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The Roman Spring of Haute Couture

Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino and Kim Jones at Fendi have very different visions for Rome’s most famous fashion houses.
A look from Valentino's Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2023 show.
A look from Valentino's Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2023 show. (Getty Images)

PARIS — Pierpaolo Piccioli insists he was never much of a clubber. Growing up in a small seaside town, he just didn’t have the opportunity. But the more he thought about the culture of clubbing, the more he saw parallels with the world of haute couture: the exclusivity, the rituals, the opportunities for transformation. London nightlife legend and living artwork Leigh Bowery was on Piccioli’s mood board. In a sense, he was flesh and blood couture in his one-of-a-kindness. And that’s the sort of confluence that birthed Valentino’s Club Couture collection.

Piccioli has been tracking a younger customer for couture, drawn not to its classicism but to its boundary-pushing boldness. He showed his collection on women and men not in some salon or suitably grand space but in the Bridge Club, a dark vaulted cavern by the river. The Hercules and Love Affair maestro Andy Butler provided the beats. There were ruffles and bows and flowers and feathers, the couture pomp you’d expect from Valentino himself, but they were twisted, warped, dissected. “The common sense of good taste in couture is not valid,” Piccioli proclaimed. He pointed to a flurry of what he called “Brooke Shields ruffles” (a famous Vogue cover) but they were a bib, and when the model moved, the ruffles bared her body. “Romanticism needs subversion,” he added.

That bib of ruffles came round more than once. It reflected Piccioli’s conviction that couture is no longer about a head-to-toe look. Now it’s about items. Wear those ruffles with black trousers and a white shirt (or no shirt at all). “Buy one piece, but you need to be cultured,” he counselled. In other words, couture is still the most demanding stratum of high fashion because it insists on an appreciation of craft. “Everything that is impossible becomes possible in couture,” Piccioli rhapsodised. Backstage, he pulled out a huge mass of pink taffeta and showed how the skirt, with a sweeping width of 64 meters, had been artfully shrunk to a pleated bodice of 90 centimetres without any cutting. Ultimately, a lot of the collection really was all about such feats, none of which would be apparent to the audience sequestered in the gloom of the Bridge Club: the dress composed of hundreds of hand-painted plastic discs graded from small to large and mounted on gazar; the dress in white organza studded with three-dimensional lace flowers, every single one entirely individual; the vinyl-look coat that was actually made up of millions of miniscule, hand-applied sequins (I’m guessing millions because that number seems suitably over the top to describe the labour necessary for such a creation). We knew none of that, and Piccioli was quite happy to keep things that way. “Emotion comes from magic,” he claimed. “If you show the technique, you miss the magic.”

His mood boards curated photos and fliers from decades of clubs, and there was the odd literal echo. The first look, for instance, featured ice-pink blazer, white shirt and narrow tie, a bit New Wave, though below the waist was a big red bow like a pelmet skirt. There were also Swinging Sixties baby dolls, and a confection in orange feathers that topped crystal hotpants (deffo Seventies). And there were full-skirted situations that harked back to the days when a party was a ball. But Piccioli was having none of that. No nostalgia. In his brave new world, Valentino collides with Leigh Bowery to change the canons of beauty. “If the message is powerful, you create a sort of community,” he said. I actually think he could have gone even further with his message.

Kim Jones may be in charge of the other great house in Roman fashion, but he comes from a radically different place to Piccioli. For starters, he did spend his younger days in clubs, some of the hardest, fastest — and best — clubs in the annals of nightlife. But that is hardly relevant to his burgeoning career in haute couture. In fact, you could read the serenity of the Fendi collection he showed on Thursday as a riposte to his years as a guru of the zeitgeist. If Valentino chased a vernacular verve, Fendi was almost sci-fi-future in its shimmering, silvery arch-control. Baillie Walsh, the auteur of the mind-boggling Abba Voyage which is currently electrifying London, created a clean, bright conference room on Venus as a set and illuminated it with a strip of light that raced round like a mini-Hadron Collider. Jones’s first model was newly blonde Saskia de Brauw, one of the last women Karl Lagerfeld drew before he died. (“There’s always a little tribute to Karl,” said Jones.) She was sheathed head-to-toe in a classic column of gilded degradé. In fact, if you choose to reflect on Rome as the root of Valentino and Fendi, you might say that this season Piccioli was chasing the frantic party mood of Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza while Jones was more moonlight on marble.

His show notes spoke of sprezzatura, which English defines as a studied carelessness. There was certainly that in the looks where swathes of crepe casually bared a model’s underwear. But Jones conceptualised lingerie as a full look, like an externalisation of a woman’s inner world. It was an audacious notion for a couture collection but it was realised with the extraordinary attention to detail that distinguishes the Fendi ateliers.

Better were the sheer draped dresses, ruched and tucked like goddess gowns from Hollywood’s heyday. Delicate fabrics were gathered and clasped by jewelled carabiner clips. Jones’s muse Delfina Delettrez, the daughter of Silvia Venturini Fendi and the jeweller for the house, has a new passion for mountain-climbing. She brought the clips home to her design studio.

When he was asked what he felt he’d brought to Fendi in the aftermath of Lagerfeld’s decades-long tenure, Jones thought it was lightness that made the difference. True. From the delicate Japanese mohair spun into gossamer crochet to the sheer little slip dress collaged from flowers to the detachable sleeves of chiffon, like wings, the whole thing felt like it could take to the air in a heartbeat. “It fits with my collection for Dior Men,” Jones said. But where his men’s clothes this season had a powerfully melancholic, spectral but weighty presence, his couture for Fendi was the essence of evanescence. The obvious next step for Jones would be to test his peerless ingenuity by adding some of that weight here, bringing it back to earth, to see what crops up. There were tantalising hints, like the stole that did double duty as a wrap skirt, and Delfina’s mountaineering clips, of course. Clearly, many more stories waiting to be told.

Further Reading

Haider Ackermann’s guest designership for Jean Paul Gaultier’s couture line finally brings the dramatic creative uplift this season has been missing.

About the author
Tim Blanks
Tim Blanks

Tim Blanks is Editor-at-Large at The Business of Fashion. He is based in London and covers designers, fashion weeks and fashion’s creative class.

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