Save for the most knowledgeable fashion fans (and the least), most people know Valentino in two ways. One is as the brand that let Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson close its Paris Fashion Week show in character to announce the sequel to Zoolander. The other is the ethos immortalized in the 2008 documentary Valentino: the Last Emperor, which portrayed Valentino Garavani and his business and life partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, in their last days at the label. Both present the glossiest, most absurdist side of fashion, but Stiller’s satire is funny because it’s true. (See the doc's scene in which Garavani and Giammetti's five pugs sit lined up on the leather seats of the pair's personal plane.) In these worlds, fashion is a pursuit of a narrow definition of beauty and glamour that often only comes in a ridiculously rich, unrealistic package. That's not exactly how Valentino’s current creative directors, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, have interpreted the label. And, during their seven years at the helm, they’ve imbued Valentino with a decidedly modern message that sticks out in the luxury fashion landscape: You do you. It’s game-changing enough to have caught the attention of the CFDA, which awarded the duo with its International Award yesterday. Past winners have included Raf Simons for Dior (2014), Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy (2013), and Rei Kawakubo (2012).
Embracing social media, e-commerce, personal style bloggers, digital storytelling, and a mix-and-match sensibility, Valentino under Chiuri and Piccioli is a rarity when many of its competitors have eschewed things as simple as acknowledging that most women mix their luxury with high street and vintage — in the same outfit, at that. “Before, fashion used to be only for ‘some women,’” says Piccioli. “But today, fashion is about culture, it’s not just about clothes. Even people not interested in fashion can be influenced by fashion in the end. It’s that ‘cerulean moment.’” The secret? It's evident that Chiuri and Piccioli have a great love for their customers, and women in general — and not in a “but only women who…” way. Says Piccioli, “What we like are women who are different and run their lives with the differences they have, and with the passion and attitudes they have. Of course we are [feminists]. [Maria] is a woman! But I am a man — I have a wife and two daughters, so for sure, I respect them and I love them. I respect everything about women. And even with men, I don’t think men are the more macho or sensible ones. People are people." Garavani famously said in The Last Emperor, “I know what women want. They want to be beautiful.” But when Chiuri and Piccioli think about beauty, their versions feel a little more down-to-earth: “Our idea of beauty is more grace, more elegance, but also more faceted,” said Chiuri. “The woman in the past probably was only one way, all the fashion — believe it — was only one way. We’re a different designer. We believe there are many different ways to be beautiful.”
It's this organic, feminist approach, too, that gives Valentino an edge in a time when many designers have turned to feminism as a trend, emblazoning the word on T-shirts and clutches, and using “girl power” aphorisms to make their declaration. At Valentino, dresses are airy, roomy, and don’t require rib-crushing shapewear underneath; skirts look better when you’re on the go, and their most popular accessory — the Rockstud — first came in the very manageable heel height of 2.5 inches. But, it’s their newish boho direction where the idea of freedom is best expressed. “What we do is a representation of hippie culture," Piccioli says. "It’s a way of being, feeling… They were a kind of people that talked about tolerance, which is so modern. They were against consumerism, too. In a way, I definitely share their idea. The idea was to be individual and one of a kind, and that’s such a modern and contemporary language.” So what about he absurd side of fashion? Well, they're big fans of Zoolander, for one. Says Piccioli, "I think Zoolander is the most real movie about fashion, because it shows fashion as it is. If you always see fashion from the inside, you feel like it's something to die for. But, it's just fashion. You can't take it too seriously."