There are few instances at fashion shows, where you get to clasp your hand at your breast, audibly sigh and murmur noises of satisfaction without looking like a complete lunatic. Thankfully at Valentino’s latest S/S 18 haute couture show, I wasn’t the only one. To my right were a group of American clients, ready to splash their cash. “I’ll take one of everything please,” said one. I couldn’t tell whether she was being serious or not. In any case, I was of course seething with jealousy. Because of all the couture shows I’ve seen in recent memory, this was the one I could actually see myself wearing in the stark reality of day-to-day humdrum. I’m off to pick up Nico’s formula… just need to shrug on my purple maxi ruffled wrap dress. I’m going to go to the post office to collect my often-returned mail… in my parma violet taffeta ruffled skirt. And I might just do trim the out-of-control wall creeper plant in a Philip Treacy ostrich plumed hat, feathers trailing in the N15 wind. How did Pierpaolo Piccioli convince so many of us that these silhouettes suggesting a faded grandeur of mid-20th-century couture has its place in 2018?
In movement, the clothes floated past us. Nothing felt heavy or overdecorated. It was partially down to the fabric choices but mainly it was the brilliantly off-kilter colour palette, something Piccioli has been latched onto in his vision at Valentino. Anytime a colour would appear to be too saccharine or saturated – deepest of violet, bright fuschia, mint green – a shot of gritty brown or olive green would appear. Or you often had pastels colliding with bright. You picked up on memories of seminal couture moments – Charles James’ gown photographed by Cecil Beaton, the fantastical palette of Roberto Capucci or vintage Valentino itself (all of which were pinned on Piccioli’s moodboard backstage.
There were the aerated volumes, so beautifully crafted. Go big or go home, as often you’d look up and see the model’s face obscured by a high-necked gathering of fabric. Whether it’s a ruffled collar, a leg o mutton sleeve, a bow on the back of gowns or up on the shoulder, the proportion was blown up to avoid looking prim or miserly. Then there was the appearance of counterfoil pieces like a pair of brown slacks. I’ve opted for that Americanised word because of the casual vibe slacks impart. They brought the opening look of the amber silk faille opera cape firmly down to earth. So too did the oversized double faced cashmere jumpers used to temper the ruffles and frou-frou.
But the thing that really sealed the deal and sky-rocketed the swoon factor, was when you learnt that each silhouette had been named after a seamstress working in the Rome-based ateliers of Valentino . Backstage there was a wall of notes in envelope, each one written by a seamstress talking about what couture means to them. How I wish I understood what they said. Their names were also written on a board to form a Valentino “V” shape. The relationship between Piccioli and his atelier staff is palpably heartfelt. Mr Valentino was seen backstage embracing some of the women. They’re not craftspeople merely tasked to cut and sew on brief. They take immense pride in their work. Piccioli reportedly dislikes the term “petites mains”. I’m a guilty party in the fetishisation of these skilled hands. This show perhaps taught me that when you can feel a beating heart in a collection, it’s because invariably there’s an impassioned group effort of people pouring soul into the seams.