The Belgian fashion designer turned artist and A Magazine N°1 curator posits the discipline of self-portraiture to be as open-ended as the man, the myth and the legend himself, in the series Self-Portraits on display at Eenwerk Gallery, Amsterdam.
A#20 Pierpaolo Piccioli
Valentino Haute Couture ‘Des Ateliers’
Words by Riccardo Conti
“Art is purposiveness without purpose.”
So reads a quote from the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant that punctuated the final moodboard conceived by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino’s Haute Couture Autumn-Winter 2021-22 collection. Aptly named ‘Des Ateliers’, its title denotes the synergy of art and fashion both equally involved in its process. Here, art is applied beyond simple ‘contamination’, becoming vital to the structural conception and realisation of the garments themselves.
Presented at sunset on July 15th at the Venice Arsenale (a place more familiar to art than fashion), the collection can be understood as a pure act of collaboration and intuitive, immediate pleasure in its reverent incorporation of the works of 15 international artists chosen by Pierpaolo Piccioli together with curator Gianluigi Ricuperati.
The choice of Valentino’s creative director to work alongside an art expert is one of the many statements that testify to his intimate understanding of how fashion should look to art as a fundamental interlocutor in the creative process. Piccioli and Ricuperati conceived Des Ateliers not as a traditional runway show but as a living museum, set in the shadow of a historical building (the Gaggiadre are two gigantic canopies under which warships were built during the 16th century) where a long white catwalk elegantly wound like an object between land art and minimalism, symbolically connecting the pre-industrial past to the modern ‘white cube’ device. Furthering this intent to communicate with art, the designer chose a space adjacent to a poetic bronze tree sculpture by Giuseppe Penone, one of the great masters of Arte Povera, commissioned by the Vuslat Foundation.
Amongst the 84 looks that walked the white line, there were triumphs of elegance – an elegance resulting from the harmonious balance of Piccioli’s pure gestures of form and colour seen against the reworked expressions of each artist. ‘Des Ateliers’ was born from this spirit of collaboration understood as a profound connection of individuals: it is no coincidence that the term ‘atelier’ was preferred to ‘studio’, ‘factory’ or ‘bottega’. On one hand, the word has its roots in France after the French Revolution and celebrates art by honouring it through the eyes of painting, mother of all arts, and on the other hand is a recognition of the special relationship present in painting as a solitary gesture. After all, it is this intimate relationship between the individual and the canvas that is the value and strength of a painting. Today, with the ateliers and haute couture workshops open again after a year marked by creative isolation and lock down, it is a comfort to see the clothes that chez Valentino usually bear the name of the tailor who made them also complemented with the name of the artist who inspired them.
Colours, shapes and signs. Around these three pure elements one can synthesize the spirit of the works of the artists transformed into garments – ideas that have been translated from painting not as static works but as an open and moving concept. Each represents a form of resistance towards our contemporary era – one characterised by virtual reality and the increasingly mimetic technology of our urban environments.
Gianluigi Ricuperati’s choice of artists suggests a renewal of the pictorial tradition of the avant-garde of the early 20th century, with names such as the American artist Patricia Trieb or French painter Anastasia Bay. In look n°19, a 2020 work ‘Danse Bleue’ by Bay, in all its Matissian flavour, becomes one with the dress that bears its name. In the marvellous long evening dresses developed from the Italian artist Alessandro Teoldi’s late 80s fabric works, a succession of hands, arms and bodies of fabric that originally evoked crowded airport transits become a sensual and liberating hug.
For the project’s more figurative artists, there is a clear connection with the emotional, visual and empathic dimension of the body, where figures resonate with colour and composition. Examples include look n°11, a sequinned watercolour minidress lifted from sensual, textural paintings by Guglielmo Castelli, canvases by Luca Coser and the sophisticated compositions with scattered figurative elements by the German artist Malte Zenses. Garments are arranged like three-dimensional spaces, hosting the playful pictorial digressions of the Italian artist and writer Sofia Silva, who’s works are printed and embroidered across the unforgettable skirt suit ensemble in look n°16.
As a practice that leads to the creation of an image comprised of pigment, painting is an exercise made of time and layers, and this couture collection corresponds to that approach by embodying the slow and precious elaboration of workmanship, as in the case of look n°21, an inlaid coat with 150 different fabrics that arose from the 2019 painting ‘I Beati Verdi’ by Andrea Respino. The materials deposited on the canvas like large colour fields indicate surfaces to be averted and made three-dimensional, as exhibited in outfits born from the works of Rwandan artist Francis Offman whose pieces, in their understated minimalism, imply fragile references to a faraway world.
If Offman’s work evokes landscapes and mnemonic links with places and situations, the pure abstraction of the German artist Kerstin Brätsch is instead an energetic test of painting with acid and scratchy contrasts, as they appear in the dynamic, optical composition ‘The If’ (2010).
In Piccioli’s moving gallery, one also finds less literal interpretations of certain artists’ work, in garments equally capable of returning the intention and poetry of the original works nonetheless. Consider look n°44, a feather-studded minidress inspired by the American textile artist Joel S. Allen, or n°63, where the abstract photographic works of Chinese artist Wu Rui were interpreted by the House’s seamstresses as a sequinned dress framed by a scrunched, printed cape.
The renewed vitality of painting is very evident to those who had the pleasure of admiring the garments parading at the Arsenale, seeing as how this very particular collection was not conceived as the simple transposition of a 2D print on fabric but as a colour or a shape in motion, sometimes letting the materials float around the figure as in the wonderful feather hats that evoke both a brushstroke and a marine organism. It is painting not as a rejection of the present, but as a desire to de-synchronize from standard time frames. The ball gown and the majestic cape that closed the show are the perfect synthesis of this path, uniting together colour, sign and shape towards a single gestural synthesis appearing as a ball gown and cape exploding with quotes from ‘It’s Raining in Naples’ (2003) and ‘Blues in Red’ (2004) by British transgender artist Jamie Nares.
Paintings are never just paintings but anthropological, social and political statements. The overall project of Des Ateliers has its roots in this awareness that allows artists and designers to speak together to the world while maintaining their own identity. In a certain sense, through this fashion show Pierpaolo Piccioli wanted to spark a ‘reset’ around the concept of beauty and aesthetic pleasure distinguishing, according to Kant, ‘free beauty’ and ‘adherent beauty’ and manifesting them through archetypes, starting from the archetype of the art city of Venice, to the celebration of painting as the archetype of art, thus honouring the gaze and the unique relationship that both artist and viewer share in front of a painting. This idea was represented in a spectral finale where dresses, like colours on a palette, spread out in an act of openness and optimism – filled with all the hopeful possibilities that art and fashion can express today.
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