Rachel Marie Walsh finds the entry-level selection of new Valli designs irresistible for their exquisite embroidery and voluminous tiers of couture and ready-to-wear collection.
H&M’s fashion collaborations always get hearts a-flutter and unless you’ve been working offline since the summer you’ll have heard about this month’s H&M Giambattista Valli launch. The Rome-born, Paris-based designer’s ultra-romantic style informs a quixotic, colourful range of distinctly office unfriendly clothes and accessories.
Prices start at €12.99 for knee-high socks patterned with hearts and lips and there is a very cute heart-shaped shoulder bag that is sure to sell out. Other entry-level items include brand logo-patterned tights and flat sliders decorated with studs and feathers and a plastic version of the single string of pearls Valli himself wears for luck.
The most elaborate dresses are north of €400, making this one of H&M’s most expensive designer capsules. Giambattista Valli is not an easy brand to adapt for a mass market. This is not to say that the masses can’t love with his the exquisite embroidery and voluminous tiers of his couture and ready-to-wear collection.
That’s how it should be. That is the magic of couture and the mark of a master couturier.
Still, millions of young men and women are about to get introduced to Giambattista Valli through this line.It seems a bit like introducing them to sushi with a supermarket bento box. The experience is heavily muted but also quick and fun, they’ll probably really enjoy it. Maybe they’ll want to know more.
Valli, more than most H&M collaborators, has seemed faithfully married to the old fashioned idea of haute couture since the beginning. His roots are in the fashion illustration, it’s what he studied at London’s Central Saint Martin’s College and how he articulates his ideas at first draft.
He collects illustration books and is particularly inspired by René Gruau, the Italian-born illustrator who worked at the frontline of haute couture for more than 60 years after the war, doing ads for Balmain, Dior, and Chanel. Critic frequently note how the designer’s Catholic background, too, injects his work with Balenciaga-esque drama.
He attended a Vatican school until age 13. After CSM, Valli returned to Rome to work for Roberto Capucci. The older designer began his career in 1950 and had retired from the regular fashion schedule when Valli arrived in his atelier in the later 80s, choosing to show only when he felt ready.
His pace gave Valli time to experiment and learn from the old master, who studied fine art in Paris and is known for nurturing young Italian talent. Capucci is another name that doesn’t roll off the tongue, maybe, but his dramatic, sculpted dresses really do walk the line between fashion and art and that early influence is clear in Valli’s own gowns.
Critics frequently reference a certain Catholic drama in his work, too, stints at Fendi followed, designing the brand’s cool Fendissime line for creative director Karl Lagerfeld. He moved to Paris in 1997 to work for Emanuel Ungaro, who made him creative director in 2001.
Like a traditional couturier, Valli has an atelier in Paris’s vaunted Golden Triangle, opened in 2005, as well as a coterie of wealthy patrons. He has called the late Lee Radziwell, Queen Rania of Jordan, Eugenie Niarchos and other international heiresses “Valli girls”.
In July 2011, he presented his first couture collection, having been accepted as one of the few non French-born members of the exclusive Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. He has a luxury diffusion line, Giamba, and has done collaborations with brands like Moncler and MAC before but this is definitely something new.
The most common reasons brands give for collaboration are a desire to raise brand awareness and connect with young people. Today’s teen aspirants are tomorrows luxury consumers and the average luxury brand needs to sow interest.
The H&M collection, which debuted at the Am certainly looks both youthful and luxurious online thanks to a Kendall Jenner-led campaign shot in Paris by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. The photographers are famous for making models and couture look preternaturally beautiful through digital manipulation.
The risks are considerable and include dilution of brand integrity — companies such as Chanel and Gucci will never do the main street and set the bar in luxury branding— as well as the association of your logo and name with the kind of fabrics, mass machine-produced design and ‘made in China’ labels that would trigger heart palpitations in couture shoppers. How has H&M pulled this off so many times?
The brand has turned out one or two designer collaborations every year since 2004. Always ahead of the curve, Karl Lagerfeld made this trend look like a safe move by lending his own name to a collaboration that sold 1,500 to 2,000 pieces per hour in H&M’s New York flagship the day it launched,according to Women’s Wear Daily.
Annoyed by the rapid sellout, Lagerfeld declared he’d never work with H&M— which had apparently underestimated the great kaiser’s appeal when they made him an offer— again.
Other designers were undeterred. A Stella McCartney collaboration emerged in 2005, followed by projects with Jimmy Choo, Sonia Rykiel and Roberto Cavalli. H&M’s collaborations are notable not just for the big names they attract but the more obscure, the kind favoured by quirky fashionistas.
Marni, Maison Martin Margiela and Viktor&Rolf are hardly household names but certainly better known since The 2012 Margiela one looked the weirdest to the reclusive designer’s disciples: how could an ultra-minimalist that rejects the luxury sphere it occupies as excessive embrace the likes of H&M?
Well Monsieur Margiela didn’t, actually, but he signed over his label’s name— as well as the archive pieces that inspired the H&M line — to Diesel founder Renzo Rosso’s OTB group when he retired in 2009. Presumably he took a little integrity with him.
The disbanding of so many diffusion and even ready-to-wear lines since the financial crisis may have something to do with the increase in luxury’s dalliances with downtown. Post-2008 the main street collaborator names did get bigger, with Balmain, Lanvin and even Versace all voluntarily getting the H&M treatment.
I say voluntarily because main street stores flatter the catwalk with imitations all the time, can we blame brands — or luxury stables like Kering (which has minority stake in Maison Valli), OTB and LVMH — for trying to maximise profits from their designers’ ideas?
From a business standpoint this makes complete sense. From an artistic — and indeed an environmental — standpoint, the normalisation of this whole practice is at best a little greedy, at worst toxic. It also takes haute couture a little further from the goal— often expressed around the time of the Met Gala— of being accepted as fine art.
Still, swishing around in a H&M dress will certainly be a whole lot more fun than paying to look at couture in a magazine or museum.
Giambattista Valli x H&M collection launches worldwide in selected stores and on hm.com on November 7.