One source of light in the darkness of the last year has been a surge in collaborations of all kinds. Maybe we’ve learned that unless we stand together, we fall apart. And that a successful creative collaboration embodies that notion at the same time as it generates buzz.
The latest arrives this week, when Valentino launches the first manifestation of Rockstud X, an initiative which celebrates the 10th anniversary of the brand’s emblematic stud, which helped power tremendous accessories growth when it was first introduced. There may eventually be IX more collaborations to mark the 10th, but this particular one is between Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli and London’s menswear mage Craig Green. Together, they have designed an impressively brutalist sneaker which places the Rockstud front and centre and seems to somehow meld the gladiatorial past of Valentino’s home city Rome, the pandemic present’s desire for protection and a potentially survivalist future.
Piccioli claims he’s always loved collaborations for the different perspective on Valentino that they offer him. The collections he created with Jun Takahashi of cult Japanese label Undercover certainly bore that out. “I feel that every collaboration has to be born from something that is really personal,” he says. No marketing jiggery-pokery, he insists, just a pure, creative coming together. And that’s why Craig Green was his first choice for Rockstud X. “I love him as a person,” he continues. “We’re different cultures, ages, different identities and still we connected immediately.”
Craig remembers the same instant bond. They met when Remo Ruffini launched his multi-designer Genius initiative for Moncler in February 2018. Green and Piccioli were the stars of that Milan show. Their counter-intuitive interpretations of Moncler’s down-filled jacket took the classic to head-spinning heights. “The day I arrived, I was looking at everyone else’s and Pierpaolo definitely won,” Green recalls. “It wasn’t until later that afternoon that we met but from that moment, we just had an energy together. I think it’s quite rare in fashion to find people that you get along with so instantly and easily. It’s not that kind of business, is it?” Green allows himself a small, sardonic laugh.
“I don’t think collaboration works when you are kind of similar,” says Piccioli. But even though he and Green differ in what they do, they found surprising similarities in how they do it, starting with a creative process founded in fantasy. I get that with Piccioli’s dream-state couture. When he says, “I feel that fashion is more successful when it comes from a fantasy,” I’m not surprised. Green, on the other hand, I am surprised by. “Maybe it’s not an obvious fantasy but it’s definitely an escapism, like removing yourself from reality in some way,” he offers. “Yeah, I would say there was a fantasy aspect to my work definitely. I mean, some of them aren’t even clothes.” Again, that laugh.
It can be universal even if it comes from a fantasy, from a collaboration of creatives, not marketing guys.
So, for both of them, their obvious challenge as designers has been turning the complexity of fantasy into real fashion. Call it the creative process, I suppose. Green says it’s what he’s always loved about the idea of being a fashion designer. Whatever you fantasise about, you are ultimately grounded by the reality of people. He couldn’t wish for a better example than the sneaker that is the fruit of his collaboration with Piccioli.
It didn’t start out as a shoe, or anything specific for that matter. The brief was quite open. All Green knew was that whatever he designed needed to be based on the Rockstud, which was originally derived from the bugnato, the stud detailing that outlines the doors of Roman palazzos. (For architecture buffs, its English counterpart is the ashlar.) “Collaborations we’ve done previously are either based on an iconic product, or an aspect of the brand we’re working with,” said Green, “and I found it interesting that it was something this small. When I first saw it, I couldn’t work out exactly what we could do with the Rockstud. My initial view was it was almost like an adornment or an embellishment, an aesthetic aspect of the product. It wasn’t until I found out that it has a purpose as an object that can fix things together that I realised we could tell a different story, keeping the icon as it is but shifting what it’s used for.”
Green admits his initial proposals were odd. “One of them was like an orthopaedic thing for your soul. The Rockstuds were inside the sole.” Another of Green’s ideas used the Rockstud to protect the foot, encasing it like armour. “We were looking at it almost as an industrial grip on the bottom of the shoe. It was like a functional part, rather than an adornment.” It was, according to Piccioli, “really a very different perspective from what I had in mind. For me, studs are more Roman palazzos, never armour.” But he was excited. “We agreed that we didn’t want to do a fantasy object,” Piccioli continues. “We wanted to do an object that could be unisex with no idea of gender, race, culture, identity, whatever. Even in terms of cost, it’s going to have the price of a pair of sneakers from a brand. That can be kind of universal, even if it comes from a fantasy, from a collaboration of people that are creatives, not marketing guys.”
“I don’t want to plan ten collaborations in two years. What I learned from this moment is that we don’t have to plan; we have to react to what happens. So, I reacted to the idea of doing a collaboration by going ahead with the first one. I don’t know who’s going to be the second. Let’s see.” Given that Piccioli’s famous mood boards have always run the gamut, from couture and bourgeois to punk and street, high art to low life, the possibilities run riot. But this first collaboration sets the bar high in its own allusive way. Green’s input has shaped a shoe that is a little bit gladiatorial, yes, but it would also suit a penitent’s pilgrimage to the Vatican. So, it’s very Roman in that way, and Valentino is, of course, the most famous Roman fashion house. The shoe is, however, quite a left-field interpretation of Valentino, which makes it an ideal ambassador for what Piccioli is calling the “re-signification” of the brand.
It’s very important to shift the signs and give them meaning that is of the moment.
“When you work in a brand like this, there are a lot of signs,” he says. “I think it’s very important to shift the signs that you already know, give them a different meaning that is more of the moment. Because otherwise, if you use these signs as they are, as part of the identity, with a sort of reverence, it can become very nostalgic. But if you give the signs a new aesthetic, a new vibe, it’s like taking away the old meanings. People will see them from a different perspective, so they can become different even if they’re the same. And to me, that is important, not only for this but for the work I’m doing on Valentino, because I’m not going to change the signs in order to make Valentino more relevant or more of the moment.”
“I want to use the same objects, the same signs, but give them a different meaning,” he continues. “Valentino was very known for the exclusive world, the exclusive lifestyle of couture, but I prefer talking about a community of people that share values rather than surfaces, not doing that with different signs but doing it with different meanings for the same signs.”
“It goes back to what we spoke about earlier,” says Green, “that a collaboration works best when it’s from two separate worlds coming together and seeing what can be born out of that. And I think that’s how we ran with it as well. I liked the challenge, I liked that it was just based on the Rockstud. It was so restrictive but that’s what was so great about it, what can you make within the restrictions of one kind of detail.”
There was another major restriction in that the designers were never able to physically work together. Piccioli contacted Green last February just before the pandemic came crashing in and from that point on, it was all Zooming and FaceTiming. “I like to go to the factory,” Green says ruefully. “I like to see what is possible. I want to ask, ‘Can you do this with the Rockstud?’ I ask a lot of questions. I would have loved to have gone and annoyed the people in the factory. I think that’s part of the fun of designing.” Piccioli agrees.
Towards the end of our conversation, Green asks what made me think of pilgrims. The combination of spirituality and sturdiness, I tell him. The fact the shoe looks like you could walk forever in it. And also, I suggest, it looks like a subliminal response to everything we’ve been through over the past year. “What’s interesting is how protective it looks but how delicate too,” Green muses. “The upper is there just to hold the sole onto the foot but it’s quite fragile, a knitted upper with a delicate lace. That’s quite nice. The more delicate aspects mixed with the brutality of the sole define what our collaboration really became. It’s why we get on so well.” (Another laugh.)
Actually, Green’s shows have often made me think of pilgrims. One in particular, Spring 2015, with its barefoot models evoking the Children’s Crusade, moved the audience to tears, an emotional response that Piccioli has elicited more than once. “I don’t start from the reaction I want to get from people, I start from myself,” Piccioli insists. “I want to get myself surprised first, push my boundaries. When I see Craig’s creations, I always see that they are so strong and fragile at the same time.” That sets the two designers off on a discussion of strength in vulnerability, in fragility, in delicacy. Eventually, they circle back to what their collaboration might have something to say about now. “I think I learned a lot from this moment,” Piccioli says. “You can have opportunities when times are tough, because you learn to react, you learn to be even more radical, more assertive, more strong, because you need to react in a different way. This collaboration was coming from a personal approach. The object was going to talk about us but also about the moment.”
“I completely agree,” Green adds. “I don’t think anyone’s the same as they were in February last year. These moments are times to rethink everything, to define things in a different way, to find opportunity in the restrictions that we have around us. I mean, that’s our job as designers.”
And — sneakerhead alert! — though the duo were never able to spend physical time together while making their Rockstud X baby, they sealed their bond with a special pair made for them, and them alone.
All power to the collaboration.