How Valentino's Getting Into Wabi-Sabi

Designers are big on Japan, once again.


This week, Tokyo will play host to two major pre-fall collections, from Valentino (for women’s and men’s wear) and Dior (for men’s), while executives from global luxury brands scout the streets of hip shopping districts for the latest twists on retail, which seem to happen here more rapidly than anywhere else. Gucci just announced a collaboration with Comme des Garçons that appeared first in its Dover Street Market flagship. And, yes, that was Nicolas Ghesquière taking a selfie in a wildly popular digital art exhibition called teamLabBorderless, a children’s funhouse filled with nausea-inducing, Instagram-friendly light displays.


Valentino is making an especially strong statement here.


On Monday, one day ahead of its pre-fall show, the company unveiled a unique installation in its Ginza flagship that highlights exclusive products created in collaboration with Japanese designers, artists, and the guru of cool retail, Sarah Andelman, who has turned to consulting since closing the Paris concept store Colette last year.


It looks and feels much less formal than what is normal for a Valentino store, where the starkly elegant travertine interiors by David Chipperfield are now ornamented with playful displays of crimson red origami, modern Noh masks, and racks of iPhone cases and street-style sweatshirts. Some are printed with manga-inspired cartoon illustrations of a snake, a tiger, a dragon, and a butterfly, animals that appear frequently in the Valentino archives, but never before quite like this.


In many ways, as Valentino’s creative director, Pierpaolo Piccioli, recounted on a tour, the installation pays tribute to Japanese concepts of aesthetic and spirit, and in others, it is an exercise in projecting a more youthful and diverse attitude within a storied Italian house famed for its red-carpet dresses and haute couture.


“It’s important for me to get Valentino from a world of exclusivity to a world of inclusivity,” Piccioli said during a press conference on Monday evening. “That means to embrace other cultures and other ideas of beauty.”


While diversity, disruption, and democratization have been the driving forces of fashion in recent years, these globetrotting brands face a delicate challenge in doing so during a moment that is also acutely sensitive to marketing and design choices that might risk suggesting an appropriation of cultural identity. (Or worse, as Dolce & Gabbana demonstrated last week, when an insensitive video, followed by a social media meltdown, led to the cancellation of a fashion show in China and its products being pulled from retailers.)


Valentino’s Tokyo installation was particularly mindful of perception, with a focus on products created in collaboration with Japanese designers. Jun Takahashi of Undercover designed small pouches with altered images of Renaissance paintings. Doublet, a streetwear label, offered sweatshirts with their respective labels embroidered one on top of the other. And the store also features displays of artwork and craftsmanship that are not for sale, including Samurai figures (wearing Valentino logo shower slides) by Tetsuya Noguchi, and self-portrait photography by Izumi Miyazaki, an artist who wears Valentino throughout the images.




Piccioli described the approach as “a conversation between Western culture, Italian culture, and my own, with a Japanese one.” He cited “ma,” the Japanese word for the space between things, and the wabi-sabi ideal of transience and imperfection in beauty, as inspirations for both the store and the collection he will show in Tokyo on Tuesday.


Still, this is a Valentino store, and although many items are far less expensive than a red-carpet gown, they come with a price. Among the most adorable items are those bearing Valentino’s manga characters, which have cute names and backstories. “Vee,” the tiger, is “a mentor with no rivals, she encourages humans always,” and her super-power is strength. “En,” the panther, “was born to be a seducer, always gets what she wants, never regrets a choice.” That’s a relief, because buying a rubber cellphone case in her image will cost you about $140, and a cotton hoodie more than $800.




Some of the least expensive items in the store include a roll of adhesive tape printed with the characters for about $7, and a camo-printed VLTN surgical face mask (commonly worn in Japan) for around $120.




Stefano Sassi, the chief executive of Valentino, noted that while Valentino has long been established in Japan, with 30 stores in the country and two flagships in Tokyo, its future growth in the market will now rely on communicating its creative direction under Piccioli.


“After so many evolutions within the brand, making Valentino more and more alive,” Sassi said, “we had to change also the perception of the brand in Japan.”

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