The Emperor’s New Guards

A look from the Valentino autumn/winter collection (left);  Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli (right)

A few months ago I interviewed Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli for Vogue China. They were fun, gregarious and above all, totally in sync which is strange for a pair who couldn’t be more different personality-wise. I became a fan after their spring/summer 2010 collection and have admired the modern edge they are adding to the brand without sacrificing the glamour Valentino is know for.

While in recent years luxury houses have been helmed by a larger-than-life creative director, things are changing as lesser known designers are coming to the forefront. There is also a trend for many of these creative directors to come from in-house, as was the case when these two were appointed in 2008.  It shows that fashion is slowly changing.

Read on to find out more about how they work together and what it was like taking over the storied house of Valentino.

More looks from the Valentino autumn/winter 2011 show

IF THERE was ever an award for “Best Couple” in the fashion world it would go to Valentino’s creative directors, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli. While the duo may not share a bed in the biblical sense, the long time work partners certainly act like they have been married for years.

“One thing about Pier Paulo, I am always waiting for him. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I may be the woman but he is the high maintenance one,” jokes Chiuri.

We’re waiting in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel and Chiuri is the picture of Valentino elegance in a black belted dress with her hair twisted into a neat chignon and smoky black eyes to match. Five minutes later Piccioli finally arrives dressed in a skinny, steel-coloured suit and black tie. If appearances are anything to go by, they complement each other perfectly.

The pair is in Hong Kong for the first time to host a fashion show and are excited to be in Asia.

“China seems to be the new model for luxury, it’s so fast and modern. Everything here is so new,” says Chiuri, her eyes wide with excitement.

“It’s new with a memory of the past,” interjects Piccioli, correcting her at the same time. “You see the history but from a fashion point of view it is a very young market so you feel this energy.”

This type of banter is typical of the couple and continues throughout the interview – one starts to make a point before the other jumps in to finish the sentence. It’s both charming and distracting at the same time, not that the designers care. They are clearly having too much fun bickering to notice.

Chiuri and Piccioli’s may seem like an old married couple, but their friendship blossomed two decades ago when they were introduced by mutual friend and fellow designer Giambattitsa Valli.

“After we met we immediately started working together [at Fendi] although I was there first. That’s my problem, I am always there first,” says Chiuri with a laugh. “Even in terms of age, I am the old part.”

While the pair only met during the early stages of their fashion careers, both wanted to be designers from a young age and attended the same fashion school at different times.

“When I was young I was always sketching and wanted to make dresses for my dolls,” says Chiuri.

“I never did this, thank god,” teases Piccioli. “I was obsessed by pictures, imagery and great photographers. Fashion for me was a way to tell stories.”

At the Istituto Europeo di Design in Rome they both chose to specialise in accessories which was a relatively new field at the time.

“I remember my mother asking me if I was sure I wanted to go to fashion school because the institute only opened the year I started. Today accessories is an exciting world, but back then it was unheard of, no one even bothered with them. Designer accessories didn’t exist,” remembers Chiuri.

When they later met at Fendi, the duo joined forces working on the brand’s accessories line, and developing styles such as the infamous baguette, which created the “it” bag phenomenon. While their working partnership seemed like the most natural thing in the world, it was not common practice in the industry at the time.

“We found we worked well together, we had a good synergy. Fendi was a good time for us because it was so important in that company to work in a team. From such a young age, we were used to working as part of a team, not individually. Not everyone else thinks this way,” explains Chiuri.

“It was what was happening at that moment. Now it’s not so strange to have two designers working together, but when we started to work together it was unusual, especially a man and a woman. Everyone thought we were a couple. Working together was simple as it was easy. We just did it” says Piccioli.

After a decade at the brand, the two were approached by Valentino to develop a line of accessories for the fashion house and later design for Valentino’s Red collection of clothing. They immediately took on the challenge, excited to have an opportunity to work with one of Italian fashion’s greatest couturiers. Even today they refer to their predecessor with incredible respect and admiration.

“Valentino is a legend for us. We are Italian, we live in Rome. It’s the best of the best,” says Chiuri.

“We really wanted to work with Mr Valentino because he was a couturier, not just a designer,” adds Piccioli. “It was also interesting in terms of what we learnt. Valentino wanted us to be clear with our aesthetic. He taught us that if people didn’t share it, it was important to stick with it anyway.”

Of course the biggest change came when Valentino retired from the industry in 2007 leaving a big role to fill. While Chiuri and Piccioli were appointed creative directors for the accessory lines, ex-Gucci designer Alessandra Facchinetti stepped in to design the ready-to-wear and Haute Couture. In 2008, after two seasons, Facchinetti was unceremoniously dumped and Chiuri and Piccioli were offered her position.

“At the time my big problem was my personal life. I knew how incredible it was, but at the same time I was worried about the toll it would take on my family. For a woman it’s different, especially if you have a family. But it was not an opportunity I could refuse,” says Chuiri.

“We were not so ambitious. We were confident of course especially when you are part of a project like the baguette, but you don’t need to demonstrate your worth anymore. We were not in the spotlight but we were happy with our jobs. But at the same time you can’t say no,” agrees Piccioli.

The biggest task the designers faced was modernising the brand while still respecting its storied past and DNA. While Valentino had an illustrious history, they also wanted to inject their own personalities while adding a cool and modern edge to the clothes.

“We had a beautiful house, but in some ways it was important to keep it in today’s world. The woman had changed – she wants to be comfortable, so we wanted to include more daywear. We wanted it to be more sensual – the old Valentino way was very elegant but not always sensual. Now it’s a little sexy, but always sophisticated,” says Chiuri.

“We also wanted to change the attitude of women wearing Valentino. Today it’s so much more about the woman than the clothes. We wanted to embrace the values of the brand, and beauty is such a core part of that, but you still have to update it. Beauty is different from the 1960s and now,” says Piccioli.

Their new aesthetic is best summed up in their current autumn/winter collection which features plenty of Couture daywear with Valentino’s signature details designed with their own contemporary twist. Classics such as a cashmere skirt suit is decorated with studs for an edgy look, while Chantilly lace appears on modern dresses with leather or on naughty tiered skirts paired with demure cashmere sweaters. Underneath an elegant trouser suit you’ll find sheer chiffon blouses with sexy lace inserts. Eveningwear features the usual Couture details such as feathers, macramé, prints and rose appliqués, but on long, loose silhouettes that recall the 1970s.

While old Valentino old appealed to ladies who lunch and jet setting Princesses, today’s customers include actress Anne Hathaway and modern style icon and singer Florence Welch.

And although this new aesthetic has evolved over time, the designers’ methods remain the same as they continue to work in tandem promoting one vision for the brand.

“We find inspiration from our lives, travelling, seeing exhibitions. It’s a relationship where you put your expertise together,” says Chuiri.

“Our job is to create one vision. It’s one aesthetic which is made with two different points of view. Mr Valentino started with a collection about an idea. We work to create a message rather than a theme. It’s about emotion and what emotion the clothes illicit,” says Piccioli.

Naturally the rise to top hasn’t been without its challenges. In addition to their design duties, the pair have also been charged with the brand’s overall creative vision while having to learn the art of Couture. But at the end of the day they both share a common goal which is to build a modern and relevant luxury brand that will withstand the test of time.

“My vision is to create something like Chanel. I think Karl Lagerfeld has done a really good job. Valentino is like Chanel, where the reference is very huge, but Karl Lagerfeld is taking the value of the brand in a contemporary modern way. I hope we can do this in a different way with the same take,” says Chiuri as Piccioli agrees with a smile.

As published in Vogue China, August 2011.