A week after the Paris haute couture shows ended, Pierpaolo Piccioli held the Valentino show in Venice, in the magical watery setting of the Gaggiandre, a shipyard built in the mid-1500s. The choice of Venice — rather than Paris, where Valentino has long anchored the couture collections — was more than a little symbolic. On the water, in the murky sunset, the setting seemed apart, free. Venice is also home to the Biennale and to art lovers generally. And after the unreal confinement and pressures of the past year, Piccioli sought those qualities — freedom and a connection with other creative people.
Rarely has a fashion show lived up to the dream.
In the first place, you didn’t need to be in Venice on Thursday night to appreciate the beauty (though I wish I had been!). Second, Piccioli seems to challenge himself each season with color and how he combines them. But as he told me in Paris during a preview, when a model appeared in a long shirtdress of teal silk satin, “I’m not naming the colors anymore. It’s too difficult.” Let’s see: There was hot pink, flamingo pink, one or two shades of peony pink, violet, purple, aubergine, cocoa, coral, poppy red, Valentino red, mulberry, pansy yellow, chartreuse, lime, pea green, pool blue, and that luscious, hard-to-pinpoint teal.
The colors might have been linked to nature, or to the way a painter sees nature. That was another difference in this collection. Last November, Piccioli had the idea of working with artists. “I was missing creative connections,” he said. He looked at the work of many contemporary artists, but eventually reached out to 18 people, primarily painters, among them the Michigan-born Patricia Treib, the Rwanda-born Francis Offman, and the Italian Benni Bosetto, whose work often combines drawing, sculpture, and performance. The idea was not to reproduce their artwork — “It had to be more than a museum T-shirt,” as Piccioli put it — but, instead, to be inspired. To have a kind of open conversation with kindred souls, and at the same time, keep alive the codes of the Rome-based couture house. The results were nicely considered, from almost literal interpretations of, say, Treib’s abstract paintings with their luminously clear colors (for a patchwork ball gown) to the intuitive, organic quality of Offman’s compositions, which typically use found material like coffee grounds (for an oversize masculine workwear outfit in rough, patched off-white cotton).
Though the vast majority of the clothes were not so arty, that was probably the show’s saving grace. I was struck by the deft way that Piccioli talked with fashion’s past, including his own. The fluffy ostrich-feather hats, by Philip Treacy, are a reprise of a landmark show. A hot-pink, cone-shaped minidress with a cutout opening for the face could have been a nod to the famous 1965 cover of Bazaar by Richard Avedon of Jean Shrimpton. The gorgeous hand-pleated taffeta ball gowns (over crinolines) were pure Valentino, while the long shirtdresses with a bit of train could have been an ode to American luxe, calme, and simplicité.
Okay, I’m making that last bit up, but still: Those dresses seemed primed for the next Met Gala and its theme of American fashion. They’re killers. “The construction looks like it’s falling down,” Piccioli observed of the teal dress, which seemed to drip off the model’s body. That illusion, of oil running over the skin, is simply haute couture.