Angels and Artisans

By Vanessa Friedman

You know something is wonky in the state of Denmark when a designer tells you he wanted to do something radical for a show so he decided to focus on ... dresses. Dresses?

Well, and people. “Just dresses, creativity and humans.”

If that’s a radical act in fashion, then I’m William S.

Yet Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative director of Valentino, speaking after the debut of his couture video, which was filmed at Cinecittà Studios in Rome and then released to the world, was entirely sincere.

Along with the Busby-Berkeley-in-Puglia Dior cruise collection — which was held in a largely empty square in Lecce and posed the pointed question “Why don’t we appreciate craft like we appreciate couture?” — his words brought to an end the first mixed-up show season as remade by the coronavirus.

It’s been a weird one, and these final two experiences were no exception. Both were, in their own way, highly personal. Both crystallized the values of each brand; their ambitions and what space they want to occupy not just in the fashion world but in the public imagination.

Which is to say: They may have been all dressed up, but they were also naked statements of intent.

Both events were “live” — which is to say, they involved actual models, and were filmed in front of a (tiny and mostly local) audience — unlike many of the preceding collections conceived during lockdown, which had homed in on the digital idea and were more like music videos or trailers for collections to be seen later. That gave the Valentino and Dior shows an edge of unease that felt oddly right for the moment (it was hard to focus entirely on the clothes when a small part of your mind was wondering who was wearing a mask and assessing whether the models were social distancing). Then they diverged.

In the cavernous depths of an unlit soundstage, Piccioli set 16 models in pristine white gowns and silver sequins on plinths and pedestals and hanging circus apparatuses, suspending them in space like angelic astronauts. The dresses — in tulle, chiffon, organza and taffeta; ruffled, feathered, fecund with blooms — had been dramatically elongated (some were around 12 feet long), their proportions shifted to create a sense of lift and pull the eye upward. In them, the women looked like warrior angels, the phoenix rising from the ashes, fashion reborn.

Before the set was unveiled, there was a short video from photographer and filmmaker Nick Knight featuring the dresses overlaid with images of fire and flowers, as if to emphasize their nature as a blank canvas onto which we project our own fantasies of self. But it was the dresses emerging from the darkness like a promise for the future that lingered.

If Piccioli was looking to the heavens, however, Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior was firmly planted on the earth. Indeed, she seemed to have lit the entire central square of Lecce with every little bulb in Italy, courtesy of artist Marinella Senatore, transforming the piazza in front of the Duomo into a multicolor fantasia fit for an MGM musical, complete with theme songs spelled out in lights: “We rise by lifting others”; “Be a builder of unguilt.” Under a pergola in the middle played assorted musicians from the Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta as well as the local Orchestra Popolare (mostly masked); around it danced a troupe of local dancers (all unmasked); and amid them came the models, streaming forth in an ode to the haute homespun.

They wore apron dresses and playsuits and workmen’s jackets in raw jute striped like mattress ticking and blanket-fringed at the hem; diaphanous gowns caught at the waist by natural leather corsets laced up the center; and crafty crocheted coats trimmed in curly sheepskin. They wore bright green silk pants printed with fields of wildflowers, and wisps of chiffon bristling with lace versions of the same, made in a local style called Tombolo. They wore kerchiefs and flat shoes.

Ever since Chiuri arrived at Dior, she has used her cruise shows to shine a light on artisanship around the world, collaborating with local collectives to highlight their work in her collections. It’s an admirable idea, now more than ever, as so many independent businesses are challenged. This show was fully in line with that imperative (Chiuri has family roots in Puglia). But the effect in the end was sort of feudal and heavy-handed: Dior and its dependents.

In case anyone was wondering who intended to make it out of this particular period on top.

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