PARIS, France — No one has ever been able to work out how Mariano Fortuny, the Spanish designer who ran a couture house from his palazzo in Venice for the first half of the 20th century, made the pleating effects that bear his name. Maybe there’ll come a time when people are as bemused by the techniques that Maria Grazia Chiuri, Pierpaolo Piccioli and their atelier in Rome have mastered with their couture collections for Valentino. You can certainly imagine an audience in the distant future wondering at the culture that produced such beautiful refinement, just as they lose themselves now when they’re wandering round the Palazzo Fortuny.
On Wednesday, Chiuri and Piccioli underscored a creative kinship with Fortuny by bringing him into their fold. They pleated and patchworked, hand-dyed velvet and stencilled Byzantine gilt in the style of the master. They also claimed inspiration from other artists who admired him. Piccioli particularly took to heart a lyrical paean to Fortuny velvet penned by the novelist Marcel Proust. The dancer Isadora Duncan, who wore Fortuny when she performed, was the lodestar of the presentation.
The word that Chiuri and Piccioli have been using more than any other of late to define their collections is “freedom”. They described Duncan, and the other icons of modern dance who covered their mood board — women like Ruth St Denis and Martha Graham — as arch-modernists, rule-breakers, dancing barefoot, giving energy back to the earth. The Valentino women also walked today, on a flower-strewn catwalk strewn, with bare feet, a burnished gold chain the sole decoration. That hint of the pagan was added by Alessandro Gaggio and Harumi Klossowska, who also made the gold snake circlets on the models’ heads. "You are the priestess going to the temple on the top of the hill," were the last words they saw before they stepped out on the catwalk.
But the designers emphasised that their inspiration was more about attitude — the lightness and movement of dance — than actual construction. As literal as they got was a trio of tulle dresses at the very end, like extravagant tutus. They were so sheer that they did make you wonder if this was Chiuri and Piccioli’s acknowledgment of just how transgressive a woman like Duncan was in her own early-20th-century moment.
Fortuny would have recognised his aesthetic in the gorgeous pleated columns in jewel-toned velvet, in the kimono coats, in the rich, shimmering brocades, and the lamé netting. And he would also have appreciated the designers’ hands at work, keeping the imperfections, the human touch. “We aged fabrics because it’s important to feel the traces of time,” Piccioli explained. “They’re part of the memory.” That’s why he loved the Proust passage so much. The words may have been written a century ago but they spoke intimately to Chiuri and Piccioli now, just as their own work will speak for them for generations to come.