Start a virtual relationship with 17 artists. Translate the spirit of their work into an 84-look couture collection. Debut that collection in Venice during a pandemic, on floating docks inside a 16th Century Sansovino structure.

Ask everyone in attendance to wear all white. And time the runway finale to the exact time when the sun pours into said structure. This is the magic trick that Pierpaolo Piccioli was in the middle of conjuring when I met him on Thursday afternoon.

Dressed in pajamas, with a fat chain of primordial-looking stones (I believe petrified coral) around his neck, Valentino's creative director received me in front of a giant mood board covered in paintings, garments, and a quote from Immanuel Kant about the purposelessness of art. Five hours ahead of his first runway show with a live audience since the pandemic, Piccioli was ecstatic. The collection itself was a form of penpalling, soon to be unveiled to the world, one that started during the darkest moments of last year’s lockdown.

Created in collaboration with the curator Gianluigi Ricuperati, Valentino’s FW21 Couture Collection “Des Ateliers” is a conversation between Piccioli and 17 artists, mostly painters, mostly emerging or relatively unknown. The designer was quick to tell me that he is not one for blue-chip art collabs, or making “museum t-shirts in a couture way.” Instead, his intention in the project — much like last year’s show made with a group of writers — was to make the kinds of creative communities that he believes luxury brands should be building.

The once-novel relationship between art and fashion is one that has now grown fully into ubiquity. It feels like the majority of collections have some type of collaboration or art-related tie-in. And as we’ve explored during in-depth interviews between Marc Jacobs and Raf Simons, in dialogue with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, fashion brands might very well be the art institutions of the future. But what we found at Valentino Couture is much different than asking Cindy Sherman to make a handbag or putting a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph on a dress shirt — both things I love, for the record.

Instead, the unrecognizable are translated into couture garments that nonetheless team with pure emotion. And this effect is the cornerstone of Piccioli’s definition of a new luxury: that the world values “emotional connections much more than any expensive fabric.”

There’s an intuitiveness with which Piccioli sends messages and breaks boundaries that are inspiring. Whether it’s doing a presentation dedicated to Black beauty or riding the wave of houses presenting genderless couture collections, he prefers to let the clothing speak and effect change. However, he did have some more words to say.

THOM BETTRIDGE: I’m curious about the genesis of this idea. You were working with poets for your last collection, and now it’s painters.

PIERPAOLO PICCIOLI: I'm always interested in creating communities of people who share values, and embracing those people in your own vision. I started this collection in a moment where I was in need of connection. I was in need of talking with other people that we're witnessing the same moment from different perspectives. I don't think that fashion is art.

Art is for art's sake, and fashion has to do with the body. But what they have in common is that you can create beauty, and you can create curiosity and interest. You can generate emotions that create thoughts.

BETTRIDGE: Why do you think fashion is so fascinated by art? It seems that almost no collection happens today without some type of art collab or connection.

PICCIOLI: For me, I didn’t want to use just one artist to be the back of the show. My challenge was to not create museum t-shirts in a couture way. I wanted to translate these different voices into fashion. But I don't like it when art justifies fashion.

BETTRIDGE: So what makes a good collaboration between a designer and an artist?

PICCIOLI: I think that they have to be connected and work together. Many of these artists are responding with new artworks that are inspired by this dialogue. So it's like having a conversation. It's not about keeping one artist to the packaging of the show.

It's about a choral collection. It's like when you work with the orchestra, with different instruments — each one has its own identity, and then together they create one harmony that is made of different voices together. That for me is the way of art working with fashion.

BETTRIDGE: How do you create a process like that?

PICCIOLI: First was selecting Gianluigi (Ricuperati, the collection’s curator). I decided to have all current artists, who could be involved in the process. So we selected the artworks, and I met each of them on Zoom or invited them to Rome, and then we started a dialogue that became something different.

Every outfit is the result of these conversations. I don’t want to say they are the face of the artist, but we translated the spirit into the pieces.

BETTRIDGE: That’s such a labor. Which I guess is part of the idea of couture itself.

PICCIOLI: Couture and painting have a lot in common. I think painting is in art what couture is in fashion.

BETTRIDGE: I'm curious about this idea of community. Because the old system of luxury is based in this idea of exclusivity, but more and more luxury brands are becoming community-builders in various ways. What motivates you to build this kind of community around a couture collection?

PICCIOLI: To me, luxury is closest to the idea of humanity. We are looking for emotional connections much more than any expensive fabric. I don't think that's the big interest. It's something that gives you emotion. And when we talked about exclusivity, it didn’t make sense to me. And neither does inclusivity as just a word. I feel that the image has a power and has a strength. And you use your own language. So fashion is my language.

When I do fashion, images are much more relevant than any words. So I want to lead the change. I don't want to just record the change of the world. We have a social and political responsibility in this. Having a voice, hopefully loud, I think we also have to have an awareness and a will to change.I want to use Valentino as a platform to say what I believe in. To share my messages. That's what I was saying two years ago, when I did the couture collection celebrating Black beauty — that image was much stronger than any words.

When it was born, Black women were not allowed to wear couture clothes, or even to enter the salon de couture. Shifting that image was stronger than any words I could say. Also when you see men and women on the same line, sharing the same wardrobe, it means an idea of freedom and equality and a hope of a world with no boundaries of gender, culture, or whatever. That leads to a change.

BETTRIDGE: This is your first show in front of an audience since the pandemic. How does it feel to send a message to a live group of people again?

PICCIOLI: It feels different. Because having an audience means that you can share moments. Even with my last couture show, even though there was no attendance, we just did three changes and that was it. It was important to keep the attention on the show and not look for the perfection of an image. If you try to see every detail of the outfit, you don’t get the movement, the lightness, and the magic. So even in January, when it was impossible to do real changes quickly, we just did one take, stopped for an hour, a second take, change, and then a third take.

BETTRIDGE: That’s so interesting that you still wanted it to be a runway show without people there — because there is something stale about seeing a collection for the first time as a lookbook.

PICCIOLI: I hate that. That’s what I’m saying when fashion is a language, and that’s it’s not art. This does not mean fashion is not relevant. Art is relevant. But for sure good fashion can be better than bad art.

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