Giambattista Valli is unique in contemporary fashion: a relatively young designer who nevertheless had the privilege of training first-hand with one of Haute Couture's all-time greats, Emanuel Ungaro. Understandably, the vestiges of this background continues to skew his work - Valli does cocktail dresses and embellishment, high heels and full make-up. Casual is not on his radar. Hence while many designers have looked to Africa for inspriation this season, none have managed it with quite the cosmoplitan polish and pizzazz of Valli. His was a distinctly Western ideal of the safari - 'l'Afrique' rather than Africa was the stomping ground, his women roaming the velvety veldt of the Couture salon floor rather than unchartered wilds. That said, this season there was a new excitement and energy on Valli's runway, precisely because he chose to relax his trademark hauteur-than-Haute aesthetic and let his girls descend from their pedestals and out onto the street. That was expressed with the show's breakneck pace - an utter contrast with the often stifled gait (the Giambattista teeter, maybe?) caused by his marriage of hobble-skirted frock with platform heel. For spring, the teeter was no more as Valli lightened up his trademark intricately-worked surfaces and considerably loosened up those uptight silhouettes. Skirts were full, abbreviated well above the knee with trembling decoration highlighting their fluid movement. Africa came through in the workmanship, surfaces bristled with sequins in imitation of woven raffia, while tribal 'grass' skirts were composed of degrade ostrich feathers or, even better, layers of shredded leather fringe in black, sand or even turquoise. These fronds frothed at the hip of Valli's shimmying skirts or down the backs of little sack-dresses - the best, in that peppy lapis turquoise, was teamed with a voluminous grey cotton shirt for a stunningly simple summer look. These fringed fancies, coupled with twenties-style drop-waists and brief, frilled party frocks, were reminiscent of Josephine Baker electrifying interwar Paris with La Revue Negre. Chiffon numbers frothed out into exquisitely delicate flapper dresses, jewel-coloured in sand, black or lush green with full, swingy flounced skirts. Indeed, in a season packed with uncontrollable milles-feuille frills, Valli's versions of these fripperies - whether firm wool ruffs framing a neck or an unabashed explosion of raw-edged chiffon at the hip - were some of the best. Vibrant big-cat patterns in ocelot-print pepped up a chunky fur coat, appeared as a shorts-and-shirt safari combo and was inserted in a band around a stand-out colour-block shift dress. Valli's clothes are always beautiful, but in a first, this show suddenly seemed exuberant, youthful and accessible. Rather than the usual reverent parade of beautiful but rather fusty Couture revivals, these were energetic, elegant garments women the world over will not only want to wear, but actually can.
Valli does cocktail dresses and embellishment, high heels and full make-up. Casual is not on his radar.