Clad in his signature strand of pearls over an easy sweater, Giambattista Valli is kicking back with a joyful expression following his Vogue Arabia photo shoot in his baroque-style showroom in Paris. Central to the shoot were his signature grand couture dresses, spotlight stealers like macarons on a plate. Voluminous proportions have been a part of Giambattista Valli’s creative vision since birth really. The 56-year-old describes his youth as one in which he felt like a character in a Fellini-esque setting. The center of Rome was and still is today, a place where all – aristocrats, waiters, gallerists, and the homeless – are characters in a colorful painting that never changes. “Everything is oversized in Rome. I am very used to that kind of disproportion and that’s why I play a lot with it within my collections,” he says, noting that Roberto Capucci (another Rome native), with whom he first worked, was a master at this. “It was alla mano and I love that about Rome,” he enthuses, noting that the expression means easygoing or down-to-earth.
It all began at the age of seven, when Valli’s parents took him to watch The Leopard by Luchino Visconti. Much to his chagrin, it was not a Disney movie as the name suggested, but instead a film that would forever serve as a definition of female beauty. Struck by the scene in which Claudia Cardinale’s character burst out laughing in a room of stiff aristocrats, like a “wave of freshness of sunlight coming through a dusty room,” he often reflects on this sort of “spontaneous beauty” during the creative process. Young Valli spent much time with his grandmother, particularly when she was being fitted at home for her dresses. There, Valli met his first “accomplice,” a seamstress named Caterina, a regular fixture in his family and the woman who sewed the eight-year-old’s first ensembles for Barbie. “There was no internet or TikTok or Instagram. Just me watching her stitching for hours. I was obsessed with seeing her and would ask her to make dresses and tell her exactly what I wanted. Caterina was my first première and Barbie was my first fitting model,” he adds, noting that the women in his family were not fashionistas but were strong, forward-thinking women who broke traditional molds. Among his aunts was one of Italy’s first attorneys and another, one of the nation’s first engineers.
Valli’s Roman roots and celebration of excess endures on the runway today in an ever more contemporary context. His landmark, 10-year anniversary July show unfurled in endless meters of tulle, silk faille, and duchesse ruffles. Romantically architected silhouettes were accented with delicate feathers and contrasted with bold ropes of crystal, chunky chandelier earrings, and exaggerated hair pieces fashioned into retro ribbons. It was a culmination of his life’s work, and a testament to his youthful vision. “When you go to school in the state of the Vatican, you see all this art around you and you grow up with a different approach to aesthetic,” he says, adding that he attended school steps away from the Vatican Museum, with great Roman creatives like filmmaker Emanuele Crialese who directed the French Italian film L’immensità.
In fact, when Valli comes to mind, one recalls his persistent vision, his knack for drapery and generous, showstopping amounts of silk and tulle, gathered sleeves, sculpted ruffles, and unexpected shoulders – styles that celebrate various female forms that have crystallized historic moments of every important red carpet event, from the Oscars to the Grammys to royal weddings. And a career path and résumé that includes Emanuel Ungaro and Italian houses like Roberto Capucci, Krizia, and Fendi where he met Karl Lagerfeld, who never thought couture would go out of style and was curious about everything. “For sure Capucci was the first love I will never forget. [His work was] drunk with colors and volumes… then I learned a lot from Fendi when Karl Lagerfeld arrived. While at Ungaro, there were still two employees who had worked with Cristóbal Balenciaga himself. Every experience was very precious.”
Valli moved to Paris in 1997 to start working with Ungaro, where he was made creative director and would go on to launch his namesake brand in 2005. Away from Rome’s chaotic splendor, it was in Paris where he learned what it was like to be alone, to build something from nothing. Valli says fashion journalist Suzy Menkes described him and his rise in Parisian circles best. “She once said I was like a guy on a fast-riding bicycle riding through a traffic jam of limousines,” he laughs, recalling his early days before his couture dreams came to fruition. “Yves Saint Laurent used to tell me, ‘Remember that the stars shine in the dark,’” he points out, and that was the mantra Valli lived by when he started his eponymous label, which he fought to get off the ground financially, working various jobs, and building a high-end, ready-to-wear brand. “You can’t imagine how many fashion jobs I did. A lot. Consulting, working 24 hours night and day. When you have a dream in your life, you do it with pleasure,” he shrugs.
Grounded in his charisma and fun-loving style, Valli’s brand quickly attracted the attention of influencers of the time, a sort of fashion set now referred to as the “Valli girls.” Diane Kruger, Bianca Brandolini, Charlotte Olympia Dellal, Eugenie Niarchos, Tatiana Santo Domingo, and grand dames like the late Lee Radziwill, to name a few. Fresh, yet retro, futuristic and dramatic, Valli continues to emerge as a global sensation. “Create your strategy like a strategist and execute it like a savage,” he responds when asked what advice he can pass on to novice designers of today.
Things shifted with a nudge from American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who encouraged him to take the plunge. And in July 2011, he was invited to the Fédération de la Haute Couture to show as a guest member, and was granted the official Haute Couture appellation by the end of the year. Charlotte Casiraghi wore a Giambattista Haute Couture gown to the wedding of Prince Albert II of Monaco, days before the first show that same year. Valli had already ventured into couture via weddings in 2005, with the nuptials of Maya Askari and Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Rania Al Abdullah, Queen of Jordan, and Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser were among his first loyal clients. Amal Clooney, who wore one of his creations for her wedding brunch in Venice, was drawn to Valli as a person, just as much as she was attracted to his designs. “He was immediately warm and charming and by the time I left his studio that day, we were friends. I joked that I would consider him my second husband and that is still what I call him,” she muses. The emboldened, sophisticated style of the Middle East and its fashion icons are a key driver for Valli’s projects and his future. “We speak the same kind of language. They are the leaders of femininity right now.”
When Valli contemplates the near future, he says his house is on the verge of expansion in terms of branding, image, and message. One day, Valli says he aspires to establish his label alongside historical international luxury fashion houses, to which he is often unfairly compared. After all, such maisons are over 70 years old and house generations of archives. The decision to grow is not necessarily for his own family, but for the sake of evolving and changing with the times. A notion that prompts him to recall a quote from the late French media baron Jean-Luc Lagardère: “The moment you stop taking risks, is the moment you are getting old.” Today, he finds solace in spending time with his family, his partner, and his nine-year-old son, who wants to be a soccer player. “I don’t want to give my son that entitlement and I want him to be anything he wants to be. I hope that he’s going to do everything in life he desires and if he decides to make the same number of sacrifices I made in mine, it will be for something that drives his soul and his dreams.”
Originally published in the October 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia
Hair: Annesofie Begtrup
Makeup: Aurelia Liansberg
Model: Amira Al Zuhair at Elite Paris