And just like that, Pierpaolo Piccioli is the king of spring-summer 2022 haute couture season. The latest Valentino collection is everything a truly phenomenal couture collection should be, and more. You could see the emotion in the eyes of some of the models as they glided through the maison’s Place Vendôme salons to a specially recorded soundtrack by Anohni. “She was told she’d never walk couture,” Pierpaolo Piccioli said of one of. “In couture you never see these bodies. Never.” It is in large part thanks to Piccioli that haute couture is finding relevance in an age set on breaking the constructs of the past. On his mission to make this elitist corner of fashion matter to the generations dubbed “woke,” he has decided to “keep the codes, but change the values”: to give the broad spectrum of humanity the chance to mirror themselves in haute couture, in place of the waify, white, classical beauty ideal of its past. In front of a distanced audience of just 65, he broke with the skinny stigma of that heritage in a collection titled the Anatomy of Couture. “When you do couture, you have the house model. And you apply the body of the house model to 50 or 60 models on the runway. I wanted to break these rules and embrace the idea of different proportions of body, different sizes, different ages. But it was impossible to do this with just one house model. So, I broke the rules and got 10 house models in with differently proportioned bodies,” he explained. The idea of haute couture was always to adapt silhouettes to the client’s body. But those silhouettes are typically dreamt up, fitted and realized on a tall, slim and young physique. This season, Piccioli changed that model, in more than one way. And in the process, he said, “We got to create new silhouettes.” A partly fuller-figured cast than what you normally see on a couture catwalk did change Piccioli’s silhouette. His signature monastic Roman lines and Hellenistic drapery morphed into shapes that registered more dynamic, more mid-century, more glamorous. Through a Hollywood lens, you might call them sexy. But it wasn’t as if his new cast looked shockingly different in size to the runway norm, which was perhaps testament to his method – and skill. “In runway shows, sometimes there are 50 skinny models and one bigger-sized. I feel like you don’t really relate to that. You don’t believe that. You just tick the box,” Piccioli said.
His consistent cast helped to illustrate the power of the craft. The intertwined straps of an ebony velvet gown framed the shoulders of the model and pulled in her waist, the volume of its skirt balancing out the proportions. A chocolate stretch tulle dress covered in two kilos of Venetian glass beads hand-embroidered for three months hugged the body, allowing the beads to shape and support the model’s frame. Piccioli employed his approach to surface decoration, too. A lilac faille gown was adorned with great big bows around the neckline, something that could easily look overwhelming on a fuller figure, but didn’t because of the custom proportions and placements of those bows on that particular neckline. In his couture take on the stretchy body-con favored by the generation who coined slim thicc, Piccioli proposed a neon coral ankle dress, which wasn’t stretch at all, but created through four layers of georgette whose interaction created a natural elasticity that adapted to the body. Throughout, he demonstrated how couture can build a silhouette around the body, and either highlight a person’s shape or manipulate it through dressmaking. It made all the difference, because clothes are construction. One size doesn’t fit all, but one blueprint scaled up or down certainly doesn’t, either. We’ve all seen that in practice on red carpets where people of a different physique to the body that modeled the dress on the runway can end up looking under – or overblown, because the dimensions and adornments of the silhouette don’t take kindly to the scaling process. And then, the confidence goes. “I feel that if you don’t deliver the ideas of power and strength and fierceness with these kinds of shapes, you’re missing the message,” Piccioli said. If body empowerment is something he is sensitive to, it’s also because his own three children are in their teens and twenties: Gen Z-ers raised on social media in an age where body ideals have the added extremity of plastic surgery normalization. “That’s what I share with them,” he said, referring to the connection he felt with his cast through the experiences of being a father to young people today. “This could deliver a strong message for young people who are struggling with something. If she’s beautiful, you can be beautiful,” Piccioli said, gesturing at one of his gorgeous cast members.
For his own generation, the message was the same. “The body modifies with age. They’re still as beautiful but the shape is different. I wanted to capture the beauty of how the body modifies.” Models older than the couture show average – Kristen McMenamy, Marie Sophie Wilson, Lara Stone, Violetta Sanchez, Lynn Koster, Jon Kortajarena – hardly looked out of place. On the contrary, the character that comes with age brought a confidence to their looks. It was never more pronounced than in Piccioli’s most “normal” silhouettes infused with the gestures of haute couture, like Sanchez’s white T-shirt (in silk sablé crêpe) worn with a pearl gray duchesse satin skirt wildly hand-embroidered with silver sequins, or Mariacarla Boscono’s tailored sequinned trousers (silk poplin with hand-embroidery) worn with a dramatic fuchsia stole in faille. Piccioli’s collection was another brick in the legacy he is building for himself as a couturier of change. If used as a laboratory to develop techniques that can inform both the possibilities and values of ready-to-wear, haute couture becomes the most relevant part of a contemporary fashion system. It turns into the think tank of fashion. “Since the Middle Ages, there have always been canons of beauty,” Piccioli said, listing all the body ideals of the times. “Once we’d had enough of all the canons, we discovered that humanity is the only canon that’s valid: freedom; be yourself. That’s the real canon.”
Collages by Edward Kanarecki.