Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Great Experiment

During his six years at the helm of Valentino, the designer has transformed haute couture into a vehicle for expressing big, bold ideas.

Photographs by Liz Johnson Artur

Pierpaolo Piccioli wears his own clothing and accessories.
Pierpaolo Piccioli wears his own clothing and accessories.

Wearing his usual uniform of dark sunglasses, a black T-shirt, black pants, and white sneakers, Pierpaolo Piccioli is sitting in the Paris headquarters of Valentino on the Place Vendôme, with its majestic views over the square and onto the facade of the Ritz Hotel, talking about how he sees the rarefied world of haute couture. For decades, there has been an ongoing discussion about whether clothing made entirely by hand for the most limited of audiences still makes sense, but Piccioli rejects the premise of the question. “I don’t think that couture has to be modern in the way you think, in terms of form or shape,” he explains. “To me, modernity means embracing the world that is around us. Couture works if, at the end, it is worn by humans who are of today.”

Since 2017, when he presented his first solo collection for Valentino, Piccioli has been giving a jolt to haute couture. He has played with dramatic, sculptural forms; harnessed the extraordinarily precise techniques of the Valentino ateliers; and combined colors in startling ways. But unlike designers of the past, Piccioli has used his couture collections to advance messages about inclusivity, gender, and diversity. “To me, couture is an instrument to say in an even louder way what I believe in, what I stand for,” he explains. “Couture is pure as a process, as an approach, so when you generate attention with couture, it can have a bigger impact than with other means of expression.”

To get a better sense of his vision, we asked the designer to scour his own archives and select some of the most emblematic work from his six years designing Valentino couture. Piccioli worked with Liz Johnson Artur, a Russian and Ghanaian art photographer based in London, with whom he collaborated on a book in 2020, Valentino: Collezione Milano. Bringing the clothes to life required assembling an eclectic group, including the American actor Nicola Peltz Beckham, the French model and actor Tina Kunakey, the RuPaul’s Drag Race superstar Shea Couleé, and the designer’s daughter Benedetta Piccioli.

Code Temporal Spring 2021

“My daughter Benedetta is a continuous source of inspiration for me. She studied literature and is following her own path in fashion and beauty,” Piccioli says. “This collection was conceived during the pandemic. I wanted to update classic rituals and processes of haute couture through garments that express individual desires. The essence of couture depends on how it is done and, most of all, whom it is done for. It lies in the ability of seamstresses and tailors to manipulate fabrics and threads through a process that transcends mere execution.”

Worn by Benedetta Piccioli. Valentino Haute Couture fashion and accessories (throughout).

Anatomy of Couture Spring 2022

“I was rethinking the couture rituals,” Piccioli says of this gown, worn by the actor Nicola Peltz Beckham. “My intention was to reflect the diversity of body shapes from the beginning of the construction of a dress. The codes of haute couture remain the same but are re-signified, conveying beauty in a welcoming expression. I’ve always had pink in my work. Pink is the perfect metaphor of poetry: gentleness and disruptiveness. Pink can be delicate, sensual, hedonistic, and irreverent.”

Worn by Nicola Peltz Beckham.

This past summer, Piccioli made one of his most powerful couture statements to date in a remarkable presentation on the Spanish Steps in Rome. Titled “The Beginning,” the show featured more than a hundred models descending all 136 steps of the historic stairway. First out was Alaato Jazyper, from South Sudan, wearing a dramatic minidress pouf made of enormous taffeta roses, all in Valentino Red, paired with black fishnets and black patent leather pumps adorned with black feathers. “I really wanted to have people in that show who exemplified big societal changes, people who 30 years ago might not have been allowed to walk the runway,” Piccioli says. “There were guys wearing feminine dresses and more than 40 Black girls. In such a symbolic Italian city, it was going against every wave of xenophobia and homophobia. It was very classical, very couture, with ruffles and bows, very much in the Valentino vocabulary, but actually, it was a big ‘fuck you’ to a traditional kind of beauty, to all the conservatism, the reactionaries of the moment. It was about giving a stage—a big, institutional stage—to people who are not usually allowed to be in such a central space of fashion.”

At the base of the stairs, a raised white runway continued over the cobblestones of the Piazza di Spagna, turning the corner to the imposing Valentino headquarters. Romans hung out of their windows to catch the spectacle and a live performance by English vocalist and composer Labrinth, who was at the top of the steps. The show ended with Piccioli leading members of his atelier, wearing their white coats, down the steps and into the house. He bounded over to hug Giancarlo Giammetti, who founded the house with his partner, Valentino Garavani, in 1960. “It was a touching moment after such an emotional show,” recalls Giammetti. “We are so lucky to have Pierpaolo. He is seriously enamored of Valentino and what it can bring to today’s world.”

It is the designer’s vision of today that has made the classical house so relevant—under Piccioli’s watch, Valentino has become a billion-dollar brand. One of the reasons for staging the event on the Spanish Steps was that Piccioli had seen, from afar during the ’80s and ’90s, the alta moda presentations that were held there. “Those shows were so beautiful and so glamorous to me, but I didn’t want to re-create their memory,” he explains. “I wanted to get the modernity, because that’s what my job is about, delivering a beauty that reflects the time in which we are living.”

The Beginning Fall 2022

“This depicts my idea of beauty, here and now,” Piccioli says. “When I started to work on this collection, I was reflecting on my identity and the identity of the maison. I wondered how much of myself was in the brand and how much of the brand was in me. It was difficult to identify the boundaries, as they are very thin. But that is what I like most—history and present meet every day in the design process, in the reinterpretation of the archives, in the aesthetic symbols. The present and past could not exist without each other. My personal vision of contemporary fashion is an inclusive and experimental system that must be continuously challenged, but that does not deny a legacy that will last forever.”

Worn by models, from left: Omowunmi Shodeko, Devyn Garcia, Wali, Feranmi Ajetomobi, Nyaduel Bawar, Jinrong Huang.

Piccioli was born in 1967 in Nettuno, a modest coastal town some 35 miles south of Rome. It’s where he and his wife, Simona Caggia, raised their children, Benedetta, 25; Pietro, 23; and Stella, 16. He studied philosophy at university, then switched to fashion and began his career as a junior designer at Fendi, where he met Karl Lagerfeld. “Karl was obsessed with the idea of the present and never going back to the past, which was an important lesson for me,” Piccioli says. “But most important at Fendi was the idea of family, of the team, of building something together.” In 1999, Piccioli landed at Valentino, designing accessories. Then, in 2008, after Valentino retired, Piccioli assumed the title of co-creative director, sharing it with Maria Grazia Chiuri until 2016, when Chiuri left to design Dior.

Aside from special presentations like the one in Rome or another in Venice, Piccioli has unfurled his vision for Valentino couture in a suitably spectacular space in Paris: the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild, a 19th-century neoclassical townhouse in Faubourg Saint-Honoré. From the beginning, he sought to emphasize the special nature of couture. His spring/summer 2018 collection included such impressive exits as a pair of full pants in black crepe paired with a silk georgette top with ruffles and lace that required 700 hours of hand embroidery. (Each ensemble was named for a worker in the couture atelier.) He also showed his adventurousness with color, pairing a long teal tunic with a sky blue cape and an oversize hat in bright red ostrich feathers, made with master milliner Philip Treacy.

For Piccioli, diversity in casting is as important as the clothes. The models in his spring/summer 2022 couture collection included Lara Stone, 38; Kristen McMenamy, 57; Marie Sophie Wilson, 73; and Jon Kortajarena, 37. In January 2019, in a show that he dubbed “Black Beauty,” Piccioli ensured that of the 65 models he worked with, 42 were Black. His mood board was filled with iconic images of women such as Eartha Kitt; fashion photos from 1960s Ebony; paintings by Manet, Gauguin, and Kerry James Marshall; and the famous 1948 photo by Cecil Beaton of a salon filled with eight women in evening confections by Charles James. The presentation was accompanied by a Maria Callas aria from La Wally, better known as the opera from the film Diva. At the end of the show, a grouping of models wearing gowns in vivid shades— lavender, shocking pink, chartreuse, and, of course, red—assembled to re-create a new version of the Beaton photo, only this time, it included a half dozen Black women and, at the center, a regal Naomi Campbell in a sheer ruffled ballgown in black taffeta.

Code Temporal Spring 2021

“Haute couture is an exaltation of the human being,” Piccioli says. “This season marked the debut of haute couture for men, but for me there is not ‘men’s couture’ or ‘women’s couture.’ All collections are couture. Women, men, naturally, smoothly—a wardrobe that draws infinite possibilities.”

Worn by model Timothé Domenico.

Valentino Couture Spring 2018

“I believe that my job is to deliver my idea of beauty related to the time we’re living in,” Piccioli says. “Tradition is a connector: It transfers knowledge and values through time. It has to do with dreams, emotions, poetry, and lightness. This cape, seen here on the RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Shea Couleé, was originally worn by Frances McDormand to the Met Gala in 2018.”

Worn by Shea Couleé.

“There were all of these emotions in the air that I still feel,” Piccioli says of that moment. “Not because of the clothes, because the clothes were classical. There was something in the air, some feeling, that created a sense of urgency to do that collection. That is when I do my job best, when I am able to deliver a strong image of beauty that also has meaning, when you overlap the medium and the message.”

Given the strength of his statements, it is not surprising that Valentino couture has been embraced by Hollywood stars ranging from Glenn Close to Jennifer Lopez to Zendaya, who wore a spectacular look to the Oscars this year: a cropped white silk satin shirt and a long skirt in silver embroidered organza. Even when dressing celebrities, Piccioli straddles the line between classical beauty and attention-grabbing urgency. At this past summer’s premiere of Don’t Worry Darling, at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, Florence Pugh commanded attention in a black glitter-printed tulle dress embroidered with silver sequins; it radiated timeless movie-star elegance. But at the Met Gala in 2018, Frances McDormand appeared in something more unexpected: a lemon yellow jumpsuit with a voluminous cape in teal faille and organza, and a towering—and face-obscuring—headpiece of blue leaves.

“I wanted to shift the idea of Valentino muses from lifestyle to more of a community, meaning that you choose people because of what they stand for, not just for what they represent or for their physical beauty,” Piccioli explains. “So, Zendaya and Frances McDormand and Glenn Close are all completely different, one from the other, but they share a strong individuality, a real uniqueness, and a sense of values.”

The Valentino team now thinks of some of their celebrity clients as “divas.” Instead of the old operatic idea, however, for them the word is a portmanteau of “different values.” And Piccioli expands the concept to include men like Lewis Hamilton, one of the world’s best Formula 1 drivers, who posed in pink with Zendaya for this fall’s ready-to-wear campaign. “Lewis is a diva to us,” the designer says. “In one of the most difficult sports in the world, he stands for human rights. He always says that he wants to give voice to those who don’t have one. I like these kinds of people who are in different fields and are using their voice and their work, their fantastic work, to be even more forceful.”

Des Ateliers Fall 2021

“For me, fashion is not art. Art has no purpose outside of itself, while fashion always has a practical scope, a function, a use,” Piccioli says. “But a couture collection traditionally embodies the values of uniqueness, singularity, research, and experimentation that are so inherent to the art practice. If fashion is a language, this hat by Philip Treacy is part of my couture vocabulary.”

Worn by model and actor Tina Kunakey.

It explains why Piccioli’s designs have turned up in places where couture has never gone before. This past spring, on RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars season 7, Shea Couleé, one of the contestants, working directly with the house, took to the runway in a floral, full-length Valentino gown and robe, with Maasai-inspired neck rings and sculptural braided hair formed into a gravity-defying crown. It was the first time anyone on Drag Race had worn haute couture. “I did not feel that that was something provocative,” Piccioli says. “I felt that it was normal, that it was natural, which is the only way to give it authenticity. Of course, we were aware that it could be provocative, but that was not the reason why we did it. The reason is just because I like it—that’s it.”

In discussing Valentino’s home base of Rome, Piccioli gives a sense of his nuanced view of the world. He invokes examples from the centuries of Catholic imagery that can be found on every corner, as well as the rough, sensual vision of the city depicted by film director Pier Paolo Pasolini. “My Roma is made of layers,” Piccioli explains. “It is not a scene that you can describe in one word—it is full of contrasts and tensions. I like the paganism of Roma that is still there, this tension with the Catholic side and the power of the church. There is the feeling that beauty lies not in any one thing, but is this kind of effortless balance between many different things. I like a place where all these contrasts live together.”

Piccioli has a profoundly inclusive approach to his work. In a field where many still think that a designer should be issuing diktats from above, he emphasizes the role of community. “Thinking back to my couture shows, they all prove that you can do something special if you are part of a good team, if everyone believes in what you’re doing, if they are all part of the same dream,” Piccioli explains. “If not, I would just be alone. I could not do this without all of the people who work with me and who believe in what I dream.”

Nicola Peltz Beckham’s Hair by David Von Cannon for R+Co at A-Frame Agency; Makeup by Emily Cheng at the Wall Group.

Hair by Claire Grech for L’Oréal Professionnel; makeup by Dariia Day for Charlotte Tilbury at Calliste Agency. Models: Benedetta Piccioli at Women Management Milan; Nicola Peltz Beckham, Omowunmi Shodeko, and Nyaduel Bawar at Girl; Devyn Garcia at DNA; Wali at Women Management New York; Feranmi Ajetomobi at Premium; Jinrong Huang at Next; Timothé Domenico at M Management; Shea Couleé; Tina Kunakey. Casting by Michelle Lee at Michelle Lee Casting.

Produced by Cebe Studio; Executive Producer: Claire Burman; Senior Producer: Sophie Baillavoine; Producer: Nicoleta Iliescu; Production assistants: Freya Reeves, Kayla King, Sveva Rossino, Catinca Negut; Photo assistant: Jeremy Cardoso; Fashion assistants: Nina Clements, Elie Merveille; Hair assistant: Rehma Grace; Makeup assistants: Marta Vertere, Laurie Maurie.