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Pierpaolo Piccioli on Valentino’s Biggest Exhibition, and the First in the Middle East:”This is Where Everything Starts”

Pierpaolo Piccioli affirms his forward-thinking perspective on one of the greatest fashion houses in Valentino’s biggest exhibition – and the first in the Middle East – unveiled in Doha.

An archival dress from the ready-to-wear collection, FW87-88

“This is where we all belong, and this is where everything starts,” says Valentino designer Pierpaolo Piccioli. The “we,” he says, refers to maison Valentino, composed of women and men who walk through Piazza di Spagna with no touristic ambitions but to take the metro for a meeting, have a coffee in front of Palazzo Mignanelli where designers go for a plate of pasta for lunch and seamstresses chat by the church of the Trinità dei Monti. Valentino is a Roman couture house, and the city affords the maison the wealth of its indelible culture. Here, the “we” also welcomes Roman citizens, Italian dreamers, and people of all walks of life, enamored with beauty. Now, Valentino invites Qataris, the Gulf region, and the world to join the aesthetic experience with an exhibition in Doha. Forever Valentino “is an exploration of the haute couture codes of the maison and a voyage through Rome, Valentino’s home, the place where everything started and where its identity belongs,” says Piccioli. The exhibition, located in M7, the design and innovation hub in Msheireb Downtown Doha, is “an open dialogue between Mr Valentino and I,” continues the designer. “We are both creative directors, and our job is to depict beauty according to the times we live in, and Mr Valentino and my collection reflect this.”

A view of the courtyard section of the Forever Valentino exhibition at M7 in Doha

These reflections entrenched in beauty find its origins in the small town of Voghera, Northern Italy, where Valentino Clemente Ludovico Garavani was born in 1932. He eventually moved to Milan to study fashion sketching at the Santa Maria Institute. A few years later, in 1949, he moved to Paris, to attend the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale to study fashion. After winning the reputed International Woolmark Prize, he worked for Jean Dessès and Guy Laroche. He then returned to Rome, and with his father’s financial support, founded his fashion house on Via Condotti. Soon after he met his future business partner Giancarlo Giammetti. His first red carpet client was Elizabeth Taylor, who wore a Valentino dress to the premiere of Spartacus. In 1962, he debuted his first couture collection at the Pitti Palace in Florence. His signature was the color red and his silhouette glamorous and poetic. “Mr Valentino, through his collections, portrayed the woman and the beauty of that moment in time. A woman that was changing her role in society, not only wife but also independent and fierce like Jacqueline Onassis,” comments Piccioli, referencing the late American wife of tycoon Onassis and American president John F Kennedy. “This is the job a designer should do, to witness the time we live in. Behind the strategic, conscious surface lies a free land that belongs only to the artist’s mind and sensitivity. This is what has always fascinated me about the personality of Mr Valentino: the combination of rigor and visionary attitude, that ability to project and create.”

Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli

Piccioli has been with the maison Valentino for 23 years. Beginning in accessories, he was appointed co-creative director with Maria Grazia Chiuri from 2008 to 2016 before taking the helm alone. In the middle of his creative partnership with Chiuri, Valentino was purchased by Qatari-backed Mayhoola for Investments SPC and Egyptian Rachid Mohamed Rachid was appointed chairman of the board. Born and raised in the Roman coastal town of Nettuno, where Piccioli still lives today, he has, over the decades, brought his own signature to the house. In March, Piccioli showcased 58 exclusively pink looks as part of the Valentino Pink PP collection. In September, in a strategic move, these looks were transferred to show guests. But Piccioli’s Valentino is not just about one color – it’s far more inclusive than that. Marking his debut as exhibition co-curator, alongside Massimiliano Gioni, Alexander Fury is a writer, editor, and fashion collector with an archive of several thousand pieces. He remarks that while “Piccioli’s interpretation of Valentino is anchored to the ideology and beauty that underpinned the work of Valentino, it has managed to roam so broadly in theme and realization. Pierpaolo has repositioned Valentino from a brand that exemplifies elitism and aspirational lifestyle, to one that evokes empathy and reflects life.” Gioni, an art curator, who here marks his first foray into curating a pure fashion exhibition, adds, “Piccioli is a designer that is very aware of history – of the history of his own brand and of the location of fashion within the context of contemporary culture – but this awareness does not translate into a burden. It is instead a series of opportunities and resources to weave a tale and a fabric – both metaphorical and real – that is textured and multi-layered but always new and spontaneous.” Fury underscores that Valentino remains a luxury couture house through and through but that Piccioli has transformed what that beauty means and signifies. To wit: the Valentino Spring 2019 collection on gowns featured on Black models, and his collection shown in January 2022 that was modeled by women of all ages and even sizes – a rarity for a couture show.

Zendaya wearing Valentino at the 2022 Emmy Awards

Until April 1, 2023, visitors can journey through a dream-like Rome, wandering in and out of palazzos, squares, and courtyards. They are invited to enter intimate spaces such as the Valentino ateliers, the maison archives, and the fitting salon, across a 850sqm/floor space featuring more than 250 looks. Watch for dresses made for the likes of American actresses, from Elizabeth Taylor to Zendaya. If they are names synonymous with the house, Piccioli states, “I must admit that I am not fond of the idea of the égérie, in my mind the word does no justice to the egalitarian relation our female friends of the maison and I establish. I want to celebrate beauty as individuality and the one-of-a-kind, I do not have an ideal woman. ‘Divas’ have always been associated with Valentino. Many of those reside in the realm of Hollywood: figures world-renowned, internationally fêted, and instantly recognized.” He continues, “Today, a Diva can be something different. I am interested in the power of language. DI.VA is a wordplay, an acronym denoting Different Values. That describes a promotion of authenticity, progressive ideals, and diversity, connecting figures across cultures. They are strong, empowered, and empowering, remarkable, and multifaceted characters.” Notably, the exhibition features a space dedicated to Valentino’s Middle Eastern clients – ensembles from the private collection of influential women such as Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, a long-standing client of Valentino; women who have also served as inspirations to its designers Garavani and Piccioli.

Valentino Garavani in his atelier, Via dei Condotti 11, in Rome, 1959

Fury comments that M7 is an exciting space for an exhibition such as Forever Valentino because it provides such a bold contrast. “It is a striking, contemporary building where we are recreating an homage to a heritage couture house and one of the oldest cities in the world. The architecture of M7 influenced our treatment of the spaces and themes – it was always about evoking a sense or sensibility of Rome, never a facsimile reproduction.” He says that while the architecture of M7 posed some challenges, they were met head-on. “The elevator, which conveys visitors between the two floors, is necessary but we took it as a chance for a grand reveal, similar to the emergence of the first outfit in a fashion show. The space has incredible high ceilings, the dimensions of the museum are fantastic, so we were able to create some truly monumental spaces.” Gioni furthers that Doha offers a sense of freedom to experiment. “I like how M7 adds another platform to the already very robust network of museums and exhibition spaces in Doha. And I love how our great team of architects engaged with the space, finding a balance between direct quotation and readymade appropriation of certain elements of the city of Rome and other, more evocative, suggestions.”

Valentino’s FW22-23 Haute Couture collection presentation at the Spanish Steps

“I think the sense of discovery is going to be particularly rewarding,” concludes Gioni of the exhibition experience. “And the possibility of having an intimate approach to the clothes and the creative process behind the creation of haute couture. We really insisted on a kind of accessibility which is not often allowed in fashion exhibitions.”

Valentino Garavani with the seamstresses at Piazza di Spagna

For Fury, he hopes that the Valentino archives will serve as “keys to the future’’ and that these “vital sources of creativity, libraries of ideas and innovations, and living and breathing entities” will expose to visitors the “life and soul” of Valentino. “Looking through a fashion archive you can discover history not passively but actively, in three dimensions. And I do think there’s something especially powerful about discovering this through fashion. Fashion is the closest thing to the body; it vibrates with humanity,” considers Fury. He furthers that the idea of past and present, of grandeur and intimacy, is always alive in Rome, and that it exists in Valentino clothes. “I think more than anything else, I wanted people to fall in love with Valentino. And just to be amazed by what these people can create. That’s what really great fashion should do, I think – it should astonish you.”

Haute Couture SS18

Originally published in the November 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia

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