“Mr Valentino painted the first picture of the landscape. Then we arrived and started to paint the same landscape from a different angle and a different light. The landscape is still the same but the picture has somehow changed.” That’s how Pierpaolo Piccioli so eloquently and succinctly described how he and Maria Grazia Chiuri have jointly reshaped Valentino under their seven year tenure, with the ongoing support of Mr Valentino Garavani, rallying in the background. This difference of light was to be the theme of my jaunt to Rome on Thursday and Friday for the occasion of Valentino’s haute couture show in their home city, a longtime ambition of Piccioli and Chiuri’s that has now been fulfilled. This was a very different occasion to when Valentino last staged an extravaganza in Rome back in 2007 when Mr Valentino had his final big hurrah.
The event was called “Mirabilia Romae” – the wonders of Rome – and we weren’t just here to see the latest Valentino haute couture show but to also experience Rome through the eyes of Piccioli and Chiuri. It’s a Rome that they know well and it was a privilege to be privy to this special insider, off-the-beaten-track guide. “We didn’t want to show a postcard of Rome,” explained Piccioli. “We wanted everyone to feel the spirit of Rome and to see the city from our perspective. We feel that Rome is a layered city.” And so all faded memories of my teenage school trip to Rome were rewritten. Through “La Mostra Diffusa” – the diffused exhibition, co-curated by art historian Filippo Cosmelli together with Piccioli and Chiuri, we embarked on a tour of ten locations embedded in amongst the famous sites of Rome that we know and love. Along the way specially chosen soundtracks and scents created by 12:29 also accompanied this multi-sensory journey. Every place felt like a hidden secret, and everywhere we went, the point was to emphasise how Piccioli and Chiuri are consistently inspired by their surroundings.
Our starting point? The Villa Medici and in particular, two connected chambers that house wonderously intimate frescos. In the first “Bird Room”, pieces from Valentino’s haute couture A/W 2012-3 and S/S 13 collection sat underneath a ceiling of precisely painted flora and fauna. In an adjacent “Aurora” room, Venue and Cupid grace the ceiling, and was purportedly where Ferdinando dei Medici received his lovers in the 16th century. Hidden love is certainly a theme that both Piccioli and Chiuri have been inspired by in their work.
Next, a connection between past antiquity and the contemporary present. What was once the studio of marble sculptor Antonio Canova is now the work space of surreal artist Luigi Ontani, whose work warps classical elements into the present with the absurd and the downright odd. You can detect whispers of Ontani when Piccioli and Chiuri have deployed Pop Art and harlequin patterns in their collections.
In the Primaticcio Gallery of the Palazzo Firenze, we’re confronted by Zeus, Hercules and Julius Caesar whose imposing majesty are accompanied by scrollwork gowns from the haute couture S/S 13 collection.
High up above the famous Piazza Navona and the Fiumi Fountain, a solitary “Madonna” cape from the haute couture S/S 13 collection sits inside the Sacristy Sant’Agnese in Agone church. From this point onwards, it seemed like the tour was building up on a crescendo of wows. Even the stoniest of editors had to audibly gasp at the incredible sights we were witnessing.
An unexpected spot was the Accademia d’Armi Musumeci Greco – also known as the temple of fencing. We saw a short fence-off foregrounded by a metallic embroidered dress from the ready to wear S/S 14 collection.
One of the exhibition’s many highlights was definitely the Biblioteca Casanatense, a 17th century library filled with 400,000 tomes. The scale of the library was astonishing, especially when flanked by giant globes depicting constellations and Renaissance era world geography. You could see the clear links between the animalia of the haute couture A/W 2013-4 collection, presented in wooden vitrines and the antique drawings, paintings and prints. The juxtaposition of Fatima Al Qadiri’s Hip Hop Spa’s track and the evocative smell of books hundreds years of old made for a real immersive experience of a collection that I had seen but here, context suddenly made me see it in an entirely different way.
You wonder whether Rome-dwellers become blasé about the beauty of their own city. But even our Rome-born guide was giddy as we entered the private Palazzo Doria Pamphili (still inhabited today by guests of the Doria Pamphili family) to go see the Bagno di Diana – bathroom of epic proportions decorated in Pompeian style and centrered around a circular marble pool. Pieces from the haute couture S/S 15 collection were positioned like water nymphs in the room and were soundtracked by Michael Nyman’s composition from The Piano. The Heart Asks Pleasure First indeed…
Inside the Palazzo Pecci Blunt, there was a more traditional overview of Valentino brand values and heritage. The history of Valentino was told through archive pieces that were then related back to what Piccioli and Chiuri are doing. Valentino reds, pinks and whites. The infamous “Peace” dress. The evolution of the Rockstud. Celia Birtwell’s pre-fall 2015 florals linking up with older Valentino pieces. The camouflage print brought to life by a seamstress cutting up pieces for the appliqué.
At the warehouse of the Teatro dell’Opera, we first ventured downstairs into an ancient temple dedicated to the god Mitra and adorned by Valentino’s red gowns.
Upstairs though was where we really swooned. The backdrop to Giselle was being painted on the huge floorspace and a tableaux of the haute couture S/S 14 dedicated to the Teatro dell’ Opera was laid out alongside historical costumes from the Teatro’s archives. It was all too easy to distinguish between the Valentino pieces and the costume. Nothing is ever really literal in Piccioli and Chiuri’s hands. “We want to capture the spirit, the grace and the beauty with lightness,” said Chiuri. “We use inspiration because we need to look around but we don’t want to reproduce this inspiration.”
Our final destination was the apartment and studio of the artist Giorgio de Chirico. “They say that Rome is the centre of the world and that Piazza Spagna is the centre of Rome, so my wife and I must live at the centre of the world,” wrote de Chirico in his memoirs. That’s an arguable statement but being smack bang at the foot of the Spanish steps, you could definitely feel the energy in this house, despite everything being preserved exactly how de Chirico had left it after his death.
Perhaps I too had been inspired by this extraordinarily “different light” cast over Rome. And so for one night only, I was sheathed in a Valentino coral pink caped gown that called for some semblance of gracefulness. It was an admirable attempt on my part to embody the sort of lightness of beauty that Chiuri and Piccioli have brought to the house. I’ve never had so many people coming up to me to say, “Susie, you look so… different!” As they say… when in Rome…
Photograph by Fashion to Max
The accusation of many of the far-flung resort trips has been that the location has overtaken the clothes. This definitely wasn’t the case as we headed to Piazza Migananelli, home to Valentino’s new store and their ateliers, and where artist Pietro Ruffo had created a wooden interpretation of the Roman Forum as a backdrop for the haute couture collection. By seeing Rome the way we did earlier in the day, we were better equipped to understand the hidden depths of what Piccioli and Chiuri presented that evening. Black is a metaphorical colour used to illustrate the layered mystery of Rome. Whilst I’m not normally a fan of black, it was hard not to fall deep for Piccioli and Chiuri’s use of nero. It was down to the “different light” that they cast over the shade with their use of asymmetric cuts, delicate criss-crossing straps and toga detailing, accentuated by Alessandro Gaggio’s timeless gold jewellery that could have been dug up on an archaeological mission.
As night fell over the Piazza, with hundreds of tourists hanging on the edges to see what all the fuss was about, Piccioli and Chiuri’s innate knowledge and love of their city prevailed through textures of marble and mosaic intarsia or Rome-related symbols like eagles, ears of wheat and pomegranates. The haughty beauty of what Piccioli and Chiuri have carved out at Valentino has sometimes been accused of being cold and far-removed but showing this particular collection in Rome gave the clothes more heart and affability than ever before. Every stitch of embroidery and embellishment beat with the hearts of the craftsmen of the atelier “It’s the place where we grew up and where we live,” said Piccioli. “This is where we come from. Talking about Rome is talking about our roots in a very authentic way. It’s not about describing with surfaces but describing with emotions. Fashion has to touch you.”
Mr Valentino led the applause midway through the show and at the end roused everyone to a standing ovation when Piccioli and Chiuri took their bows. That’s a rarity these days and is testament to how the duo have made the maison their own, imbuing it with their values. “We are younger so our language is different,” said Chiuri. “We speak about tolerance, individuality and freedom.” The real mirabilis of this trip to Rome was to see Piccoli and Chiuri’s transformation of the house come full circle, back to what they know and where they feel most at home.
The next day, we were treated to a visit of the newly refurbished Valentino ateliers. I’ll be posting that separately to the show. It’s best not to be overwhelmed by so much beauty served up all in one go.