When Pierpaolo Piccioli started blowing our minds with his new takes on old haute couture in 2018, the phrase “The Valentino Effect” was coined. Soon, every designer from the Midwest to the Far East was practising haute couture gestures, buying taffeta by the roll and pluming literally anything in bouncy feathers. (As it turns out, there’s nothing you can’t plume.) But what transpired in his collection on Wednesday evening called for another term altogether: The Pierpaolo Effect, defined as the retina-transforming impact of the overwhelming beauty of this man’s couture, which makes everything fade in its wake for a good few hours after you’ve witnessed it. It wouldn’t have been lost on old Stendhal.
To a typically emotional soundtrack including Nina Simone’s Wild Is the Wind and Aretha Franklin’s A Natural Woman, in the resplendent salons of the Hôtel de Rothschild, Piccioli put on a typically magnificent display of artisanal prowess. After several of these Valentino couture experiences that’s the predictability you’d expect. Only, there could never be anything typical about these creations. It doesn’t matter how long you stare at them, how many shows you’ve been to over the past few weeks, or how tired you are. You could sit there forever, watching an infinite stream of Piccioli’s dresses, each one more exquisitely engineered than the last. “It’s about individual looks,” he said in a preview. “Every single look is different.” He’d made them so to evolve his continual study of haute couture as a metaphor for human diversity.
Considering this craft’s one-of-a-kind premise, it’s not difficult to see his point, but Piccioli wants to take this story much, much further. After last season’s show, which sought to modernise haute couture by keeping its codes and changing its historic values in an ode to women of colour, Piccioli looked past the borders of reality in search of the ultimate diversity. “I love this idea of all people: a combination of identities. It’s not place-specific. It’s not about ethnic. It’s about roots and identities, but I love the embrace of different cultures together. It’s about humans. It’s not about where you come from. It’s about you and your diversity: your expression.” He was echoing the sentiment that created his perhaps best men’s collection to date just two weeks ago.
“Emilio Salgari wrote adventure books for children. He described forests, jungles, adventures… He never moved from his desk,” Piccioli mused of that show. “You can go very far with your imagination.” It created a men’s collection of fantastical prints, which looked like trippy, enhanced alternate dimensions of landscapes found in the real world. Transferring that philosophy to his haute couture, Piccioli made up an aesthetic – or several – which you sort of recognised but couldn’t really put your finger on. Headpieces patchworked from yarns and pompoms and brass felt Berber, but they also looked a little Sámi. Printed, embroidered landscapes on capes and dresses had been de- and reconstructed for an otherworldly atmosphere.
The skirt of a yellow warrior dress with a daisy-embellished bustier was tiered in puzzling yarn twists meant as an abstraction of the feathers you’d usually see on such a dress. “They feel more human than feathers,” Piccioli said. “Or something you haven’t seen before.” He was right about that. Many elements in his collection had you feeling slightly like your five o’clock couture cocktail might have been spiked: at second glance, the familiar wasn’t what it seemed. It was exhilarating. “A fantasy of flowers,” he said, of a floral dress made up of flowers that never existed. Don’t be surprised, by the way, if every designer from Shanghai to Schenectady starts tiering his garments in fluffy yarns twists come the September shows.
Piccioli said couture isn’t about the technique but about the hands that go into it. Honest to his word, he took his bow alongside the entire Valentino atelier – some fifty staff members, many of whom were reduced to tears – following a fully inclusive cast that included Lauren Hutton, Adut Akech and Mariacarla Boscono. It was – in Piccioli’s own favourite slang – really, really “major!”
From British Vogue