Piccioli Exits Valentino and Raises Questions About Humanity in Fashion

Ever since news broke last week that Pierpaolo Piccioli, the designer of Valentino, was leaving the brand, paeans to his talent have been flowing on both social and fashion media. But of all the words used to describe Mr. Piccioli’s work — its “genius” and “magic” and “vision,” its “dreaminess” and “beauty” — the one that most stands out to me is “humanity.”

Not because of the looming threat of A.I., and whatever that means when it comes to clothes, but because Mr. Piccioli is not the only designer leaving fashion in the last six months whose “humanity” was part of their calling card. In fact, he’s the third.

The first was Sarah Burton, the designer of Alexander McQueen. Ms. Burton departed that brand in October, 13 years after taking the reins as creative director following the death of its founder and more than 20 after joining as an assistant to Mr. McQueen.

The second was Dries Van Noten, who announced his retirement after 40 years in the business only a few days before the Valentino news. And now Mr. Piccioli, who was at Valentino for 25 years, eight as sole creative director.

It is possible, of course, to see this as a coincidence. Fashion is in a period of uncertainty because of broader political and economic forces, after a time of relative stability (at least in terms of personnel), and insecurity can breed a desire for change. It is also possible that this shift is simply a generational passing of the torch. Mr. Van Noten is 65; Mr. Piccioli, 56; Ms. Burton, was 49 when she left McQueen. It’s rare for designers to last more than 10 years at one brand, unless they own it, as Mr. Van Noten did until 2018, when he sold a majority stake to the Spanish group Puig.

Yet according to the rules of fashion, three makes a trend — and Mr. Piccioli, Mr. Van Noten and Ms. Burton were otherwise not really similar, in background or aesthetic. So what does it say, exactly, that three designers most known for their humanity are no longer in fashion?

What does humanity in this context even mean?

It’s a strange thing to call out as special in an industry in which products are (at least theoretically) made by humans, for humans, but think of it as a sort of fashion version of renaissance humanism. One marked by a certain generosity of spirit that infused everything these designers did, from the clothes they designed to the way they conducted business; a sense that they cared not just for what they made but also the emotional inner lives of people who wore it. And those who helped to make it. That they understood they were standing on the shoulders of the giants who had come before and the many who made their work possible. That they had a responsibility for and to them.

Ms. Burton, for example, took on McQueen in a period of extreme trauma, when conventional wisdom said that the house should be shuttered; that no one could step into the shoes of Mr. McQueen and that no one should even try.

She not only held the atelier and staff together but continued Mr. McQueen’s legacy of extraordinary creativity and wild imagination, and injected a note of gentleness and grace, tempering the fury with kindness. She collaborated with mills and craftspeople across the United Kingdom, using her show notes to give them credit. She also featured an array of bodies on her runway long before size inclusivity became a fashion issue.

Not to mention becoming, effectively, the closest thing to an in-house couturier that Catherine, Princess of Wales, has had. Ms. Burton made not only her wedding dress but, most recently, her coronation gown and that of her daughter, Princess Charlotte, helping give modern expression to historical pageantry.

When Mr. Van Noten was given a retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 2014, he used the opportunity not to create a celebration of himself but rather to share the spotlight with the people and works that had inspired him, including the Indian embroiderers with whom he had worked for decades. Likewise, for his 100th show in 2017, rather than throw a big party in his honor, he used his budget to fly in assorted models who had walked in his shows so they could share the moment. When he sold his brand to Puig in 2018, he said it was as much to ensure the continued employment of everyone who worked there as it was to create a retirement fund.

And Mr. Piccioli made a tradition of bringing his couture atelier out on the runway with him to take their bow after every show. He named his couture dresses after the women and men who made them (and sometimes empowered those women and men to name them in turn). In 2019, he reimagined Cecil Beaton’s famous photograph of society women in Charles James ball gowns with only Black models and made that the basis of his show.

In 2022, when he unveiled his couture on the Spanish Steps, worn smooth over the centuries and famously slippery, he offered every model a choice among flat shoes, platforms and heels. He eschewed “diversity,” which he saw as an industry buzz word, in favor of “individuality.”

It’s not that Mr. Piccioli and company didn’t believe in the bottom line. But they believed that business and beauty and creativity and functionality were of equal value, and could coexist, and they infused everything they did with that belief system. It’s weird to say you could see it in a skirt, but you could — in the generosity of the folds, the ease of access. In a world that loves a dictator, self-care and customer autonomy were part of what they were selling.

Whether in the end they were fired or simply agreed to disagree with their employers (and at least in Mr. Van Noten’s case, he seems to have been planning his departure for a while), it is clear that each of these designers sensed that the currents of fashion were not moving in their direction. Emotion and sentimentality is out; cool and meme-able is in. Rather than compromise, they departed. They will be fine.

But they leave a hole behind. On Monday Mr. Piccioli posted a farewell photograph of his staff, all wearing black T-shirts reading “Thank you PP” and gathered under a sign with a Pasolini quote that read (in Italian), “We don’t want to be so suddenly without dreams.”

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