Last week in Paris, Alessandra Facchinetti showed her first couture collection for the near-mythic house of Valentino. Ms. Fachinetti is a brave, brave woman -- not only has she taken over designing one of the most-recognized names in modern fashion history, but the original of the name is still very much alive and with us.
How'd she do? Well, brilliantly, if you ask me. I really loved Fachinetti's pre-fall and fall shows, and with couture she's taken the step up you expect to see at this level. She's continuing the shapes and themes she's been working on, but couture turns the volume up to 11. Haute couture, as a reminder, is the segment of a design house's work that is bespoke, made to measure, often one-of-a-kind. These are not garments you will see hanging on the racks at Bergdorf Goodman, or even Valentino boutiques. They are ordered by and custom-made for a specific customer. Traditionally the couture customer was from Europe or America, but the growth areas these days in couture are to be found in Asia, the Middle East, and the former Soviet republics. There is much discussion in the fashion world of how this shifting demographic might change the world of couture, and personally, I think that is already beginning to happen; but anything that keeps this art form alive is good news as far as I'm concerned.
One of the ways change in couture is trending, I think, is that it's beginning to skew younger. The classic couture customer was an established, wealthy (it goes without saying -- these are some expeeeeensive clothes) femme d'un certain age, with a pedigree or an impressive portfolio behind her -- the sorts of people whose names adorn college libraries and plaques on the entrances of museums. These days, wealth doesn't necessarily trickle down through the generations the way it did in previous centuries -- enormous fortunes pop up overnight like huge, liquid-asset mushrooms in some of the more rapidly emerging economies in the world.
But I digress. I am not here to opine on couture in general, but Valentino couture in specific. If pressed to describe the Valentino aesthetic, my first adjective would be "pretty." Other adjectives spring to mind: feminine, delicate, romantic, soft, flowing. There are the beautiful silk chiffons, the stunning floral prints, the gorgeous, always-to-die-for Valentino signature red, the bows (Oh, the bows, the bows!), the perfect ladylike suits. Beautiful clothes that are flawlessly executed and reliably the prettiest things in the room. Anyone who takes over the designing duties for this house has to be respectful of that fact -- that for more than 40 years we have looked to Valentino to give us what is inarguably, ineffably beautiful. There is a nobility in that, I think, in making beauty one's raison d'etre. I do get the idea that Facchinetti appreciates that and honors it, but she is a talented designer and is finding her own way of doing it. According to Style.com, she said about this collection, "I was looking for a strong way to interpret romance, but without the usual sweetness."
That sounds good to me. Tricky, mind you, but I'm intrigued. Romance without sweetness. A lot of people would interpret that as simply "sexy," but Facchineti is too smart for that.
There were many things in this collection that were classic Valentino, and I mean that as a very high compliment.
This dress, with its beautiful flowing chiffon, for example.
Or this lovely thing.
I so love it when the online coverage gives us detail shots of the clothes. Just look at the work in that bodice -- it's glorious. The color is also beautiful -- so delicate.
How about this for possibly the ultimate LBD:
Can you see why this is couture? I will bet you a non-fat sugar-free Frappucino that all of those squillions of pleats in that dress were handmade. Not to mention the beading in the ornaments. It's dizzying to contemplate.
This destroys me. So perfectly, simply lovely. She looks like a Lladro figurine.
I have always loved a cowl neck. It's such a graceful and feminine way to frame a woman's face.
Here's the classic little Valentino suit, but it's starting to get a little interesting.
Facchinetti is playing with the structure a little bit here. The collar is unexpected and hey -- how does that jacket open, anyway? But still those feminine touches -- note the delicate little trumpet sleeve of the blouse peeping out from beneath the jacket.
Oh, that fabric... so gorgeous.
But she's not just imitating the Maestro. She's got some tricks of her own up her sleeve. Like this coat.
This is so lovely. So simple and clean, but not austere. It's the volume in the bottom half of the coat, and the softness of the shoulders, that keep it from being harsh. It's not easy to do simple and sleek without making it severe (just ask Raf Simons), but I think she's succeeding here.
Love that organza collar peeking out. I wish I cold tell what fabric the coat is made of. In my fantasies it's the softest double-faced cashmere. How unspeakably decadent would that be?
So pretty. I'm not sure by what alchemy this dress, which is just laden with feminine signifiers (off-the-shoulder, empire waist, sheer fabric, full sleeves, flounces, frills) still manages to be womanly rather than girly. And once again, I know so many of you hate the bubble skirt, but just look at that! Look at how soft and elegant that looks -- like an abbreviated antebellum ballgown. How can you not love that??
Again with the mind-boggling detail work. All those gathers done by hand, I guarantee you.
This coat is less successful, I think. I admire what she's attempting here, but it's a little too much.
I think if she'd scaled back the volume a little on this it would have been a better choice.
I'd have liked this better if the shape had been pared down and all of the sequins had been applied with that graduated effect instead of the hard edges down the front. It would have gentled it up a bit.
Oh, here's the classic red Valentino gown.
There's just nothing wrong with that. So eye-wateringly beautiful. Notice how she's not wearing a jot of jewelry -- not so much as a single pearl. You didn't even miss it, did you? This is a dress for me and all my flat-chested sisters -- this is exactly the sort of stuff you want happening on the bodice of a dress when you're not very well-endowed. The pleats and ruching help to add a little volume that nature left out, and that gorgeous open neckline with those wide-set straps makes the most of your delicate collar bones. This is not a dress for cleavage. (Although it's even odds that this makes an appearance on some red carpet somewhere, scaled down and shrink-wrapped onto the body of some starlet with her boobs tickling her chin.)
Oh! Style Spy grows faint! The shoulders peek-a-booing up from behind that fan of fabric! Too delicious!
More fabulous structure. I know this is going to be overly architectural for some folks, but I love it.
I'm also fascinated to see it on the runway for Valentino, home of the maidenly luncheon suit. Because not only is this beautiful, but it's pretty cool. Which is not an adjective I often associated with this house.
Again, I think this coat got away from her a little bit. But I do adore the Balenciaga-inspired shoulder, the flare of the collar, and that gorgeous color.
Not to mention this... what the heck do you call this? Some sort of ribbon work. I know there's a word for it when it's made of paper, but I can't for the life of me remember it. Quilling, I think. Whatever it's called, it's unbelievable -- how on earth did they do that?
Oh boy, oh boy...
What's not to love? It's sparkly, it's a little slinky, it's spectacular. Truth of the matter is, that is a very simple concept made incredibly special by a few touches and some truly magnificent workmanship. In lesser hands (I'm talking to you, Elie Saab), that dress would have been awful, or worse yet, predictable. Skin tight, plunging neck, too much exposed area on the torso. But that gentle ruff around the neck, the long sleeves that extend those driblets of sequins down to the wrists... they take the dress out of the realm of tarty and instead make it dreamy. Oh, let us all put our clothes back on, I'm begging. My fondest fashion desire is for more women to remember how sexy you can be from within your clothes, not spilling out of them. In a perfectly cut sleeve, a woman's arm is elegant and expressive. In a high ruffled collar, she holds her neck a little straighter and her head a little higher. If her skirt is not skin-tight, she can move freely and sinuously. Truly -- any woman who trades "mysterious" for "bootylicious" is out of her mind.
And lastly, a little shoe goodness to send you out with.
I think we all know how Style Spy feels about a sparkly shoe -- namely, that it is a Very Good Thing and we all need them.
In all, I'm pretty excited about Alessandra Facchinetti at Valentino. So far it looks as though the house is in very good hands -- respectful but not fearful, and determined to move forward. Let's hope the Powers That Be behind the label see it this way, too, and support her ideas by allowing her enough time to develop a following and build a reputation of her own.
Here's a link to an interview with Facchinetti by Suzy Menkes, of the International Herald Tribune. Take a look at it. Don't miss this, because you'll get a few more incredible close-ups of the clothes, and be introduced to a possible new style icon, Facchinetti herself. She's lovely, and well worth emulating. (Suzy Menkes is a great journalist, but not someone to imitate, bless her.)