In this in-depth exclusive, Suzy Menkes speaks to design duo Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli about the influences behind their S/S 2016 collection
Suzy Menkes: Could you tell me how you chose the subject for the S/S 2016 show?
Pierpaolo Piccioli: After our couture show in July we knew we had to move on, and the biggest thing that’s happening in the world today is immigration. Researching a show is a way to understand and go deeper into a different culture. Sometimes when we think of Africa, we just think of one continent, but Africa is made of many different nations and tribes, and every tribe has its individual culture and individual religion, so we wanted to get inside these different attitudes to feed our sensibility, and integrate with it.
At the beginning of the 20th century, many artists went to Africa and gave birth to modern art. They were seeing beauty from a different perspective. When Picasso went there, he understood beauty from a reasonably oblique perspective. That’s the reason why we started this collection with the idea of integrating a different culture into our world. Fashion has to talk about contemporary life and it has to reflect modern times and create new ideas of beauty. Today this may be more laboured, with the mix of cultures.
SM: Why were you so influenced by Africa?
Maria Grazia Chiuri: Our idea was to speak about what we feel, and at the moment, mass immigration is something that touches us. So we started to study “the other” because we wanted to embrace other cultures and understand them very well, because we can apply our touch to our job. We don’t have just one specific reference.
PP: There is not only one angle on Africa; there are many.
MGC: All the references that you find in the collection are out there in different tribes, so it’s not something specific. We use some embroidery like the body paint they use to express themselves, and in some ways it’s very close to what we have on our dress, because we use this dress to describe what we’re feeling — our story. As to the mask, it symbolises a different attitude. They want to cover their face, but they want to speak about themselves. That’s not so far from our culture, and we love to study that and blend it with our style and vision. We are very lucky because we have a beautiful job — we have time to improve our culture, to understand, to see other art, and we want to do all of these things and make something new.
PP: What we want to get across is the human touch. To be “sensibile” as they say in Italian. In a way the clothes are “sensitive”, just as there is a human touch in painting and dance. It’s a sort of Romanticism.
SM: So all the outfits are painted by hand?
MGC: Yes, absolutely. All these things are handmade. We think it’s something that gives a different attitude, because you feel the human touch, you feel that each piece is different from the other. And that’s what you like. You feel the sense. There is not only one beauty, not only one kind of face, not only one culture. We are speaking about a cross-culture.
PP: We like integration across cultures, and creating different balances that are not only African, but are made of different things.
SM: You have both led a movement in the way we dress — very respectful. Do you feel that you have to move on or do you feel that you are authentic?
MGC: We don’t think about it. We love doing what we feel like doing in the moment. We don’t think about what’s happening in the fashion world.
PP: It’s more important to reflect about-
MGC: About our times. Our times are not only about fashion, but about life. So life is our reference. You see this mask? I love it because it speaks about African artists and it’s close to our past. Because if you use your past to make something new, that’s a very good thing.
SM: That is Masai embroidery, isn’t it?
MGC: It’s a beautiful piece. The calf leather with the braid; so elegant with the drape, also the dress. Sometimes when you think about the other, you don’t think that the other has a different culture, different art, but everyone has a story. This is hand-dyed, it took three weeks to make.
We like to spend a long time on the finish so that you feel the material is authentic. It’s made from cotton and so is the bag. We wanted to maintain the idea of craftsmanship that isn’t lost. We would like to call this bag a culture puzzle, because it is a puzzle of different cultures that we love to mix together.
SM: What is on your mood board?
PP: Many references.
SM: So you’re influenced by art from the early 20th century?
PP: There was a moment when different art impacted modern European culture, far away from the 16th century, so people gave birth to a new modern art.
MGC: Just look at Modigliani…
SM: But everything is made in Italy. It could have been made in Africa.
MGC: It’s too difficult for us. Because of time constraints, it’s not easy. So we made it all in Italy.
SM: I love those burnt colours.
MGC: This kind of print is different because we didn’t do anything the same way. We’re not reproducing something that exists, we are using our personal sketches.
PP: We like to keep the spirit, the freshness, the innocence.
MGC: One thing that we like to show with our style is the human touch. Everything that we try to do is so that you feel there is a craftsmanship and also passion and love. I’ll be honest, to make all this hand-painted work, we found many people who were excited about our project. You have to involve people, and they were so happy to come to Paris and say, “What a great project!” For 25 people to paint together is not easy, but they were so excited about the project that we designed it and had a huge team to work with us.
PP: We had to get across the joy in a positive way because otherwise you don’t feel the passion, the love. We don’t want to work with people who just do “the vision”.
MGC: You can do the same vision with print.
SM: But it’s not the same, is it?
MGC: It’s not the same. This is a hand-made product that speaks about culture, about craftsmanship, and about tribal embroidery.
SM: And what are these?
PP: We like the idea of using raw materials and that the hand changes the material. This makes it rich and artistic, so it’s not just about the material any more. Any material can be as rich as something made by hand.
MGC: Ebony, with different metals — we love to mix elements with something completely new. But we asked ourselves, what is the reference? Is it wrong to use ebony? The ebony we used is not so perfect — we didn’t want to use something industrial.
SM: Why would you do this in ready-to-wear and not in couture?
PP: Because even in ready-to-wear it is important to have this human touch. Of course you get it in a different way, in a more produced way, but we feel in couture it is important to have unique couture cuts, and the idea of one-of-a-kind is definitely a modern idea. Otherwise couture is one story, ready-to-wear is another, but we want to get the culture of couture into ready-to-wear.
SM: These bags look beautiful. I like the fact that they are proper bags and look useful.
PP: Sometimes couture can border with the custom made, which is good in a way, as it gives this touch, like a serious painting.
SM: Do you both do the drawings?
PP: We do drawings, but our team does too, of course.
MGC (She brings a bag): This has the same print and the champagne colour; the idea of double-face cotton, but also the shoes, the purple, the pink.
MGC: With the mask from the back. We really love each specific piece… You buy one piece and you have the story. Also something like this is made somehow in a couture way, because there is no stitching, only on the top. It’s leather. They can do it without stitching; it’s incredible workmanship. It’s like a single mesh.
SM: I love the way that you’re both always so involved in your collections.
PP: Of course we are!
SM: It’s wonderful that it comes from the heart like that; it’s inspiring.
MGC: We love what we do, we think that we are lucky. We are doing what we love.
PP: Spending more than eight hours a day in a job that you like is very lucky.
MGC: Before that, it’s a hobby. I think you love what you do, no?
SM: I do. I love your mood boards. Were a lot of Italian artists involved in tribal art?
MGC: No, but if you think about Modigliani, also Giacometti was not really Italian because he was from Switzerland and at the time a lot of Italians went to Paris to work. The beauty — so incredible.
PP: This is a way to bring couture to ready-to-wear. Because it’s knitwear, but it’s handmade. So you get the idea of couture. These pieces are all handmade and then you get this, which is wearable every day.
SM: But are they mostly Italian, the people who work for you on these things?
PP: Yes, all Italian people.
SM: All over Italy?
MGC: We have an incredible atelier in Turin, where we are from. We have one incredible atelier for bags in Milan and shoes too. We have a huge staff.
PP: The Turin special atelier was born many years ago. They started with an atelier in Rome because sometimes we have to recreate couture pieces, but it’s really high level. We just opened a school of couture in September. We are interested in having young people from the school work in ready-to-wear. They could bring different perspectives.
SM: I would love to visit.
PP: When you see those guys and girls, you are really inspired, because they say they don’t want to do anything else but what they are doing. A girl will say, “I want to be a seamstress — not a designer, not a premier, but a seamstress.” It’s fantastic, to give back this dignity to the profession.