#SuzyCouture – Valentino: Couture’s Magical Alchemy

What to look at first? The Valentino colours: a bougainvillea-pink coat tied with a yellow ribbon over a chartreuse skirt; another swinging coat in the green of grass after spring rain; mustard set against primrose; swathes of regal red.

Then there were the other unexpected aspects of designer Pierpaolo Piccioli’s work that made the show the indisputably outstanding collection of the Autumn/Winter Haute Couture season.

In the show notes, Pierpaolo described the spirit of the show in his own words: “The search for the sacred, intended as something that oversees reality, pervades the whole collection.”

The challenge for a fashion creator is to dig deep into heart and soul – yet at the same time offer clothes that have some sort of normality. Fancy costumes can make a great show, but do not speak to customers.

This Valentino collection, which received an ovation, captured that elusive pinnacle of fashion: when alchemy transforms a designer’s thought process and artisanal talent into exquisite reality. Pierpaolo did not turn base metal into gold, but he did take inspiration from the paintings of Francisco de Zurbarán and from the Seven Deadly Sins – and still made his designs relevant. The first magical effect came through as the artist’s rich brocades reimagined as cotton lace on velvet; the other as evening bags inspired by the capital vices and transformed into lions, monkeys or snakes, in a collaboration with artist Harumi Klossowska de Rola.

Those purses looked like instant objects of desire.

The deadly sin of haute couture is to make everything seem so precious that it appears to have no connection with today’s unbuttoned world. Pierpaolo took the opposite approach. He brought a casual elegance to slip-on coats that had just a whiff of priestly vestments but were wrapped over tunics and trousers, the different colours of each garment softening the solemnity.

And just when it seemed that giant swirling patterns on over-size lapels were historically over-the-top, the designer sent out a slithering black velvet dress, with nothing to interrupt its simplicity other than that golden lion bag representing the sin of sloth.

Pierpaolo showed me one of his mood boards that focused on his interpretation of the sacred – and Zurbarán paintings that the designer described as “the opposite of Caravaggio; he was very religious while Caravaggio was giving the saints a new humanity”.

“I think in this moment, when everything is about digital technology, all of us are looking for something more spiritual, and this is beyond what you normally see. This is what couture is,” Pierpaolo explained. “The clothes are the final result of months of the process. You don’t really feel the sacred rituals of couture; you just perceive that through the clothes. But I want to celebrate what makes couture so special.”

The designer led me from the showroom looking over Paris’ Place Vendôme to a room where Italian petites mains were adding the finishing touches to his 60-piece collection. The seamstresses had been working on an apparently simple lacy dress, with inserts of what were described as “Garden of Eden green”, yellow with bronze intarsia and sugar-pink fur. It had taken 640 hours to work it all together. But the importance was not in counting the hours, but in understanding the craft of the Roman studios, where there are 70 seamstresses, many of them young. Some of them had been imported to Paris to prepare the show.

On the runway – whose front row had Valentino Garavani himself seated beside Sophia Coppola – the models walked out with a modern modesty: not prim or prissy or prudish, but taking lengthy strides in solid white footwear, hair knotted at the nape. And for all the fantastical work I had seen behind the simple silhouettes, the result had a simplicity and ease.

Pierpaolo succeeded in taking his fashion soul to the depths of his imagination, but offering up what seemed like “Couture Lite”. No wonder that high-fashion clients are worshipping at the altar of Valentino.