As designer Pierpaolo Piccioli prepared to show his first collection as sole creative director of Valentino last October, after nearly a decade of sharing that position with his longtime design partner, Maria Grazia Chiuri, the biggest question he faced was this: How would he stand on his own? Few people in fashion knew of the duo as anything less than a perfectly matched partnership. So when Chiuri was appointed artistic director of Dior last year and Piccioli took over at Valentino, there was naturally a great deal of curiosity about what would be the brand’s new direction.
Piccioli established himself brilliantly, with a spring collection that combined the ethereal with a touch of the surreal, resulting in what was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the Paris season last fall. Cascading dresses made of lace, stunning pink capes, sweet ballet sandals, and charming miniaturized bags belied a hidden undercurrent of darkness, shown in prints created by the English designer Zandra Rhodes, which she based in part on the wildly captivating paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. If you looked closely, you saw that earrings were shaped like tiny daggers.
“This collection changed my approach to fashion,” Piccioli told me when we caught up in December. “I went back to my aesthetic roots. Back to the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, which is really part of my Italian culture.”
Shortly after the Paris show, I’m happy to say, I had the opportunity to introduce Piccioli to another friend of mine, Christy Turlington Burns. The supermodel and maternal health advocate occasionally dips her toes back into fashion’s waters, and so it was no surprise to me when Piccioli immediately asked Turlington Burns to collaborate on his first solo Valentino campaign, which was photographed in New York. And when I heard Turlington Burns would then be heading to Rome, where Valentino is headquartered, to meet the pope, I asked her and Piccioli to come together once again for a meeting of the minds, documented here in a joint interview.
LAURA BROWN: Ciao, you two! I’m looking at these beautiful pictures you shot together at the Valentino atelier, and Christy, thanks for squeezing this in on your way to the Vatican! I have to ask: Was the pope aware that you formed, with Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, the original trinity of supermodels?
CHRISTY TURLINGTON BURNS: Ah-ha-ha! If the Vatican even heard that, I probably wouldn’t have been welcome anywhere near him! Blasphemous! Oh my goodness. I will tell you, once, many years ago [in 1995], I actually did a Valentino campaign that was photographed by Herb Ritts, where I am dressed and the men are naked.
PIERPAOLO PICCIOLI: Oh, I remember it!
CTB: I was told, though, that the Vatican was not very happy with that campaign.
PP: All the men were in the back.
CTB: Exactly. They were all kind of...embracing me. Nobody forewarned me about that. It was a little uncomfortable. But, yeah, I was later told that it had reached Pope John Paul II, and the Vatican was not pleased. So I made amends by going back today and being a little bit more respectful.
PP: Pope Francis is incredible, isn’t he?
LB: Tell me about your experience with him.
PP: I went to meet him with my family during Sunday celebrations. He’s really impressive, the way he looks into you. He creates an immediate connection with you. It’s like he sees into you and says the right words at the right moment.
CTB: I absolutely agree. We didn’t exchange many words, because I literally could only say, “Thank you,” honestly. I was just in awe of him. He represents so many positive things in such a challenging time. He is so present and, again, respectful of each person he meets. I was there for a global forum with Fortune magazine and Time Inc. We presented some ideas to His Holiness, and he listened and spoke back to us. To watch person after person be greeted with the same level of dignity and respect was just an incredible experience.
LB: Now tell me about your first impressions of each other.
PP: Christy is a big part of my fashion path. When I was younger, I wanted to be a movie director, not a designer. But when I started to look at photographs, I began to understand the power of fashion in telling stories. The very first shoot of Christy I saw was by Steven Meisel. To me, she embodied my idea of grace. She’s contemporary, but she’s as timeless as a beautiful painting. That kind of beauty comes from inside, not from physical attributes or trying to be cool. When I met her she was exactly how I thought of her in my mind. It was like I had always known her.
CTB: It did feel that way. Of course, I was a fan of Pierpaolo’s from afar. And I’d been looking at his collection online. I arrived at the studio up in Harlem, and I was just sitting on the couch waiting. Pierpaolo came up to me, and he was the most approachable, warm, and friendly person I’d met in a very long time. It was like a reunion of some sort.
PP: Do you remember that I had wanted you to come to my first show, but you were running a marathon?
CTB: Yes, the Chicago Marathon.
PP: I understood that you were running for something that you believe in. [Turlington Burns runs in support of Every Mother Counts, the organization she founded.] We have the same values. After 10 minutes, we were talking more about our children than fashion shows.
LB: Pierpaolo, what does Christy represent as the face of your first collection?
PP: Everything about this collection was more emotional and less thought-out. I had to do what was in my heart. And Christy was a part of that.
LB: Christy, you’ve done a lot of campaigns in your career. Why did you say yes to this?
CTB: Yes, quite a few [laughs]! Sometimes everything comes together in a special way: It just felt like there were a lot of signs from the universe. It’s a good day for me if I feel good and I’m around people I admire and I respect. And I can’t say that’s the case with all of the campaigns that I’ve done over the years. Because I don’t spend so much time around the fashion industry anymore, I like to keep a little bit involved, and I was just intrigued by Pierpaolo’s designs. You know, designers don’t always go to their own advertising shoots. So the whole thing was unique. If it were always like that I would probably still be doing this job.
PP: Yes, I think that it’s super-important — for me and for fashion — to give a message that goes beyond clothes.
LB: Feminism was a huge message of the collections this season. Pierpaolo, you’ve always been surrounded by women. You worked with a female partner for a long time, and this collection was an organic feminine statement. Christy, what were your impressions?
CTB: I’m not very stylish. My fashion sense is more simple and utilitarian. And I never really wear colors. So it was a real thrill to wear colors; I just bonded so much to them. When you put on color like that, it does something to uplift your spirits. I think we could all agree that we’re living in some interesting times. So the idea of feeling better about the world — and about yourself — by putting on something with such color and joy and love in it, that is really needed. There will be more of us relying on fashion, I think, in the days to come. Things are a bit bleak, but there’s a lot of sunshine in this collection.
PP: It’s important to show not only the feminine side but also the sensitive side. That goes for people in general. Strength today means showing your emotions and not hiding them — not being the cliché of how you think people want to see you. Be exactly as you are. You know, if you’re happy, show your happiness! Also, I think “respect” is a word that is not used much today. We need to respect people for who they are, not for who we want them to be.
LB: What else did you two find out you had in common?
CTB: Now we have the pope in common!
PP: I think we have values in common. Family, friendship, respect, dignity. Life is based on your values — not money or power or other things.
CTB: I would agree. I think that we have that connection. I think we are of the same cloth, really.
LB: No fashion pun intended. Now, Pierpaolo, Christy is obviously very big into running.
PP: Of course!
LB: Are you going to take a page out of her book and start running marathons?
PP: I feel like I will. I can get into it.
LB: He’s got to quit smoking, though.
CTB: Well, yes. That will be the next job.
PP: [Laughs] I will be first in the category of smokers!