Nearly a year in, only now are we beginning to see the true measure of fashion’s creative responses to the pandemic. At Valentino, locked down in Rome with his atelier, Pierpaolo Piccioli has had a proper span of time to apply his brain-power, and the hands of his workforce, to what you might call a new vision of casual couture. “My idea is to witness the moment,” he said, just before the filmed runway show aired today. He called the collection Temporal—in the sense both of what it means to be living here, now, and of the quality of designing clothes, made by hand, which will long outlive trends.
“It’s more about pieces that will give an effortlessness,” Piccioli said. “The narrative of the collection is the collection itself. No stories. Nothing figurative. I wanted to work on surfaces, not in a decorative sense, but workmanship which becomes the surface itself.” It would be crass to reduce it to percentages, but the ratio of Valentino daywear (often overlooked in old-normal practice) to eveningwear (large, voluminous, extravagant) had effectively been flipped this time. Along came garments that (also crassly) might ordinarily be classified as hoodies, sweaters, shirts, board shorts, and camisoles, acting as foils for amazing lattice-worked coats and sculptural capes. It had the aura of a new kind of minimalism, not-quite ’90s, but slightly: “I think elegance is not about ‘good taste’” said Piccioli. “It’s a bit daring.”
And along came… men. At Valentino, “it’s for the very first time,” Piccioli shrugged. “But couture is for people. I don’t care about gendered (fashion). It’s an inspiration which is fluid, no-boundaries: a trench coat is for men and women.” And what a trench coat: structured so that the volume of the sleeves somehow continued seamlessly into a generous, chic storm-flap in the back of the coat. Only haute couture experts can pull off that sort of thing. Or have the capability to do what they do with capes, crafting their planes (the moulded shoulders, the flying panels) with the same expertise as architects or aerospace engineers. Or, in another department, piecing them together from tiny squares of fabric with the rigour of mathematicians.
This is the place where an haute couture house alliance between a designer-director and the people who slice fabric, draw paper patterns, and wield pins and irons can start to challenge stock fashion vocabulary. Piccioli nailed that with his explanation of a white cashmere cape: “I don’t want to call it that. It’s not a caftan, or a poncho. It’s a shape.” A shape that could be timeless; that was shown twice (covering either gender), and worn over turtlenecks and pants.
It used to be that every haute couture look was conceived as a sacred kind of unit. Gone are those days. Now Piccioli is more motivated to make a white poplin shirt, which he showed with a long oyster-colored skirt that appeared narrow in the front, yet flared to a train in back in one of the show’s most arresting moments. “It’s a shirt, a fantastic shirt. Of course you can wear it like this, or any other way. And the skirt is timeless.”
Piccioli is right: We’re thankfully long past the time when audiences might work themselves into a pearl-clutching froth at the sight of male models wandering an haute couture runway. Far more to the point is keeping the practice of haute couture relevant to the moment we’re living in. As many of haute couture’s old-world conventions drop away, what remains to be valued is the coalition of high craft and social insight. Piccioli spent a long time reflecting on that in the last months. “To me, the essence of couture,” he said. “is the ritual, the process, the care, the humanity. That’s what makes couture timeless, special.”
This article was originally published on Vogue.com