At the end of this strangely long, drawn out fall haute couture season, it was Pierpaolo Piccioli’s turn to show the Valentino collection in Rome. Titled “The Performance: of Grace and Light, a dialogue between Pierpaolo Piccioli and Nick Knight,” it was a digital/ physical hybrid event staged in a darkened void on the famed Cinecitta movie lot.
In a Zoom press conference, Piccioli explained he’d conceptualized the 16-look collection as “an extreme response” to the tough circumstances of lockdown, a determination to overcome the technical problems of socially-distanced working in the Valentino atelier and the impossibility of creating prints and lavish embroideries. “I didn’t want to feel the limitations. Couture is made for emotions, dreams,” he said. “It was super-emotional for us all to be here together to win this challenge. A moment I will never forget.”
A local audience was in attendance. If you were spectating via laptop, the sensation was one of being sucked into a liminal space suspended somewhere between a digitalized romantic fantasy, and an installation of models wearing surreally-proportioned white dresses, all of it relayed on video. First came a pre-recorded screening of an artily glitchy video by Knight, in which projections of flowers and feathers played over meters-long dresses worn by women who appeared to hover in a mid-air circus scenario. Cut to real-time: curtains drew back to reveal the models, standing perched on ladders in a static tableau, their dresses—now revealed to be all-white—cascading to the floor, broadcast live.
The process began with sketches on paper, relayed to Knight in London. Piccioli wanted to uphold the inimitable techniques of the house (which can be seen in the lookbook, which was also supplied). In lockdown, however, the normal heads-together working practice was impossible. Usually, each couture piece is intensely labored over by six experts to a table, so construction was moved to mannequins, where the craftspeople could work two at a time, safely separated as they sewed the vast meterage and volumes of taffeta, tulle, chiffon and organdie.
The notion of taking the show to Cinecitta, Rome’s “factory of dreams,” led him to add the concept of “the magic of early cinema,” evoking the silent movie imagery with silver sequins and waterfalls of glittering fringe. He commissioned unreleased recordings from FKA twigs, her extraordinary voice soaring poignantly as the models swung from trapezes and floated through Knight’s digital performance.
Fashion communication on multi-platform formats has taken surreal twists and turns as designers have tried to conquer the pandemic’s dreadful problems. In Piccioli’s case, the surrealism was right there, embodied in the clothes’ theatrical form. In practice, the house will work with clients to reproportion them according to their own dreams—that’s what a couture house always does, anyway. Still, it’s no disrespect to Piccioli and all his incredible teams to say that there is nothing that digital wizardry can possibly ever do to compete with the visceral wonder of seeing a Valentino haute couture collection walk through a room on his models. For now, the comeback of that precious experience is the dream we are all left with.
by SARAH MOWER for Vogue