A parade of joyous color floated down a runway over the waters of Venice, extending out from the historic Gaggiandre at the Arsenale. As the sun set, a collection of haute couture creations in vivid volumes and varied visual compositions moved to the music of Cosima, performed live just next to a Giuseppe Penone sculpture rising from the lagoon.
This was the powerful debut of Valentino Des Ateliers, a dream of Pierpaolo Piccioli come true, made in collaboration with over a dozen contemporary artists. The creative director, with the help of Gianluigi Ricuperati, was in conversation with more than a dozen contemporary emerging and established artists over the course of several months to translate their artwork into haute couture.
Starting with a desire to connect after so much time apart due to the ongoing pandemic, Piccioli began conversations with artists including Anastasia Bay, Rui Wu, Francis Offman, Katrin Bremermann, Sofia Silva, and Jamie Nares. Capturing details, color, pattern, and brushstrokes, their works came alive on garments that graced models like Rianne Van Rompaey in the Venice show.
The result was, as Piccioli described it, an ode to freedom. Which made Nares’s contribution to the collection—the final opera gown with billowing sleeves and train, punctuated by dancing brushstrokes in bright red—all the more fitting. A few years ago, the New York-based artist came out as a trans woman, sharing openly her unique path and ongoing journey of self-expression with Piccioli.
Whitewall spoke with Piccioli and Nares about liberating art and fashion.
WHITEWALL: You said that you challenged yourself with this collection to dream harder and bigger. How did that lead you to not just engaging with art, but collaborating in conversation with so many artists?
PIERPAOLO PICCIOLI: I needed connection, to be honest. I think we all needed the boost that can only come from human connection. Art per se, to me, wasn’t what was I was looking for. Having a real group of artists with which I could talk, interact, and make projects—that was what was really important to me.
What we did was nothing but easy, or even predictable. With each one of them, we found a way, a specific way, to proceed and to integrate their art into the dresses.
WW: Jamie, what intrigued you about the idea to collaborate with Pierpaolo Piccioli and Valentino?
JAMIE NARES: It’s usually interesting to say yes to things that you haven’t done before. And I’ve always wanted to design a dress. In fact, I had made one out of the scarves that were printed when I had my retrospective at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the year before last. I had draped them around myself and made a dress, so I was thinking in that direction.
I gave them six paintings to choose from, and they were taken with It’s Raining in Naples and Blues in Red #1. We did a Zoom call from my studio and we talked for a couple of hours about the project, and Pierpaolo explained the way he was thinking, and I explained the way I thought I could collaborate best, and we took it from there. I was abreast of the design as it progressed, but I kept a pretty loose rein on it because I figured I know what I do, and Pierpaolo knows what he does, and I was very willing to trust what he came up with. I had no doubt he would do something equally astonishing with this project.
WW: Pierpaolo, in discussing the collaboration, you said Jamie moved you with her honesty and courage. What in her story and work did you connect with? How did you want to best translate that?
PP: Her personal story touched me. She never indulged in any, let’s say, melancholic approach. Everything she does is always so neat, sharp, and full of life at the same time. Also, the way she has always used her body as a fundamental part of her job . . . she has a way to order the chaos that I find astonishing. I read somewhere that she said that with her work she tries to “embody the nature and combine the forms,” and I think that it was exactly what I felt when I was presented her work of art.
WW: Jamie, your work is so physical in nature, both in the making of it and the final image capturing a feeling of great movement. What was it like to then see your work translated onto a garment to be worn in motion?
JN: That was the thing that excited me most as they were making the dress. I was really looking forward to seeing it on the runway in all its glory. Because it does animate the brushstrokes, particularly where the gown opens at the front. It reminded me of the shutter in a camera, that the brushstroke on the dress was revealed and then hidden and then revealed as she moved. It reanimated the whole thing.
In my paintings, what you see is made in the same time it takes to make a photograph, which is very quickly. What you get is the result of a lot of work, but the brushstroke itself happens in a matter of seconds. It’s like trying to capture thought.
WW: Discussing the connection of art and fashion, Pierpaolo described painting in art to haute couture in fashion. Jamie, is that something you related to?
JN: It made me think about it. And I think there is a similarity in that they both imply well-used techniques, very old, that go way back in time. If you’re going to make a painting, you’ll be dealing with paint, or often a brush or whatever tool; it’s a physical connection. It’s a physical skill that you hone and you move from one painting to the next. And it’s very similar to the skill of les petite mains. The way they work is extraordinary.
WW: Pierpaolo, you described the opera gown you created featuring Jamie’s work as an ode to freedom, which is why it was the last look in the show. What kind of freedom can art and fashion provide?
PP: The freedom to feel, and dream, the freedom to be reminded without nostalgia. Art and fashion can be always alive and pulsing. We always associate our emotions to a specific moment of our life, and the opera gown to me was an homage to Jamie’s work of course but also to her life. It was a statement and I wanted everyone to feel what I felt while working at it—a sense of solemnity and freedom.
WW: You also described the dress as an ode to everything Jamie has been and to everything she will be, applauding her path where there are no boundaries between art and self. How did you feel about that statement, Jamie?
JN: It was really beautiful, so touching. I have goosebumps just thinking about it. I make films also, but I think my paintings have always been the clearest expression of my nature. And because they do seem sort of gender-free, in a way. They are very fluid, they are very sensual, they deal with things that aren’t necessarily considered very masculine, but they are also very strong at the same time. It’s a mixture of gender-free expression.
And nobody ever picked up on that. I suppose people didn’t know that about me, so there’s no reason why they should have picked up on it. It’s been an interesting journey, and I did try to hide myself. I think maybe it came out in the paintings, in spite of my best efforts. This is just what I do and if I’m going to do anything, I might as well do it as me.
WW: What was it like to see the collection in person in Venice for the show in July?
JN: It was fantastic! And then to be given the honor of the closing look, it was an honor, and as I wrote to Pierpaolo, it was too great of an honor for me to accept for myself, and I chose to accept it on behalf of all trans people. He did such a good thing. He was very aware of what’s happening in my life and he really made a point of supporting who I am. I thought he was just so wonderful and generous and sweet. I told him that he had repurposed beauty; he had liberated it of its need to be beautiful and made it powerful and meaningful. And that he had given us a rebirth of Venus in the waters of Venice.
WW: Pierpaolo, how did you want this collection to, as the Susan Sontag quote goes, use this as a time to recover the senses—to see, hear, and feel more?
PP: This whole collection was fueled by the necessity for connection, human connection. After a long period of forced distancing, of detachment, I felt that everyone wanted to be there both physically and mentally. We worked with such an intensity that I am sure that it was tangible also from a distance. Our senses should be celebrated with beauty. We need that. We deserve that.