Céline Dion wasn’t the only one crying.

Fashion Bringing People to Tears
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Wednesday’s Valentino spring 2019 haute couture show dominated social media in a way that fashion’s most labor-intensive (and expensive) gowns rarely do — and not just because Naomi Campbell was practically topless. The show was a dramatic display of fashion-as-art that, quite literally, brought showgoers to tears.

Céline Dion sat front row, wiping teardrops from her eyes. Perhaps it was because "The First Time I Ever Saw You" by Roberta Flack, which was her first-dance song with her late husband, René Angélil, soundtracked the show, but also perhaps because the collection was that beautiful. Likely, it was a combination of the two. InStyle editor-in-chief Laura Brown shared Dion’s sentiment: “Utter beauty. I cried. And I was far from the only one,” she wrote on Instagram. "A wonderfully life-enhancing couture show," wrote Harper's Bazaar UK editor-in-chief Justine Picardie, summing up what most attendees were thinking. "It’s very rare to see a collection that evokes such collective emotion in an audience — but this was one of those occasions that brought everyone together, in the knowledge that we are very lucky indeed to witness such creativity, combined with a real warmth and authenticity...bravo Pierpaolo Piccioli." It was, as the brand called the show on Instagram, “emotional synesthesia,” indeed.

Described by the house as “merging between fantasy and reality” the 65-look collection was comprised of feathered capes and organza gowns and headpieces that resembled rose bushes that were given incredible, wondrous names like “centaurea” and “anemone” by the Valentino seamstresses, per Piccioli’s request. It was artful, decadent, and moving — and not just because the pieces felt so other-worldly that it’s hard to imagine they really exist. It was because, as Piccioli said: “Valentino today has to be more inclusive. I want the couture to be relevant for today. Not for old times.”

But how does one make a gown that takes hundreds — sometimes thousands — of hours to make, a gown that can only be created bespoke and often costs upwards of $10,000, feel “inclusive?” It requires looking beyond the dresses to the women who wear them.

For Piccioli, democratizing an industry reserved for the elite starts with casting. The show featured more than 30 women of color, the majority of whom are black women; 11 of the models were from South Sudan. There were relative newcomers like Assa Baradji and Fatou Jobe, and veterans like Alek Wek and Liya Kebede (who’ve both leveraged their modeling careers to pursue philanthropy and activism work), and Naomi Campbell, who didn’t just make her first Valentino runway appearance in 14 years, but made an absolutely epic return, closing the show in a completely sheer black gown, bare-chested and proud.

Many of the models thanked Piccioli on Instagram for having them participate in a moment that was described as everything from “historical” to “unforgettable.” “You have done what no one else have done before and for that I don’t think I could never thank you enough,” model Adut Akech wrote of the designer. “I can honestly say tonight was the first time I have ever been surrounded by so many beautiful black models and the feeling I felt tonight I can never explain in words.”

Piccioli’s moodboard for the collection, per Vogue, featured pages of Ebony and Jet magazines from the ‘70s and visions of black Madonnas alongside a Cecil Beaton image of women in Charles James dresses. “What if Cecil Beaton’s [1948] photograph of those Charles James dresses could be with black women?” he asked, almost premeditating the impact his show, particularly its casting, would have. Piccioli also cited “The Black Issue,” Franca Sozzani’s groundbreaking July 2008 edition of Vogue Italia. On Instagram, he quoted the late editor-in-chief, writing: “If you have a big dream you can make it. So you have to dream on a big scale. Martin Luther King said that he dreamt one day his kids would be appreciated for their character, their knowledge, not the color of their skin. Forty years later we have a black president. So you have to think and fight for the big things. The dreams should be huge.”

While couture often serves as a momentary escape from our reality, an opportunity to get lost in a designer’s imagination, what Piccioli produced felt like a true reflection of it. What he achieved through the collection is the idea that in order for couture to feel contemporary, it doesn’t need to reinvent its technique (the dresses, though intricately crafted, felt like a continuation of his previous couture collections, rather than a departure from them). Instead, it needs to change the perception of who it’s catering to. Haute couture has an estimated 2,000 customers globally, with the primary markets being Europe, Russia, China, and the Middle East. To see a collective of women who don’t physically look like their primary consumer wasn’t just powerful — it was a poignant and emotional statement on representation not just on the runway, but off of it.

As Piccioli told British Vogue in December after being named the Designer of the Year at the 2018 Fashion Awards, “I want to embrace more culture, more people, more diversity, through Valentino.” But this moment didn’t just embrace representation — it will hold a place in fashion history, like the time Hubert de Givenchy “hired all the black girls from America” for his show in the early-’70s. It was absolutely unheard of, but also revolutionary. It’s 2019 now, and there is something to be said for how unexpected it still feels to see so many women of color on a runway. It is not only worth mentioning, it is show-stopping; it’s what made this one so impactful — yes, more than Naomi’s nipples and the glorious beruffled dresses. It was couture, but accessible, insofar as couture can ever be accessed. In the same interview, Piccioli added an important sentiment: “You don’t have to buy couture to enjoy couture.” And it’s safe to say even people who will never be in the same room as a dress like these have loved this show just the same.