Tucked away on Rome’s Via Dei Condotti stands the grand Palazzo Mignanelli – also known as the Palazzo di Valentino, the headquarters of the famous fashion brand. Walking through the couture ateliers within, you can’t help but feel a twinge of recognition. For these are the rooms, full of white coated seamstresses working away at long tables, that were featured in Valentino: The Last Emperor, the 2008 documentary film about the legendary former designer of the house, Valentino Garavani, now 79.
Couturier Garavani, who rose to fame in the 60s thanks to patrons the likes of Jackie Kennedy, retired from his own house that year and announced Alessandra Facchinetti (previously of Gucci) as his successor. She lasted two seasons, but didn’t take the house in the direction it was hoped, and, in 2009, was replaced by former accessories designers Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri.
The design duo are based in a wood-paneled office at the heart of the historical Palazzo Mignanelli, their sleek white iMacs sitting on polished antique furniture. They are a garrulous pair, finishing each other’s sentences, clearly immensely comfortable in each other’s company. Whereas Garavani comported himself like a minor European royal, with a retinue of pugs, palatial villas, vast yachts, and a world class art collection, these designers are casual and humble – and show no nerves at their task in hand.
“We knew we were filling big shoes. We were proud, but had a sense of responsibility,” says Piccioli, seeming relaxed about their transition from accessory designers of ten years standing to creative directors. “It was a very good opportunity,” shrugs Chiuri pragmatically.
Subsequently, Valentino himself has given them his blessing. “He came to our last pret-a-porter show and he said, ‘I’ll tell you what you learnt from me. You’ve learned to make women beautiful and modern’. That’s a great compliment from Mr. Valentino,” Piccioli recently said.
Their design nous has injected a contemporary spirit into what was a largely red carpet orientated brand. For FW11, their collection moved towards daywear and was notable for their use of studding, mixtures of fabric (of -the-moment lace with leather), and contrasts between delicate sheer textures with chunky opaques.
“We think it’s very important for us to address women who don’t just work the red carpet,” muses Chiuri. “It’s not just about one moment in a woman’s life, it’s about many moments in a woman’s life,” adds Piccioli.
And yet, of course, the red carpet is still crucial to them in terms of publicity and showcasing their designs. We ask if the Lady Gaga phenomenon made them feel under pressure to come up with more extreme designs for the red carpet, as say Armani uncharacteristically did? Chiuri points out that they have dressed Gaga twice, in Valentino couture. However, they did not adapt their lace and ruffles aesthetic for her. Instead, her extreme hair and make up radicalized some quite traditionally romantic Valentino pieces.
“We don’t feel under any pressure to become more extreme,” continues Chiuri, “We are really lucky because we have many younger celebrities like Keira Knightley or Florence Welch or Carey Mulligan, that wear our clothes. Often they want to be beautiful but not in a classic way,” says Piccioli, “they want to be beautiful and individual.”
This beauty and individuality is the spirit that suffuses the house’s new floral fragrance, Valentina. The scent – a glorious conflation of Calabrian bergamot, white Alba truffle, jasmine, Amalfi orange blossom, tuberose, wild strawberries, cedar, and amber – is warm, inviting, and sensual.
“A lot of our ingredients are from Italy,” explains one half of the “nose team”, Olivier Cresp. “Alberto (Morillas, the other nose) thought of the idea of using the white truffle; it’s strange combined with the bergamot from Calabria.” To Cresp, the white truffle’s luxurious and decadent smell epitomizes the modern women the company wishes to attract.
After two years in development, Valentina the scent is as romantic and modern as the clothes Chiuri and Piccioli are creating. There is a rare delicacy to this house’s creations, whether they be wrought from natural essences or cloth.
Photos: Courtesy of VALENTINO