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“It is not a peaceful environment to me at all.  It’s a fighting environment, not like England or Wales where you feel the peace of centuries and centuries of people tilling the soil.  It’s the most hostile place I’ve ever lived.  Oh, not the people, of course, they are the least hostile, but the land just can’t be tamed – everything fights you – and for that we should be thankful.  A lot of artists come to Big Sur with the intention of painting but the environment is so powerful that they can’t do it, so they sit around drinking and goofing off all day.  I work six hours a day not looking at the landscape.  If you look at the landscape, you’re done for.”  

That’s artist Barbara Spring talking about living and working in Big Sur, taken from a book compiled by Big Sur inhabitant Judith Goodman, that glimpses into the lives of nineteen Big Sur women.  I picked it up as a souvenir from Big Sur’s Phoenix shop and read it from front to back on the terrace of the beautifully tranquil Post Ranch Inn, where we stayed for one ridiculously lavish night (a night in a cheap skeezy motel in San Simeon beforehand was the apt antidote to the lap of luxury that was to come).  I chickened out and did Big Sur – the “easy” way.  Nothing about our inaugural trip to this beautiful stretch of coastline “fought” us.  Everything we had encountered on our journey to and through the Big Sur region, from the kitschy Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo to the ridiculously ornate Hearst Castle in San Simeon to the endless bends and curves along Highway 1, where ocean, forest and mountains are at one with one another, had been a breeze.  It was a much easier journey than we had anticipated, especially when you had combed through the scare-mongering reviews of the drive on Yelp and Trip Advisor.  And of course, bathing in a luxurious infinity pool at Post Ranch, whilst looking out at the Pacific Ocean, is hardly hostile.

I’ll agree with one thing though.  One look at the landscape and you will be done for.  You glance at the ocean, look up again after a few moments and rising mist and changing sunlight will alter the perspective entirely.  Breathe in and you’ll smell a unique amalgamation of pine, coastal plants and salty air.  The best thing about the region is, despite the amount of visiting tourists, nowhere feels overly developed or commodified.  There’s a respect for the natural surroundings everywhere you go as well as a prevailing aesthetic of sorts, that is derived from the literary figures and artists that have called this place home (Hunter S. Thompson, Henry Miller and Kaffe Fassett to name a few) and the culture of wellbeing expounded by the community of Esalen Insitute.  Call it hippie dippie if you will.  A few years ago, I would have chortled at the idea of a masseuse telling me that I need to let my body go and just “be”.  That’s what increasing levels of stress and hectic work life does to you.  I might have shaken it all off quickly in my twenties but right about now, trying to just “be” is exactly what I needed.  Hence why Big Sur will now be a permanent part of my yearly escape to California.  Like Joshua Tree last year, and like the women who have made Big Sur their home as described in Goodman’s book, I’ve been duly slayed by the land here.  There’s something magically therapeutic in everything you see, smell and taste (if you eat locally, you won’t really go wrong).  Trying to “do” Big Sur and check it off a list isn’t the right way of going about it.  There’s a way of life here that needs to be fully embraced.  Goodman’s afterword sums it right up.  “I must be satisfied with what is here.  I must love my life.  Unless, I can stay flexible and willing to accommodate to its demands, the coast will sluff me off, as it has so many others, like so much crumbling earth.  I know that I am only passing through this place.”  

P.S. I’ve done my best to inject something akin to “style” into the photographs but as I’m on holiday, please allow me to lapse into “lifestyle” territory.  The blog will be back to normal fashion-y service soon as we reach the tail of our trip.

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IMG_0148Glum in front of Nitt Witt Ridge because we arrived to find it had already closed

IMG_0149Antiques on Arlington in Cambria, where you’ll find an abundance of clip-on earrings, loud prints and amazing crockery 

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0E5A974217th century Persian tiles meets 15th century Spanish ceiling, summing up the mix and match architectural style of Hearst Castle, as devised by architect Julie Morgan and William Randolph Hearst

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0E5A0121Wearing LES’ by Lesia Paramonova floral body and leggings, Nike x Sacai skirt and Ray Ban sunglasses

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20150719_133938Wading into the creek by Pfeiffer Beach

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0E5A0126Liberty x Nike Air Rifts looking decidedly battered after Big Sur-ing all day in them

0E5A0037Pointing out the cinematic Bixby Creek Bridge 

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IMG_0165Kaffe Fassett, who grew up in Big Sur, leaves his bohemian mark on Phoenix Shop at Nepenthe

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IMG_0259Picked up a copy of the wonderful Big Sur Women by Judith Goodman

IMG_0251Writer Lynda Sargent, a resident of Big Sur, in a beam of sunlight

IMG_0253Esalen Women as photographed by Joyce Rodgers Lyke

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IMG_0153Goodies from Big Sur Bakery – where everything is delicious and where cinnamon rolls collide with croissaints to make a croroll?

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20150719_165809Wearing Phiney Pet dress upon arrival at Post Ranch Inn

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IMG_0233Dancing on the rooftop of our Ocean House

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IMG_0244Inside the woods of Post Ranch Inn

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IMG_0219Sunset from Sierra Mar restaurant at Post Ranch Inn

IMG_0224Wearing Warehouse dress and Christopher Kane sandals

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IMG_0227Morning view from Post Ranch Inn Ocean House – lasting takeaway from Big Sur

>> I’m back in my happy happy place in Los Angeles (and beyond) with a proper holiday that has involved several days of not using any data on my phone.  I literally just checked and no mega bytes have been notched up for over 24 hours, which is a novelty for me.  In addition there has been much poolside listening of Woman’s Hour, turning up of Jamie xx/Adorn/Yumi Zouma in the car and happy hammock swinging.  I wasn’t going to post much this week but the colours of LA, Palm Springs and the Yucca Valley high desert, along with the corresponding attire, have been building up so much so that it pictures of me wearing bikini briefs and a coat edged with the word “Swim” wouldn’t make have made much sense, if I had waited to return to London.  The theme of my summer suitcase has been the brighter the better, as well as adopting an unusually reduced level of layering, to combat the 38 degree temperatures out in the desert.  As a stop gap to normal posting duties, I give you some snapshots of my temporary state of Californication..

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0E5A9529Miuniku “Swim” silk coat, Topshop bralette, Mara Hoffmann bikini bottoms, Victoria Beckham sunglasses

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IMG_0042Ben Jones exhibition at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills

IMG_0049Borne sheer shirt, Christopher Kane lace skirt, Nike x Liberty Air RiftsVictoria Beckham sunglasses

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0E5A9622Jacquemus dress, Opening Ceremony sandals, Jonathan Saunders sunglasses

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20150717_231027Matt pastel ombre nails done at ES Nail

IMG_9995Marc by Marc Jacobs shirt dress, Cottweiler shorts, Dior sunglasses

IMG_9983Nike x Liberty Air Rifts

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IMG_0002Cactus display at Poketo

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IMG_0093Entrance to Palm Canyons

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0E5A9610Karla Spetic halterneck, Prada shorts, Natali Leskova sky print waistcoat, Dior sunglasses, Coach x Peanuts mini duffle bag, Coach metallic clogs

IMG_0090Skull Rock inside Joshua Tree

IMG_0069Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Museum

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IMG_0085Balenciaga dress, Acne sunglasses, & Other Stories x Vans

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0E5A9425Supersweet x Moumi dress, Luisa Leitao sunglasses, Nicholas Kirkwood sandals

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“In Italy Milan is the home of prêt-à-porter and Rome is the home of haute couture because houses sprung up in the 50s,” explained Maria Grazia Chiuri, when asked about the main difference between working in Milan and Rome.  “For so long, Milan was at the centre of fashion because of the industry but now we start to speak about craftsmanship, one-of-kind and being an Italian couture house.”  Chiuri was modest in her language about helming what is one of Rome’s most well known haute couture house alongside her design partner Pierpaolo Piccioli, but she is partially right when it comes to talking up about Rome and its couture credentials.  Look at the growing success of Alta Moda, initiated by Silvia Venturini Fendi, which I had the pleasure of attending last year.

The emphasis in haute couture naturally falls on those petites mains at work in the great Parisian maisons, but after Valentino’s spectacular haute couture show on Thursday night, a visit to Valentino’s newly renovated haute couture ateliers at their Piazza Mignanellli headquarters, the next morning quickly reminded us of the deft skill of the piccole mani, whose work more than stands up to their French counterparts.  In a forthcoming book dedicated to Valentino’s Miribilia Romae published by Assouline,  every one who works in the atelier are photographed and introduced individually.  That already puts some faces to the work that we see on the runway.  Going into the atelier though really hones in that haute couture can be an industry.  I’ve been researching what Didier Grumbach, the former chairman of the Fédération Française de la Couture has to say about haute couture (in general he is salient and insightful) and time and time again, he asserts that haute couture is no longer an industry and that “for a brand, couture is a flight of fancy with which to demonstrate masterful skill.”

And yet what I saw at Valentino was over sixty seamstresses – young, old, men and women – all working diligently on garments destined to be worn.  I saw mannequins, varying in sizes that matched the exact dimensions of their client list.  I saw sketches for wedding dresses and evening gowns pinned up on the walls, ready to be made up for the very very wealthy, who can afford Valentino’s five to six figure costing couture.  I saw intense orders in Italian led by the ‘premières’ heading up the eveningwear, coats and bridal divisions in the atelier, instructing the seamstresses working under them, so that every seam and stitch is just so.  This is employment and from what I hear, a profitable industry for Valentino, that isn’t just a “flight of fancy”.  So much so that Chiuri and Piccioli are eager to get new blood into the ateliers to carry on the mantle of alta moda in Rome as they will be starting up a school of haute couture in their Rome headquarters, taking on six or seven students each year with a view to employing them at the end if they show talent.

They will certainly have beautiful digs to work in if they do succeed.  Valentino’s haute couture ateliers are the most impressive in terms of space, that I’ve ever seen.  They were recently renovated where the old lowered ceilings were were bashed through to reveal hidden old frescos (an eagle on one of the ceilings inspired the opening gown in the latest haute couture collection).  There’s an abundance of light and space here that means working on floor length gowns and dresses all the easier.

What impressed me the most was the laboratory like feeling of the place.  Sure, journalists and editors were poking their noses through the rooms freely but work was carrying on as normal.  With my A-level Latin skills, I could just about make out Italian discussions about how to solve a certain problem in embellishment or fabrication.  It’s a constant dialogue on sartorial execution.  Here, there’s plenty of time to use their piccole mani and their minds to ensure a garment can be the best it can possibly be.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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…

Fashion-to-Max-picPhotograph 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.

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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.