Giambattista Valli is known for his party dresses, so it's hardly surprising that he's partial to the odd ruffle. In the former Ungaro designer's hands, however, they never look like a decorative afterthought, or a cheap frill, so to speak. Instead, his grand ripples of fabric have what he describes as a, "structural, architectural quality, making a very flattering frame for a woman's face".
Their usual suggestion of frivolity - think clowns or jesters - is balanced by the solemnity and ethereality of a choirboy; an effect enhanced by the monastic monochrome. This evening cape, as well as the ruffled collars in his autumn/winter collection, was actually inspired by the painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt, which depicts a group of beruffled men watching an autopsy. Valli's collections combine eclectic sources of inspiration with a surprisingly systematic creative process. He starts with three categories of idea - structure and architecture, art, and stylish women - and allows the three to mingle and infuse his imagination. His autumn/winter collection was inspired by the architect Le Corbusier, Rembrandt and the sultry Mexican actress Maria Felix. Previous muses have included Verushka and Peggy Guggenheim. As the Italian designer points out, "they are very different women, but all style leaders.'
Valli's customers are as illustrious, and diverse, as the women who have inspired his collections. When he showed his first own-label collection in 2005, after leaving Ungaro where he was Art Director, socialite Lee Radziwill and actress Diane Kruger were both seated in the front row, while Dita Von Teese modelled for him. His celebrity following has helped his rapid trajectory since he left Ungaro, and many of his clients come from his time at the label. He has dressed the likes of Queen Rania of Jordan, Mary Kate Olsen and Sarah Jessica Parker, and acknowledges that, "it's very important to dress celebrities", firstly, because many of his famous clients, such as Victoria Beckham and Penelope Cruz are friends, and secondly because in Valli's view, "they are real women, not models. They have real proportions. Some are tall, some short, some thinner some roundish".
Famous faces also guarantee headlines. After Victoria Beckham , or Lady Victoria, as Valli jokingly calls her, wore a pair of skyscraper Valli shoes to a party thrown by Tom Cruise they received hundreds of calls the next day with people anxious to find out where they could buy them. They were named the Victoria shoe when, during Beckham's recent "she came, she posed, she shopped", tour of Paris, she dropped into Valli's studio, who, as he excitedly recounts, said, "Oh my God these shoes are really Victoria". In return she has described Valli as "one of the most exciting designers around".
Valli is the ultimate modern designer in that he has managed to combine red-carpet appeal, classical skill, modernism and commerciality. His label's turnover has tripled in 2 years, and he has established 102 worldwide points of sale. He has designed dresses specifically for far-eastern women - Japan is his second biggest market - taking into account their proportions and tastes.
Proportion is a key element of Valli's look, both in terms of women's shape, and his use of fabric. Much of Valli's signature use of volume has a hint of vintage Balenciaga. A grey silk evening dress with attached cape is reminiscent of a 1960s' Balenciaga day dress with a draped back.
According to Valli's creative system, volume would constitute the structure, and when it comes to the decorative stage he is able to redefine the character of a motif and make it his own, as his interpretation of the ruffle shows. In his autumn/winter collection a black cocktail dress is ringed with stiff white ruffles that encircle the body like rings of ivory vertebrae, soft mini-ruffles give a bodice a feathery finish, like a bird that has puffed out its chest, and black ribbon loops resemble a spiky exoskeleton. There is an integrity to his designs - nothing appears stuck on or extraneous. The collection featured sleek, tailored trouser-suits and classic evening coats, but as per his reputation, the cocktail dresses stood out. Nevertheless, Valli doesn't consider them to be the pinnacle of his collection, although he says in his infectiously upbeat Roman voice, "it's very important that the woman I design for feels that I had a good time making this dress. I like the idea of dressing women for happy moments". He is a big fan of his long time supporter Lee Radziwill's book Happy Times.
Valli's eponymous label might still be very new, but the designer has had plenty of experience within the fashion industry. Born in Rome in 1966, he studied at the European Design Institute and Saint Martin's College of Art and Design. His first job in the fashion industry was working in Public Relations for Roberto Capucci, before moving to the design department. He went on to design for Fendi and Krizia, and in 1997 he became the art director at Ungaro. He eventually left the fashion house because he, "designed for many other labels for a long time. I wanted to talk my language not translate others'.'
Valli has been tipped for top jobs at Valentino and Halston, and he says working for an established fashion house would be something he would consider in the future, because he admires the way labels such as Valentino keep their signature style intact. For now, however, he is enjoying his creative liberty too much to compromise it. He explains 'it's almost like someone who gets his freedom and then doesn't want to marry again. I want to taste it a little bit.'