In this exclusive interview, Jo Linehan meets couturier Giambattista Valli in New York to talk MAC collaborations and what it really takes to dress pop icon Rihanna.
“Before you all arrived,” the waiter whispers, “he was darting around the room, admiring the flowers and enjoying the view. You can tell he’s excited.” If I was Giambattista Valli, I’d be elated too. The designer has any number of reasons to celebrate: the tenth birthday of his eponymous fashion line is fast approaching; he has a wildly successful couture house under his name; and a new collaboration with cosmetics giant MAC, launching this month. As I wait to meet the designer, in a sprawling loft in the heart of New York’s Meatpacking District, surrounded by a selection of his signature neon pink and orange gazar and organza gowns, I reflect on the poignancy of this moment for the 49-year-old Roman designer.
Valli is an authentic-looking Italian if ever I met one; tall, slight and deeply tanned, unclean shaven (in an effortless-but-kept way), and dressed completely in black save for a single string of white pearls I notice beneath his collar. He sits to attention, ready to be grilled, but is friendly and open with it.
Born in 1966, Valli’s road to couturier was born of a traditional Italian upbringing and an obsession with 1960s Italian cinema. “There were very few technological distractions then. It was a very different time,” he explains. “I would love to look up at the ceiling in my childhood home in Rome and sketch the lines in the wood. I see beauty everywhere,” he admits. “To me, beauty is strength – a woman or man who is strong, confident, bold … not afraid to show their emotions. I don’t have a beauty icon – beauty is found in all of those things,” he tells me in his European trill. The notion of la dolce vita has an unmistakable influence on his collections – all elongated waists and screen siren silhouettes, techniques that were first learned while studying at the Istituto Europeo di Design of Rome and later at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. He perfected his craft under the influence of fashion impresarios Roberto Capucci and Emanuel Ungaro before launching his own line in 2005. Haute couture followed six years later, and both lines have gone from strength to strength. Today Valli is adored by such design-discerning celebrities as Amal Clooney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Olivia Palermo and Princess Charlotte of Monaco, not to mention the VIP couture set, with whom his name is golden.
Behind him stands the now famous bubblegum pink creation worn by Rihanna at last February’s Grammy Awards. “I love Rihanna,” he smiles. “That collaboration was all her. The gown had literally just stepped out onto the catwalk when she called my team and told them she had to wear it. She is so bold, so daring, so unafraid. And it was an unexpected choice of outfit from her at that time – that’s why I love her. She is the Giamba woman, for sure.”
At a moment when his brand is gathering such immense global acclaim, why this collaboration with MAC? The market is drenched with designer affiliations and, with at least four collections a year to produce, surely he has more than enough creative stimuli? “Working in what I do, I dream of dressing every woman. What better way than dressing their lips in Giambattista Valli? MAC and I, we have been on this journey together with my label for ten years! They have created the make-up look at every one of my show’s from the beginning. We wanted to celebrate the anniversary with something very special. Something worth collecting and keeping.” The lipsticks themselves are a perfect medley; from the carefully designed, gently rounded bullet shape, to the intensely pigmented shades of blood orange, cerise pink, burgundy red and deep plum. This is a collection that fashion lovers will covet (what woman doesn’t want to own a piece of Giambattista Valli?), and one that make-up lovers will adore for its sheer gorgeousness. A clear gloss is also available, updating the matte finish to a slick lacquer – a clever extra.
“When I design collections, I always think globally. These lipsticks are different; they are made to suit everyone, but they’re graphic and they’ll challenge anyone who wears them to experiment a little bit.” He is tight-lipped about how he’ll celebrate the house’s tenth birthday, but hints at a blowout party with MAC later this year. In between New York, Italy and his base in Paris, he longs for the Amalfi coast, “where I love everything to just stop. I am always inspired, always creating, and it can be overwhelming. In Paris, I live far away from my studio, and I need that separation between my private life and my professional life. When I go home and I’m alone, I love to sketch. That’s where I decide what the next story for Valli will be.” We can’t wait for him to tell it.