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“Truth and roses have thorns about them”, warned Henry David Thoreau, the essayist, poet, philosopher and naturalist wont to living in a wooden hut. Which may be true, but designers just love getting scratched.
Roses represent all the dualities that fashion adores to speak of — fierceness and fragility, youth and decay, romance and repulsion — plus, you know, they look quite good on a frock. “After women, flowers are the most divine creations,” goes another quote, attributed to the late couturier Christian Dior. Which sounds like the kind of greasy charm you might lavish on a client. But as an enduring symbol of a general sense of loveliness, the rose motif serves fashion pretty well.
This season has been particularly bountiful, and roses have flowered on all sorts of catwalks and in every kind of guise. At Prada, they hung in wilted silk corsages. Dries Van Noten plucked “imperfect” specimens from his garden, shot pictures of them and turned them into prints. At Paco Rabanne, Julien Dossena used a rose print to essay “old-school Hollywood” on a tight satin skirt with a Roxy Music-era train.
At the show entitled “Rose” at Noir Kei Ninomiya, the flower made for glorious bouquets. Ninomiya, a protégé of the Japanese brand Comme des Garçons, and under whose umbrella he still shows, had used the flower both as dressing and adornment. Working with the floral artist Azuma Makoto, each of his 32 looks included a rose headpiece with flowers so fragrant they filled the catwalk with a lovely rosy fug. Later in the collection, the flower became an actual detail on the dresses or, rather, great pink rose-strewn cocoons. As a reminder to stop and smell them, it was really rather cute.
At Valentino, roses were the centrepiece of a recurring print throughout designer Pierpaolo Piccioli’s AW19 show. Designed to represent a montage of “modern romanticism”, the print was developed by Jun Takahashi, of the streetwear label Undercover, with whom Piccioli now regularly works: the pair collaborated on their menswear shows at Pitti Uomo, and an Undercover print appeared in the Valentino pre-collection, too. Alongside the roses, the print featured a Renaissance sculpture of a couple kissing, a starry constellation and lines of love poetry. The poems had been commissioned by Valentino, and the contributors included Greta Bellamacina, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Robert Montgomery and Mustafa The Poet. Here’s a fragment, by Daley-Ward: “Roses are always armed; that should tell you something.”
What it told me was that this collection was a love bomb. And, with its sheer sorbet-coloured fairy dresses, goddess gowns and prints aplenty, it was about as subtle as a whack around the head. But hey, when in Rome (which is where Valentino is headquartered), it’s easy to let emotions run amok. Besides, Piccioli must be feeling pretty loved up right now. He’s enjoyed a near perfect year of critical acclaim, red-carpet glory (last week he whipped up another showstopper, for actress Brie Larson, in the perfect shade of Captain Marvel blue) and the general adoration of his fans. He picked up the prize for best designer at the Fashion Awards in December. That he was conveying a sense of “modern romanticism” with this collection wasn’t much of a surprise.
But you can have too much of a good thing. So many roses, so much print and such an insistent theme made this courtship a little too intense at times. I craved the simpler seductions of his purer designs — such as the full-length gown in ivory, so plain it looked almost monastic, a stunning off-white trouser suit, a drapey damson dress in silk and wool crêpe that looked a bit Grecian, another in crimson red. But these were parcelled out like little treats between the lover-print peacoats and appliquéd capes.
It’s possible Piccioli could be the victim of his own success. His signature style — swooning gowns in the couture manner — has been so tremendously successful that it’s also been tremendously picked up. Rare has been the catwalk this season that hasn’t featured at least one dress in a saturated colour, and in the same extravagant, voluminous style. This collection suggested that he feels some pressure to move on and offer something different. That he doesn’t want to get stuck in the same creative trap.
There will always be other gardeners out there, and some will cultivate the same variants of rose. But Piccioli can rest easy: few will ever smell as sweet.
Jo Ellison will be hosting the FT’s Business of Luxury Summit in Madrid on May 19-21. For more information visit ftbusinessofluxury.com
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