“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.