#SuzyCouture: Valentino – Beyond Great Beauty, A Message Of Inclusivity

A swish of taffeta on a long dress, a shiver of movement in the branches of spring flowers – and the audience rose to its feet. Celine Dion wiped away tears and Valentino himself hugged Pierpaolo Piccioli, a 21st-century designer of dreams.

Is there any greater wonder than an haute couture show in the heart of Paris, in a grand and gilded mansion, where – at last – the overwhelming majority of the models were black?

As they walked with dignity and grace through the interlocking rooms, there was a mixture of awe at the colours – bright coral with a cluster of satin roses surrounding their face; or a mustard-yellow coat over grass-green trousers; or a mauve throw over orange, shaded with strings of silk. The combinations were artistic and exceptional.

Then there was the unprecedented lightness of gowns which, back in history, would have draped heavily and puddled across the floor. In their handcraft, the Valentino workers seemed to have exceeded their own stratospheric standards.

“I love couture for what it is, a dream, a fantasy. I don’t really believe in modernism in couture. It has to be craftsmanship, construction and lightness,” said Pierpaolo, who had reimagined the iconic Cecil Beaton image of a group of elegant women, and transferred it to elegant women of colour.

The designer said that he had traced early images of black/African beauty in art from the Renaissance to the 19th century, “when these people were always put on the side”, through to Ebony, the first 20th-century magazine to reach out to black people. He also referred to the moment in 2008 when the late Franca Sozzani produced an all-black Italian Vogue magazine, which sold out in a single day.

Yet the show did not seem in any way like a lesson – more a flutter of prettiness, from shapely short dresses to longer gowns, printed or patterned with flowers.

Every one of the 65 Valentino outfits was named after flowers, from roses – number one – to orchids, rhododendrons, tulips, violets and so many more. The blooms had each been chosen by the seamstresses themselves.

A fairy-like quality was enhanced by the models’ eyes, where feathers embellished the lashes.

The attention to detail, right down to flora-painted stockings, was something expected from Valentino, but the way that Pierpaolo created beauty out of a contentious subject was exceptional.

“This is not a political message,” the designer insisted. “It’s very aesthetic, which may be more deep and more subtle, but definitely stronger for me. Every day, all of us are talking about diversity, but we always talk about being free to wear something. But talking about diversity and beauty in haute couture is something different.

“I have been thinking about colours in a different way because you can invent new colours or reimagine combinations,” Pierpaolo continued. “Colour is a reflection of life, so when you see colour on different skins, of course, it looks different, like working on something you already know. Let’s say the collection is a very classic couture collection and there are floral prints but nothing ethnic at all… nothing to do specifically with black culture.”

The front-row audience, aside from Pierpaolo’s wife and two daughters, included film maker Sofia Coppola, movie star Kristin Scott Thomas, and designers Claire Waight Keller of Givenchy, Raf Simons, shoe supremo Christian Louboutin and Giambattista Valli, who was at fashion school in Rome with Pierpaolo.

Valentino himself said that the show made him feel proud and joyous.

“Just the colours in chiffon, more than embroideries, moved me,” the designer and founder said. “Everything was so exceptional. Pierpaolo is so intelligent. He must love me because he has worked with me for more than 30 years and sometimes I saw things that I thought were in my memory.”