The Valentino Duo on Zoolander, Haute Couture Jeans, and Stage Fright

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Photo: Richard Bord/Getty Images

There's something about a dark bar in the morning that feels just a bit perverse. But a sunny Maria Grazia Chiuri is lighting up her little corner of the Rose Bar, the Gramercy Park Hotel's nightspot turned interview spot. Wearing Gobstopper-size rings on each finger and a sleek cape, she sits with her Valentino co-designer Pierpaolo Piccioli sipping some outside beverages — Starbucks, procured from around the corner. Chiuri and Piccioli, who will be honored with the International Award at tonight's CFDA Awards, are clearly honorary New Yorkers. They always make the most of their trips here, rattling off their high-low itinerary: a run in Central Park, a hot dog on the corner, a visit to the new Whitney Museum, a jaunt to Harlem for food at Minton's or Red Rooster, or to the lower-westerly quadrant they charmingly call "the meat district."

The two are clearly overjoyed to be accepting tonight's honors, but there's just one thing. Tonight marks "the second time that I have to do a speech in my life," says a jittery Chiuri, with the first being an appearance at the International Herald Tribune's luxury conference. Piccioli, who's clearly the faux-dour comic foil in their relationship, counters, "It was not a speech." Chiuri nods: "It was a dialogue!" She begins joking that she needs her publicist to give the speech for her, ventriloquist and dummy style. Piccioli, for his part, fears "A very King’s Speech moment."

Nerves aside, this moment finds the two contemplating their path to where they are today. They spent a decade behind the scenes at the house before being named, in 2009, co-creative directors of the brand.  That meant sorting out how to balance their legacy with new ideas. "It’s important to be very loyal to people and very faithful to your roots," says Piccioli. "But when you find your own language, everything is easier." He compares his and Chiuri's Valentino and the house of yore, poetically, to the same landscape seen from a different vantage. "We’re the second generation of designers," Chiuri adds. "We have a completely different idea about what beauty is now. Because beauty now is more personal." They mention Zoe Kravitz, who recently wore their white-beaded chiffon dress with cool braids and a kind of rock-and-roll indolence, or Alicia Vikander, in "regal" blue velvet, whom Piccioli dubs "a new Juliet."

While the two are cruising toward modernity, they're also obsessed by the past, specifically by the tradition of haute couture. Putting it in terms usually used to describe highly anticipated sneaker drops, Chiuri says, "Couture now represents the best limited edition that you can have." They even do couture denim, Piccioli, who is wearing a pair of said jeans, adds. "It’s like if you have a beautiful palazzo and you do only formal balls or you do parties with a rock band. That’s the way we love to work, and instead of doing the rock anthem in a beautiful palazzo, why not the garage?" (You have to hand it to them: Even in their second language, these two have a way with analogies.) To that end, the two are founding a school of couture — details are still thin on the ground, but they will say that it will instruct 19 students in the art and craft of all things haute. "We think it's important to share this Italian culture and Italian heritage," Chiuri says.

Of course, our conversation wouldn't be complete without addressing the blockbuster-size elephant in the room: Zoolander 2, and its stars' surprise appearance on the Valentino runway during this past Paris Fashion Week. To hear them tell it, the event came about because the two are Zoolander superfans. When they met Ben Stiller at their New York couture event in December, they peppered him with questions about the original film. Once he came to them with the idea, Beyoncé-surprise-album-level secrecy ensued: Only Chiuri, Piccioli, and one other person on their team knew what would be happening. "Everybody was dancing, so there was joy," Piccioli recalls of the viral moment. "Maybe it was the first time I felt a lot of joy in fashion."