Venice has been a much quieter place since the global pandemic began, but the city has begun a new chapter as the preferred place for fashion houses to hold their cycle of runway shows. Saint Laurent debuted its new menswear collection last week and was quickly followed by Valentino’s Fall/Winter 2021 couture collection presented in a dramatic setting in the city’s historic Arsenale.
Valentino didn’t skip showing in fashion’s capital—they debuted another couture collection in Paris’s last week week—but showing in Venice is central to creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli’s vision of the label’s post-pandemic identity. Art is essential to Valentino’s brand and process. Venice has long been a contemporary art hub, home to a series of rotating biennials that take place each year at the Arsenale and its neighboring pavilions.
Piccioli’s process reveals his distinctive approach to art-and-fashion collaborations. The designer enlisted a group of artists to produce works that responded to the label’s aesthetic. “I didn’t want to do the couture version of the museum T-shirt,” Piccioli told Vogue. He did want to create a hub of creativity and inspiration. Piccioli choose 16 young artists from a list of 60 names scouted by writer and curator Gianluigi Ricuperati. Piccioli and Ricuperati had begun working together several years ago in anticipation of this new form of collaboration. Jamie Nares, Patricia Treib, Francis Offman, Benni Bosetto, Andrea Respino, Wu Rui, and Alessandro Teoldi were among the 16 artists chosen at the beginning of the pandemic.
“It wasn’t a typical fashion collaboration,” Ricuperati said. “Because it was peer-to-peer.” Instead of a cut-and-paste approach to artist-designer collaborations that have been typical of the fashion industry’s past, Piccioli exchanged sketches and proposals from each of the artists remotely throughout the pandemic. He responded, in turn, by reinterpreting the works into his designs.
“We must imagine Valentino Des Ateliers as a concert for two distinct worlds,” said Ricuperati in a statement issued by Valentino, “painting and Haute Couture, contemporary art and clothing art.” Picciloi and Ricuperati put an emphasis on painting, viewing it as the natural counterpart to couture, fashion’s most individualized and labor-intensive clothing. Couture is also the area where a designer’s most abstract visions are often realized.
This process was best illustrated in the collaboration between Jamie Nares and the couture house. Nares’s Blues in Red (2004) was one of the paintings most visible in the collection. Nares paints with a distinctive wide brushstroke that appears to hover in space. Piccioli enlisted his Rome-based workshop to make custom screens to hand-print the brushstrokes onto the dress’s fabric. As is typical of couture dress-making, the process took a grueling 700 hours.
Piccioli and the house’s atelier used those screens to create a roomy oxblood red and white gown, the shape of which invokes Papal robes. (Perhaps the look is a nod to Vatican history and the label’s Roman origins.) So striking was the dress that Piccioli chose to present it as the final 84th look, ending a procession of billowing chartreuse and fuchsia gowns, alongside feathered headpieces that appeared to float as models walked passed.
Among the show’s other standout pieces was a sequined light blue dress inspired by Wu Rui’s photographs Handkerchief (2021) and A Piece of China (2021). The dress was presented beneath a chiffon cape printed with images from the Milan-based artist’s works. Italian artist Alessandro Teoldi’s 2019 painting of silhouetted figures served as the pattern for another sweeping red gown; and Benni Bosetto painted abstract figures directly on the sewn pattern of a cashmere ensemble.
The clothes were presented underneath the arches of the Gaggiandre, a 16th-century shipyard. Designed by Renaissance architect Jacopo Sansovino, it was once among the city’s largest production centers, when Venice was at the center of a seafaring empire. The show’s runway wrapped around the shipyard’s dock creating a hovering effect above the canal water. Adding to the unreality of the presentation, the audience was asked to wear white head-to-toe to blend into the background better.
Now, Valentino has leveraged the antique site as a place of rebirth. “It was the only place in the world in which to present such a collection,” Piccioli said in a statement, “a context where nothing can be added or subtracted.” The bare setting was crucial to the collaboration.
Venice is currently host to the Architecture Biennale, for which architects around the globe installed large-scale projects focused on designs for a post-Covid future. Nearby, there is a sprawling exhibition of video installations by Bruce Nauman at the Palazzo Grassi Punta della Dogana. Many of the city’s squares are still nearly vacant as tourist foot traffic has reached an all-time low.
Valentino is not the only label looking to art world collaborations to showcase its new wares. Saint Laurent’s creative director, Anthony Vacarello, has also tapped artists like Vanessa Beecroft and Helmut Lang for collaborative projects in recent years. In Venice on the previous night, Saint Laurent debuted a large-scale commissioned installation by multimedia artist Doug Aitken on the near-empty island of La Certosa, home only to brick ruins from the post-war era. Overlooking the Venetian lagoon, the colossal mirrored structure served as the stage for models debuting the brand’s latest menswear line.
Over the course of the pandemic, Piccioli has embraced the idea of freedom, aiming to cross boundaries of couture beyond sartorial conventions around gender, social archetypes, and functionality that typically dictate the fashion industry’s output. “Fashion is linked to the body and to movement,” the house said in a statement. “Art, however, is completely free from constraint.”