Giambattista Valli on collaborating with H&M and why comparing couture to high-street is like comparing caviar to pizza

Kendall Jenner walks the H&M x Giambattista Valli catwalk in Rome
Kendall Jenner walks the H&M x Giambattista Valli catwalk in Rome

Of all the design houses to collaborate with high-street giant H&M over the years, Giambattista Valli is perhaps the loftiest. The Paris-based Italian couturier specialises in selling airy tulle gowns that look like spun-sugar clouds; the starting prices for his ready-to-wear line typically begin at around £2,000, and couture floats off into the atmosphere above £15,000.  From today, though, you’ll be able to buy pieces in Valli’s name from £12.99. His design signatures – chiffon ruffles and rich embroideries – are prevalent in his 61-piece high-street collection, released just in time for the party season. 

“H&M came to me and it was the last thing I was expecting because we are so opposite,” Valli admits. It was an “opportunity to do something unexpected” in bringing his haute sensibility to the mass market.  “I saw it as a challenge and I wanted to be honest. Of course, the techniques and fabrics have been extremely simplified to reach [the H&M] price point. But my idea was for you to look at a dress and think it is just as good, it just has different ingredients. Very good pizza is not worse than very good caviar, you know?”

Kendall Jenner at the Amfar Gala wearing H&M x Giambattista Valli Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“Giamba”, as he’s known in fashion circles, is one of the most-liked personalities in the industry, with a WhatsApp contact list that spans pop icons and European royalty. Since he launched his own label in 2005, he has been the designer who stars turn to when they want, say, a bubblegum dress that will “go viral” at the Grammys, or a fun neon confection to wear to a party in Cannes.  From his place in the exclusive world of couture, Valli creates pop culture talking points that reach people well beyond the 0.1 per cent who can afford to buy his designs – like his two million plus fans on social media. It’s exactly the kind of unattainable yet aspirational label that H&M will have known its customers would want a piece of.  

Rihanna wearing Giambattista Valli Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“There will be H&M customers who look at Giambattista Valli and are dreamers,” Valli acknowledges.  “I have a huge group of people that follow me on Instagram and [they don’t shop with] the house, but they love seeing images of celebrities wearing Giambattista Valli. They’ve seen it on Rihanna, Kendall [Jenner], or Chiara [Ferragni], on the red carpet. It will be great to give this taste of the atelier to share with them all.”

The usual Giambattista Valli customer is, yes, Rihanna in a paparazzi-baiting loofah silhouette, but also a sisterhood of “Valli girls”; typically aristocratic women whom the designer can call personal friends as well as clients. “I look a lot at my close friends around me for inspiration,” he says of his muses. “Every time I sketch I always think ‘this could be great on Bianca [Brandolini] or Lauren [Santo Domingo]’. Some are younger, some are older, some are new mothers picking up the kids from school” – wearing his daywear at the school gates, rather than the party dresses, one imagines. “There is a reality, even in my reality.”  It’s rumoured that Valli keeps a list of women he won’t dress. “I have a larger list of the people that I don’t mind not to dress,” he hedges. “But it’s not from a snobbish point of view, it’s more that it doesn’t work for either of us.”

Valli says that his clients share “a state of mind” rather than a demographic profile. “For me, what is sexy is your brain. It’s not if you have curves or no curves, and everything I design has to be ageless. My woman is somebody independent who doesn’t want to be a trendy billboard of fashion. She is stylish and interprets the collection in her own way. She could be 18 or 80.”    Valli lost one of the most inspirational women in his life earlier this year when Lee Radziwill, the 85-year-old socialite and sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, passed away in February.  “She was the biggest tutor for me,” he says. “We met at a dinner party years ago and we laughed. We understood each other. I’m somebody who is very private, but I’m not shy. Sometimes people think that I’m snobbish, but I’m not. After, we started to see each other and we started our love story.”

 Designer Giambattista Valli takes a bow at the end of his H&M show

Valli has extraordinary relationships with many of his clients; his friendship with Radziwill is just one which goes above and beyond the typical designer-muse rapport.  His voice cracks as we discuss a recent auction of Radziwill’s possessions at Christie’s. “There is something tender,” he says. “I couldn’t look [at the auction]. There are plates we used to eat [off] in front of the TV together.” Valli grew up in Rome in the Seventies and, by his own admission, was always comfortable with opulence. That love of privacy is a fierce one: he never speaks about his personal life, but it’s understood that his family lived behind the Piazza Navona (the landmark site of the 17th-century Fountain of Four Rivers), and his childhood was privileged by any standard. 

Emma Roberts wearing Giambattista Valli at The 2019 Met Gala Credit: GETTY IMAGES

The family seamstress taught him to sew – initially, outfits for his stash of Barbie dolls. “I always knew I wanted to be a designer,” he says, “and couture, yes, I love the excellence.” Valli studied at the Istituto Europeo di Design of Rome, as well as Central Saint Martins in London, and held roles at Roberto Capucci, Fendi and Emanuel Ungaro, before launching his own company at the age of 39. Angelina Jolie became the first celebrity to wear his eponymous line in a photoshoot to launch the film Mr and Mrs Smith, something which Valli cites as a highlight that still stands out as he approaches the 15th anniversary of his label. He prefers to look forward though, not back, he says.

“I’m not nostalgic at all,” he insists. “I hate nostalgic people. I always think of the future and that the next collection will be the most beautiful one.” It’s irresistible to ask Valli if he’s ever shopped at H&M.  “Of course I shop in H&M!” he says – and quickly. “Everybody shops in H&M. I dress in a uniform, which I like because I work a lot in front of mirrors, so I always want to feel neutral. It’s basic black trousers, T-shirts, sweatshirts and my pearl necklaces. When I find something I like, I buy six of it.”

Vittoria Ceretti walking at the H&M x Giambattista Valli fashion show in Rome Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Valli’s circle will, of course, widen exponentially with the launch of his H&M collection. His clothes will be available to the masses and will, inevitably, end up on eBay at dramatically inflated prices, just as has happened with every other designer in H&M’s 15-year history of collaborations. He is truly excited for all of that, he says.  “From the biggest stars to all the people on social media, I want everybody to find a piece they love,” he says.  “These are like collector pieces, [they are] something you want to keep in your wardrobe for as long as possible.” 

As for comparing the wow-factor of the H&M line to the real McCoy: “The DNA is the same and you can see it,” he says.  “My dresses have this magic, when somebody wears them they feel extraordinary. They change their pose and their whole attitude. This is what I sell with the dress.”

Giambattista Valli x H&M is available at hm.com and selected stores from today