Fashion Profile: Designer Giambattisa Valli

Francois Halard

Giambattista Valli’s haute designs mix old-world chic with sophisticated cool.

It’s five o’clock on an early January evening on the second floor of an 18th-century apartment in Paris’s Rue Boissy d’Anglas. Italian-born designer Giambattista Valli has just returned from a holiday in Laos, but he’s already hard at work preparing his pre-fall collection for a photo shoot. Valli, who launched his label in 2004 and has become the go-to guy for sophisticated, couture-quality cocktail dresses, ball gowns and tailored suits, speaks in a rat-a-tat-tat mishmash of Italian, French and English. “You look good!” he says to his longtime friend and collaborator, Irene Silvagni, a former French Vogue editor and fashion world éminence grise, just back from a week in Fez. After catching up with Silvagni on travel mishaps and holiday party gossip, the 44-year-old Valli turns his laser-like focus to the fitting of a short red mohair coat worn over a tiny cocktail dress. As the model turns slowly, the coat swings up high on her thigh to reveal an even longer stretch of her beautiful legs.

“This is everything I love,” Valli says, flashing his Cheshire-cat grin and swiping a shock of dark hair back over his high forehead. “I love the shape, the color and the idea of this coat. This is my signature now. I like to look at women in three dimensions: the front, the side and, especially important, the back. The key point of view on my woman is the eyes of the man next to her.” As the model sashays, as if on a runway, toward a large gilt mirror, Valli reaches out and tugs at the hem. He nods; she disappears. This may sound old-fashioned, but Valli really only thinks about dressing women in a way that will appeal to men. His clothes combine old-world couture techniques with a contemporary spirit—they are sexy in their shape and fit, yet classic in their construction. His spring collection has a 1960s swing to it, with playful cropped minidresses in a palette of white and citrus orange, and glamorous cropped pants topped with blush marabou chubbies.

“Who is next?” he asks impatiently as assistants step gingerly across worn parquet floors and models in traditional white dressing gowns gaze absently at their iPads. Tables lining one wall are littered with the debris of a long day’s work: safety pins, Evian bottles, pin cushions, hairspray, a stray BlackBerry and a dog-eared copy of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire. An assistant pores over the guest list for an upcoming dinner to celebrate Valli’s first boutique, which has just opened downstairs in the Galerie de la Madeleine. Another assistant untangles a pile of funky lace-up leopard-print boots and demure black-and-white satin sandals. A giant Cire Trudon candle burns on the mantle.

Juxtaposing old-world ideas and values with contemporary ones is a theme that resurfaces continually throughout Valli’s work and life. His showroom was once the apartment of Louis XIV’s court composer, Giambattista Lulli; Valli found the place browsing on the popular French real estate site SeLoger.com. The decor, a combination of 18th-century boiserie and mod zebra-skin rugs, reflects Valli’s taste for classic lines and bold, contemporary prints. His fashion, which falls somewhere between the ’50s dolce-vita style of Cinecittà and the decadent glamour of ’70s Saint Laurent, attracts a loyal clientele of royals, aristocrats and leggy actresses. Socialites with names like Niarchos, Brandolini and Santo Domingo light up Valli’s front row. Red-carpet regulars such as Charlize Theron, Amy Adams and Victoria Beckham are often photographed in his dramatic gowns. And elegant first ladies like Queen Rania regularly place special orders for his high-drama dresses.

“Giambattista is one of the few young designers who understand couture dressing,” says Joseph Boitano, the senior vice-president and general merchandise manager of Saks Fifth Avenue. “He understands how a sophisticated young woman wants to look; he understands her lifestyle. He lives that lifestyle. And he has the technical know-how. He follows very much in the footsteps of Valentino.”

Several years ago, when Valentino announced his retirement, many fashion insiders thought Valli would take up the reins at the storied Roman house. He, too, was Roman and had trained under many of the great designers, including Emanuel Ungaro, Mariuccia Mandelli of Krizia and Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi. He seemed like the perfect fit. But Valli had his own ideas about his place in the European fashion world. He was determined to launch his own label; his dream was to have his own couture house, to marry the sensibility and technical expertise of couture with the fast-paced industry of ready-to-wear.

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In many ways the pre-fall collection Valli is fitting the day I visit his showroom is the product of that dream. The collection, more than 350 pieces that include bright red draped bustier dresses, cropped mohair car coats and tailored ’70s-style menswear pantsuits, constitutes the commercial part of Valli’s business, what he calls his “bread and butter.” Buyers will see it before the runway show and write 70 percent of their orders. Some designers leave this kind of work to assistants, but Valli is meticulous about the technicalities of fitting clothes, a vestige no doubt of his years working by Ungaro’s side. A model appears in a short black dress that nods to the sleek chic of the ’60s but is decidedly modern in its versatility. “You could wear this to the office and to a cocktail party,” says Valli. “This is going to be a big seller.” There is a question about the stockings that go with this outfit. Valli wants that retro-looking brand of wool tights that are a wardrobe staple for every English society girl. He dispatches an assistant to a boutique across town to find a pair and turns his attention to the next model. He wears his usual uniform: a blue cashmere sweater, black cords, Adidas running shoes and a string of white pearls that were a gift from the jeweler Luigi Scialanga and are a kind of totem that he never removes.

Totems and symbols and dreams have been a part of Valli’s life and career since he was a young kid growing up in Rome, spending summers barefoot in Positano, studying the beauty of Cinecittà actresses like Claudia Cardinale and dreaming of one day opening his own couture house. Valli studied at Rome’s school of art before zeroing in on fashion training at the European Design Institute, then studying illustration at London’s Central Saint Martins. While working for the Roman couturier Roberto Capucci, Valli was spotted by one of the Fendi sisters, who hired him in 1990 to design their secondary line, Fendissime. After five years he moved to Krizia, where he learned about knitwear design and manufacturing. A colleague introduced him to Emanuel Ungaro, who hired Valli in 1997. At Ungaro, Valli gained recognition in the fashion press for his youthful take on the brand. Clients took note, too, and suddenly a new generation of jet-set socialites was clamoring for Valli’s sexy, fluid cocktail dresses and bold prints. Eventually Valli was promoted to creative director, but his success created tension within the company, and he found it increasingly difficult to remain in the shadows. “It’s like renovating a great label while the monsieur is still in the house,” he says.

Working at Ungaro did give Valli exposure to a world that was quickly disappearing: the world of French couture and the rarefied group of craftsmen, tailors and dressmakers who bring it to life. He knew ready-to-wear manufacturing, but at Ungaro he learned the technical expertise of couture—draping and tailoring fabric on the body, working with artisans like famed Parisian embroiderer François Lesage. He was also exposed to the elegant designers and social mavens who defined Parisian glamour at that time. He met his idol, Saint Laurent, and his merry band of tastemakers—Loulou de la Falaise, Betty Catroux and Paloma Picasso. “I was lucky to meet these people from the last tail of this cultural movement. This became the cultural backdrop of the story that I’m building,” Valli says, showing me a photo taken at least ten years earlier of himself with Kenzo and Saint Laurent.

That experience, along with his dream to have his own label, finally empowered him to go out independently in early 2004. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, from the beginning of my career,” he says. “I was scared, yes, but you have to jump at some point. You have to take a risk. When you jump out into freedom like that, you have to have a pillow to land on, and my pillow was my experience and my knowledge of this business.”

He showed his first collection in the ballroom of the InterContinental Hotel, the same room where Saint Laurent showed couture. Valli didn’t have the money to pay celebrities to sit in his front row, so instead he filled it with his actress and socialite friends—Eugenie Niarchos, Tatiana Santo Domingo, Diane Kruger. It made sense, since they were the women who had inspired the collection. He still hangs out with them in Paris, dining at Caviar Kaspia, hitting nightclubs like Le Montana in St. Germain and visiting art galleries on the Rue de Seine. The idea was to take their mothers’ ball gowns and chop them off, transforming them into short, sexy dresses better suited to the younger generation of beauties he wanted to dress. In no time they became clients, and so did their mothers.

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“I’m part of a generation that’s in the middle of the parents and the kids,” he laughs. “My style fits the mothers and the daughters.” Indeed, his style is classical enough to span generations, and that is ultimately the idea upon which he has built his house. He wanted to hook up the old couture techniques favored by one generation with the contemporary spirit of ready-to-wear. It’s old Paris and new Paris; French savoir faire paired with Italian industrial speed. “I had to thank Paris, ultimately,” he says, “for being Giambattista Valli. It’s what really defines me now.”

In the beginning Valli was criticized for being too safe, not edgy enough for Paris’s lofty fashion firmament. After his debut collection in March 2005, Cathy Horyn wrote in The New York Times that Valli “has the technical skill to make cream-puff dresses, but he doesn’t have a point of view that anyone would recognize.” Instead of bristling at the criticism, Valli turned it into a teaching moment. “Sometimes you think something of yours is a fault,” he explains. “But then you find it’s your strength. I always thought my classicism was a weakness, but I couldn’t get away from it. I was always dreaming about these classic French couture houses like Ungaro, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. Finally I realized that was my vision, too.”

It’s one thing to have a vision, but it’s entirely another to have the chutzpah to nurture that vision into reality. Valli today remains one of only a handful of independent designers working in Paris. Most of the big players of his generation—Louis Vuitton’s Marc Jacobs, Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, Balenciaga’s Nicolas Ghesquière—work for one of two luxury groups, LVMH or Gucci Group. And although Valli has been approached by larger brands, he has resisted the siren call of big paychecks to define luxury on his terms. “From a social point of view, I want to show a new generation of fashion kids that it is possible to launch a house on your own,” he says. “The first five years were not easy. I took steps as long as my legs, building up the business.”

“All I can say is he has balls!” says Silvagni. “I never met anybody so strong in my life! I have seen him in very difficult situations, and he never loses his focus or strength.” To maintain a steady cash flow, Valli freelances, designing the Gamme Rouge collection for Italian sportswear company Moncler. Of course, it would be easier to just sell the whole kit and caboodle to Bernard Arnault or another luxury kingpin, but Valli is determined to remain independent. So far it’s working: He sells his clothes in 240 stores in 36 countries, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Blake’s in Chicago, Tootsies in Houston, and Marissa Collections in Naples, Florida. His eclectic Paris boutique offers ready-to-wear as well as couture services for clients who want a dress in a different color or a matching pair of crocodile pumps. He has also launched a collection of Longchamp bags made from the fabric of his clothes, and he will be selling one-of-a-kind Roberta di Camerino handbags, too.

His clothes are among the most expensive, with pricing along the lines of Chanel ready-to-wear. A simple cocktail dress retails for $1,400, but prices for the more extravagant gowns can be as high as $28,000. The prices have certainly not prohibited stores from increasing their orders. “We consider him one of the most important talents at Saks,” says Boitano. “We’re developing a very strong customer base who love the way the clothes are done. He is truly an independent guy and such a dynamo, such a spirit. He will make it happen.”

While Valli has been working on introducing more reasonably priced items in his collections, he will never let go of his ideal of beautiful dressmaking and tailoring. “What I’m doing is rewriting what luxury is today,” Valli says. “Luxury is not just about buying expensive things. It’s really a privilege, and it’s something private. People still dream about this idea of a great fashion house like YSL or Ungaro because they were selling a dream before they sold a product. That dream still exists.”

Giambattista Valli is located at 30 Rue Boissy d’Anglas. For more information, go to giambattistavalli.com.

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Paris by Valli

The Italian-born designer, who has lived in Paris for 15 years, loves the melancholic side of the city. “I love introspective Paris,” he says. “It reminds me of the Jeanne Moreau quote, ‘There are two ways to be alone: One is solitude, the other is abandoned.’ ” While Valli lives and works on the Right Bank, he spends a lot of time on the Left Bank, dining with friends, visiting galleries and going to the Montana, a private club tucked behind the Café Flore. Here’s a look at Valli’s favorite haunts:

“There’s a bookshop called Le XXeme Siecle et Ses Sources [4 Rue Aubry le Boucher; 33-1/42-78-15-49], near the Pompidou Center, that has a great mix of antique books and rare architecture books. The guy who owns it is the most marvelous person to talk to about books. After a visit there, I always go to Galerie Karsten Greve, where they have A-plus art [5 Rue Debelleyme; 33-1/42-77-19-37].

“Hôtel Drout [9 Rue Drouot; 33-1/48-00-20-20] is one of my favorite places in Paris. It’s a world unto itself. When I can’t go to auctions, I read the catalogues. I’m always looking at the Gazette de l’Hôtel Drouot.

“I like to go the Marché Paul Bert for furniture from the 1930s through the ’70s [96-110 Rue des Rosiers, St.-Ouen; 33-1/40-11-54-14].

Comptoir des Saints-Prês is my brunch spot on Saturdays. It was the café of the Surrealists in the ’20s [29 Rue des Sts.-Pêres; 33-1/40-20-08-36]. Afterward I usually visit contemporary furniture galleries on Rue Bonaparte.

“For dinner on the weekend, I like to go to the Armani Caffé [149 Bd. St. Germain; 33-1/45-48-62-15]. It’s the best Italian food in Paris. Then we go across the street and have a drink at Café Flore and then on to Le Montana, a small, private club in the hotel behind the Flore [28 Rue St. Benoit] that was recently redesigned by interior designer Vincent Darré. It’s quite fun because everyone knows each other; it’s always the same people.

“Finally, when I really need to rest, I go to the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles and get a room facing the garden. That’s where I can really sleep [1 Bd. de la Reine, Versailles; 33-1/30-84-50-00].”