The Importance of Valentino's Beijing Couture Show

Eric Wilson

A lot of noise surrounded Pierpaolo Piccioli’s special couture collection presented in Beijing on Thursday evening, from the obvious conversations about issues facing any Western designer operating in China to the screaming fans hoping to catch a glimpse of pop stars Lay Zhang or Wu Xuan Yi inside the show. Outside the elegant grounds of the Aman Summer Palace, influencers dressed in vivid black-and-white giraffe prints, or see-through dresses trimmed with feathers, were posing for pictures on the edge of pristine lake-like pool with a temple floating in the background lit in Valentino red.

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With so many distractions of content and context in today’s media and fashion landscape, the narrative of a designer luxury brand often risks getting lost, or at least turned in the wrong direction for a beat or two. In Valentino’s case, Piccioli has been fantastically successful at introducing covetable streetwear to a house known for couture — so much so that much of the world associates Valentino today with logo T-shirts and neon accessories coated with studs. That’s great, but what is really Valentino now? Even Piccioli recognizes it can’t be just one or the other, so he works incredibly hard to remind audiences of the depth of Valentino, and he does this with events around the world.

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Last year it was in Tokyo with a phenomenal pre-fall ready-to-wear collection, and in other seasons he has shown ready-to-wear or couture in New York. This time it was Beijing for an entirely new couture collection, his third of the year, reflecting the importance of Chinese consumers to the luxury market, especially at the highest end of the price spectrum. One Valentino executive at the event mentioned that 20 guests at the show had also attended the last couture show in Paris where they purchased fantastically expensive outfits specifically to wear to this show in Beijing, and there were plenty of examples to be seen in the audience to indicate this was perhaps even an understatement.

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Besides being the most consistently exciting designer in the post-Lagerfeld world of couture, Piccioli is also one of the savviest. He approached this collection not as a tribute to China, but rather as an opportunity to express his own vision more clearly, as well as the broader sense of what it means to be an Italian couturier, in a new context. On his mood board, he placed images of paintings from the Italian Renaissance alongside those of Chinese landmarks, including details from the Summer Palace, and he liked how the imagery seemed complementary.

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“When you take two different cultures, two different worlds and you make them live together, you can create a great harmony,” Piccioli said, without belaboring the point. Perhaps it was a safe choice in today’s political climate that has caught up more than one Italian designer in controversy, but the results were certainly more interesting than had the designer tried too hard to draw a conclusion about what he saw as their similarities or differences between East and West. Instead, he offered a reminder of what couture really can be, in this case, that meant a collection that would rise above the noise of everything else and wow its audience with the sheer impressiveness of the clothes.

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The dresses where phenomenal, voluminous silk gowns, in red, of course, but also with heavy prints and modern cuts, like pink pantsuit that was partly swallowed by a cloud of feathers. And some examples were quite provocative, including models whose faces were painted in silver glitter that matched their shining metallic bodysuits or dresses, or a wild finale dress made of three-dimensional metallic embroideries so exuberant that one woman in the audience found her own skirt caught in its snag. All this was paraded to a soundtrack of Italian operas that carried on even as the show came to an end and the audience spilled out into courtyard outside.

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“It’s an opportunity to express the world of Valentino as filled with tensions between high and low, the street and couture, the present and the past,” Piccioli said. “For me it’s an experience in a different world, and to show in a different world, you have to be even more close to your own identity.”