In Conversation with Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli

The Valentino co-creative directors talk fashion.

Ask Valentino co-creative directors Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri about British architect David Chipperfield and both will perk up instantly with grins. Since the unveiling of its first Chipperfield-designed Milan flagship in 2012—the debut of an ongoing concept by the architect—the three have become close friends. More than simply collaborators, they’re creative comrades, a masterful trio bringing about a bold, boundary-pushing architectural agenda far beyond what most high-end fashion houses have ever done.

This is especially evident in their latest, and most audacious, endeavor yet: Valentino’s new 20,000-square-foot flagship on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. The space’s rent is reported to be $16 million a year, a New York record. From the outside, the building’s facade—framed in black steel, aluminum, and brass—resembles the clean lines of the Seagram Building; its large glass panels beckon passersby to enter into its 27-foot-tall atrium. (Perhaps not surprisingly, John Burgee and Philip Johnson, the latter one of the Seagram’s architects, designed the original building, which previously housed the Takashimaya department store.) Inside, a Palladiana-marble staircase and terrazzo-covered floors and walls lend a permanent and heavy feeling that when bathed in yellow light turns refreshingly warm. Unlike so many of its seemingly intimidating neighboring Fifth Avenue stores, most of them with dressed-up window displays, the Valentino interior puts a no-frills focus on the clothes.

Chipperfield, whose firm turns 30 this year, has become known for his contextually sensitive interventions, such at the Neues Museum in Berlin and the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery in England. Thoughtfully integrated into previously existing structures or historic sites, Chipperfield’s projects also revitalize and bring fresh energy to them. Piccioli and Chiuri, who took over from Valentino Garavani following his departure from the brand in 2008, have similar skills. Attuned to the art of revamping a house while also maintaining its integrity, they have brought new shine to Valentino. Last December, the morning after the label’s Sala Bianca 945 haute-couture show in New York, Surface met with Piccioli and Chiuri at The Pierre hotel on the Upper East Side to discuss their ongoing work with Chipperfield.

Valentino co-creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli in Paris.

How did your relationship with David Chipperfield begin?

Pierpaolo Piccioli: It was love at first sight. When we met David, we spent an hour or so discussing the values of the Valentino brand with him. You want to believe in the store. We talked about what we felt would be good for the brand, what we wanted to deliver to the customer as a sensation or emotion.

Maria Grazia Chiuri: Within five seconds, we decided he was our guy.

Piccioli: We love his architectural approach to space. He’s not an interior decorator; he’s a real architect. He doesn’t decorate the space; he doesn’t overlap with our job. He expresses the same values we have through architecture. That’s what we want to deliver into the world: the idea of an Italian palazzo, the idea of Rome, the idea of couture. He does this in an architectural way with monumental spaces. You just feel it.

Chiuri: David believes in consistent ideas. For the Fifth Avenue store, when he started to work on the concept, he decided to use material that over time would maintain value and style and not lose quality. Valentino is a timeless brand, and in our mind we would like to have a space that reflects that. Not something very “fashion” that you use for one season and that’s it. Normally, throughout the retail world, brands use the approach I just described. But we detest it. We try to build style, not just a simple fashion collection. We believe that style is something that’s maintained over time. This is important for our stores, and also for our jobs. With David, we completely agree on this vision.

Piccioli: Another important thing we share with David is the sense of memory. We don’t deny memory. We think that memory is important to build your future. You have to know where you come from to understand where you’re going. For example, in couture, we think that you can use traditional workmanship to do something very new, modern, and experimental. In the store, even though he’s using terrazzo and antique materials, the technique looks very modern. I think his work can be compared to an Italian memory of architecture. If you think back to Leon Battista Alberti, he did this kind of operation to get back from the past to something very modern. He’s not denying the past, but rather creating a future based on its roots. This is something we were very fascinated by.

In my mind, the Fifth Avenue store seems to be about being very solid—a single mass that’s wide open.

Piccioli: It’s massive, it’s monumental. We wanted to get a Roman feeling. It’s almost imperial-meets-’50s architecture, like Giò Ponti. It’s like layers of memories flowing together into something that’s modern and timeless.

Does architecture inform your work in fashion?

Piccioli: Sometimes. It depends. Of course it’s part of the inspiration compass. But we’re not obsessive about it. We don’t feel we have to overlap everything. The couture collection we presented last night, for example, was inspired by the sculptures of Constantin Brancusi, who was not an architect, but in a way he could have been.
For the stores, David was inspired by Italian architecture of the ’50s.

Chiuri: We are crazy for Giò Ponti.

Piccioli: Giò Ponti had a lightness that we want to have in our collection, but in a different way. His language is an architectural language, and we use a fashion language. David and our values—

Chiuri: Are the same. About quality, about craftsmanship.

Piccioli: About lightness, massiveness.

Chiuri: We like to work with David. We’re now like a big family. [Laughs]

Piccioli: You could call our relationship “common ground.” We’re now working on our next big store with him, in Rome. We caught up with him on the dance floor last night, and we were talking about it. We’ve created a strong relationship with this amazing guy.

Chiuri: We love to understand the architecture of the world. We think it’s another beautiful part of the heart and soul.

Piccioli: Architecture is a language, and David uses it in the best way. Today, architecture so often becomes interior decoration. What David does is different. It’s more than decoration.

Chiuri: With David, it has been possible for us to build a house. When you arrive in our store, you feel at home.

Piccioli: There’s the tension between the monumentality of the space and the intimacy of the small rooms, and the tension between the massive steps and the very thin racks. And the tension of the glass facade—it’s so thin. We were here in New York when the facade arrived. They blocked off Fifth Avenue at 6 o’clock in the morning! Because the glass was so big and thin, closing down Fifth was the only way to install it.

When did you discover Chipperfield’s work? Are there particular projects of his that caught your attention?

Chiuri: The Neues Museum in Berlin [completed in 2009].

Piccioli: Which is a work about memory and the future.

Chiuri: Our brand is the same in some way: The founder [Valentino Garavani] isn’t dead. He’s still alive. It’s not easy to change the nature of the brand when the founder is still alive. We want to find the balance between our past and our iconic elements. But at the same time we want to speak about our style, and we want to mix all of this together to create something new. We think that David is perfect for this because he normally believes in the importance of memory, but for him, it’s also very important to think about the future.

How do you view brick-and-mortar retail today? And how do you think the Chipperfield concept for Valentino falls into this?

Piccioli: We think that it’s important to get the same values and the same recognizable language into all of our stores. We want to also apply the concept in a monolithic way for every single city.
This concept is about the space: You have to project it in every single store. It’s not only about gypsum or terrazzo; it’s about how you use it. Still, in every single city you see something different. In Milan, you feel you’re in a 19th-century building; here on Fifth Avenue, it’s so massive and “New York”; then, when you go to Madison Avenue, the concept is the same, but it’s more domestic, more intimate, because it’s in a townhouse.

Chiuri: We love the VIP room on Madison Avenue.

Piccioli: Have you seen it? Go to see it. The Fifth Avenue store and the Madison store are completely different. You feel the difference between them. They share the same values, but in different ways. When you go to Fifth, you feel a big brand. When you go to Madison Avenue, you feel elegance.

What sort of conversation do you want to occur between the interiors and the clothes in the Valentino stores? In other words, how do you want the clothes to appear in contrast to the spaces Chipperfield has created?

Chiuri: Each season the collection changes, so it’s important that the two languages are completely different. If you have a store that’s speaking an architectural language, we have no problem, because we can change our language around it. In any case, it’s very important that the concept of the store maintains its language.

Piccioli: On Fifth Avenue, we even decided not to show special windows, but to make the store one huge window itself. We took away all the ideas of props for windows. We just want to show the store as it is.

So that the clothing speaks for itself?

Chiuri: We don’t like the idea of a closed window with props, which is different than the architectural language. Three languages are too much.

It seems that in fashion one thing people really want right now is transparency. So perhaps consumers don’t want window dressing so much anymore. They want to see the pieces for exactly what they are.

Piccioli: If there’s consistency in the product, you don’t need to have tricks.

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