In a twist of beautiful irony, it's the day after Donald Trump has won the US election and Valentino is staging a massive speakeasy-themed event in Moscow, celebrating those liberal New York values most of Trump's supporters deplore. "Congratulations on your new president! We're stronger together," a Russian lady in a sweets store off the Red Square smiles, using that most sacred of Hillary Clinton slogans, and when the hotel bar plays Stranger in Moscow that evening, boy can you relate. He couldn't have planned it, but the genius of Pierpaolo Piccioli's Prohibition era soiree speaks political volumes in a country accused of rigging the election to Trump's advantage. "There's something worrying about this reactionary world," Pierpaolo muses, perched on a sofa in Valentino's newly opened Moscow store the day after the event. "I don't like the intolerance, giving people boxes to stay in. I like the freedom of being whoever you are." Beneath the sweeping silks and embroidered tulles that define his work, it's the kind of grand and often sensitive statements the 49-year-old designer has fearlessly been exercising since taking the helm at Valentino in 2008 alongside Maria Grazia Chiuri. Last summer she went to Dior, leaving Pierpaolo o solo mio in an applauded ready-to-wear collection for spring/summer 17 that tackled punk.
"I got deeper into my aesthetic roots and my values. I really believe that I'm close to the Italian master painters from the late Middle Age and First Renaissance, and even through punk culture of London. I like punk as a state of mind to evaluate individuality," he explains. "Suddenly I wasn't thinking of people's reactions to my first solo collection, I just did whatever I felt like doing." Pierpaolo asked Zandra Rhodes to interpret the trippy Renaissance scenes of Hieronymus Bosch and fed her prints into a fantasy-filled but contemporary riot summing up his fashion philosophy. "You have to express your opinion. Fashion has to use a language people can recognise," Pierpaolo says. "I don't think I'm a political person, but if you deliver the idea of beauty as individuality, authenticity and diversity it's about expressing values for society, not only for fashion. And I want to do this. It's an opportunity." The night after the election, he's casually walking around Café Pushkin - Moscow's oligarch magnet - in a "Fuck Donald Trump" cap, a testament to the guts that characterise his Valentino. The poignant splendour of his shows has left some of us in tears of joy, but Pierpaolo's good intentions have also been misunderstood.
I don't think I'm a political person, but if you deliver the idea of beauty as individuality, authenticity and diversity it's about expressing values for society, not only for fashion
His and Chiuri's pan-African tribal ready-to-wear collection for spring/summer 16 set to the soundtrack of Out of Africa was met with social media accusations of cultural appropriation. "That was about the integrity of the integration of different cultures," Pierpaolo says unfazed, his English articulate and calm. "It was not a postcard from Africa. It was the idea of mixing cultures living together. When Braque and Picasso went to Africa at the end of the 19th century, they understood that beauty could be different from the way Europeans used to see it. They went back and delivered the rules of contemporary art. Sometimes you have to see different worlds to refer back to your own." At Pierpaolo's Valentino, nothing happens without academic backup, but in a fashion era where a designer's every move is scrutinised by internet hawks, it doesn't make his courage any less unique. He puts it down to Italian irreverence. "We already had 20 years of restriction," he laughs, referring to Mussolini's fascist censorships of the 30s and 40s. "We did it. We're done. We can be free! It's Roman, this approach. When you live in a city that talks about Catholicism and Paganism - the baroque Roma and the Passolini Roma - you feel the contradiction of life. Life is about balancing between different things living together. In the end you choose the perspective you want for life. You don't care. It's effortless, the way you see life and beauty." Fiercely private, he hasn't given into Instagram, choosing instead the occasional peek through his daughter's account.
"I don't want to show my life. I don't care what you eat or who you have sex with. I'm interested in what you really believe and what your values are. You can see this from my collection more than my Instagram." He doesn't dismiss questions about his personal life or upbringing in the small coastal town of Nettuno, where he still lives with his wife and three children, but it's not how he wants to spend his stage time. "Shakespeare talked about the world as a stage and people as characters. Pirandello, a hundred years ago, in a different way," Pierpaolo continues. "And Instagram is a kind of modern Shakespearean theatre, or Pirandello characters looking for an answer. The approach is exactly the same: looking for a mask from the world." In his own work fuelled by the global outlook with which he freely fuses cultures and history, Pierpaolo creates an authenticity that doesn't easily translate to social media. And despite the swarm of women surrounding him everywhere we go in Moscow - from bejewelled babushkas with helmet hair to their tiara-wearing granddaughters - it's not about designing for markets the way many brands do it. "I like the culture of different people. I don't create for the Middle East, for Russia - women are women, men are men, people are people, all over the world. If you like this, you wear it in your own way, which is fine. I don't think fashion is about absolutism."
In all its arresting opulence, Pierpaolo's Valentino is anything but antiquated - even when it comes to haute couture. "My whole job at this house is about individuality and evaluating diversity. Couture talks about a one-of-a-kind uniqueness, and so giving couture a different perspective is about evaluating these values. It's not about something that still belongs to a beautiful past. It's about valuing diversity, and in this moment I think it's super important to talk about diversity as beauty."
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Oliver Hadlee Pearch
Styling Carlos Nazario
Hair Holly Mills at Streeters using R+Co. Make-up Chiho Omae at Frank Reps using Giorgio Armani Beauty. Photography assistance Mitchell Stafford, David Hans Cooke. Styling assistance Marissa Ellison. Tailor Mack Mozé. Hair assistance Julia Kim. Make-up assistance Rei Tajima. Model Zhenya Mihovych at Trump.
Zhenya wears all clothing Valentino.