say. And as in a marriage, there is no clear division of labour. ‘We discuss…’ offers Grazia Chiuri. ‘But we never compromise,’ says Piccioli. ‘It’s not very important who did what. A good idea could come from your assistant,’ says Grazia Chiuri. ‘You have to be really insecure to want to say, “This is mine,”’ Piccioli concludes.

The two of them sit facing one another every day in this first-floor office, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking Piazza Mignanelli, she in a catholic mix of Valentino’s elaborate embroideries and minimalist cashmeres, but also, sometimes in Céline; he in T-shirts and beaten up military-style jackets. ‘We used to be on the third floor,’ adds Grazia Chiuri. ‘It had better views, but then we needed that space for accessories because we have expanded so much, so we moved here.’ That’s success for you: in 2013 sales were up 23 per cent; in 2014 they rose a further 36 per cent. 

Meanwhile, they’ve doubled their couture business, increasing the number of full-time seamstresses and tailors they employ to 70 in the process. So now they occupy the office of their predecessor, Valentino Garavani, the man whose name is on the label of every piece of clothing and every bag and pair of shoes they design. The man who stepped down in 2007 still sits, tanned, nostrils permanently flared and mien haughtily sphynx-like in their front row, flanked by Tilda Swinton or Anne Hathaway or whoever (one senses that Valentino really,
really likes celebrities).

It’s a crowded office. The only change they made was to install two desks where there was once one. There are computers, ornate consoles, gilt-framed 19th-century natures mortes on the walls, parquet floors, linen blinds at the classic windows, cacti, orchids, a pile of books on African art… and a stuffed pug – the breed beloved by Valentino, who still keeps a retinue of them. Is it affection for its previous owner or a sense of mischief that prompted them to keep it? Both, I’d say.

In the seven years they have been in charge of maison Valentino, Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli have slowly, stealthily established it as perhaps one of the most cherished fashion labels in the world today. The workmanship and the unhurried pursuit of beauty – the teeny, tiny embroidery stitches tracing Latin poetry on to organza, the silk butterflies and flowers applied to filmy chiffons and the Chantilly lace so fine it often resembles shadows – all that is, of course, arresting, especially for fashion nerds and craft freaks. But the bait that has hooked everyone from Zara to their designer peers into shameless imitation is their aesthetic. Valentino today stands for two words barely, if ever, bandied about in contemporary culture. ‘Grace and dignity – those are what we hoped to bring back when we took over the design of Valentino,’ says Piccioli.

‘Everything in fashion and popular culture was about exposing yourself and showing off. Everybody was obsessed with surgery. We felt it was important to go back and give a new dignity to women, to talk about sensuality rather than sexuality and to celebrate grace, rather than just a superficial beauty. We wanted every woman to feel and own their own beauty’.

Swimming against a cultural tide is not easy, especially when you don’t have large advertising budgets. In 2008, when they took the helm, Valentino’s revenues were around €260 million, tiny by the standards of Louis Vuitton, Chanel et al. In many ways Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli had nothing to lose – and everything. Despite having done a stellar job on Fendi’s accessories in the 1990s, propelling a fur business into the big time, they weren’t well known beyond a circle of cognoscenti. Their talents weren’t even fully appreciated at Valentino – in 2007, the top job was originally given to Alessandra Facchinetti. The charming, beautiful daughter of an Italian rock star, who had previously worked at Gucci, she did a decent job of continuing Valentino’s legacy – but wasn’t deemed sufficiently visionary.

She was fired after two seasons. Only then did Valentino personally anoint Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli his successors. It can’t have been easy filling the shoes of a fashion legend. But stealthily, they have pulled off a brilliant coup that seems both radically contemporary and completely faithful to Valentino’s original blueprint. The raised waists, the high necklines, the high-set sleeves that flute out towards the wrists, the incessant focus on craft – that was all already there. However, by stripping some of the fussiness, Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli intensified that original vision, making it more monastic, more medieval – a period in which fashion had shown little interest since the 1930s. They altered proportions, microscopically, and in the process introduced the Age of Kardashian to the Age of Chivalry – in an irony much commented on, a walnut-skinned Kim Kardashian gazed on from their front row last year as whey faced models did their Guinevere turns.

Or perhaps it wasn’t ironic. Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli may be serious about their work, but they are not, it turns out, po-faced. Last March they surprised everyone by allowing their ready-to-wear show in Paris to be hijacked by Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, who walked the catwalk as their characters from Zoolander, the 2001 fashion spoof. As a publicity campaign for the Zoolander sequel, which comes out in 2016, it was a viral sensation. Had Grazia Chiuri and Piccioli been less secure, they might have rued the whole wheeze – but they’ve always loved the film and relish the irreverence it brought to their show.

The ‘Guinevere’ magic they have wrought at Valentino has taken everyone by surprise, including them. Grazia Chiuri began her career in men’s accessories. Piccioli’s first forays into fashion were customising army jackets for friends who, like him, had been drafted for military service. The intense femininity of Valentino wasn’t part of their initial design language. But it’s deeply embedded now. ‘To live here in Rome, is to live surrounded by beauty,’ says Piccioli. ‘We never forget that. Even the walk to work means you’re passing incredible sights.’

Italian fashion frequently engages in florid language, but you only have to glance at Valentino fans to understand Piccioli and Grazia Chiuri’s sincerity – and deftness. At many couture shows the clients are alarming to behold: their faces surgically mutilated maps of fear, their bodies half starved. At Valentino’s Roman extravaganza, every woman, whether she was wearing gauzy embroidered lace or an austere column, looked elegant and comfortable. It’s no coincidence that, as when Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis in 1968, a Valentino wedding gown has once more become a mark of distinctive brides: this year’s posse includes Sophie Hunter, marrying Benedict Cumberbatch; Beatrice Borromeo marrying Pierre Casiraghi; Nicky Hilton marrying James Rothschild; and Frida Giannini (former creative director of Gucci) marrying Patrizio di Marco.

There’s no skirting the fact that Valentino makes clothes for some of the richest women in the world; clothes that make a woman feel like a princess – if she isn’t one already. But neither Grazia Chiuri nor Piccioli comes from a particularly privileged background. Both had working mothers – hers was a seamstress, his ran a shop. Their clothes may cost a fortune, but in their heads they don’t design for women of great wealth. ‘We don’t want it to seem as though we’re thinking about princesses when we design,’ says Piccioli. ‘We’re designing for women who want a bit more beauty in their lives.’