Valentino menswear. Now there's a contradiction in terms. Or, as Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli probably see it, something of a challenge. Then again, taking over the reins of Valentino from the Sheik of Chic and making it a roaring success isn't exactly a walk in the park: one talent stumbled before they came to the helm, and Chiuri and Piccioli have had their occasional faltering steps. Avatar couture, anyone? No, didn't think so.
Menswear, however, has been on their radar for a while: Piccioli gets his suits run up by the Valentino atelier, often in hard-wearing, unpretentious denim rather than the wool voile or silk-cashmere blends you might expect - and last seasons inaugural, low-key menswear presentation veered on the side of Valentino new rather than old. That is, cotton-drill, military detailing and even sneakers. You couldn't get less Valentino than that.
Ignore the hyper-modern LED screens flashing preview-images of the menswear we were about to see: for winter 2012 and the catwalk debut of Valentino menswear, Chiuri and Piccioli turned back to Valentino old. Or at least, they turned to Valentino trademarks. We're not talking rose-tinted femininity, or God forbid lace or ruffles, but Valentino's roots in sixties couture. The clean, crisp and architectonic shapes of that decade, the swinging Balenciaga backs, rounded shoulders and cropped lengths, came reinterpreted as creamy macs and rubbery, chunky nylon overcoats bonded with nylon for a weightless structure. They had a touch of the Mod to them, a slick precision that had Alta Moda stamped all over it. It also, of course, has an air of the Roman Ragazzi, espresso-quaffing, Vespa-toting and sartorially perfect.
Come evening, the formality was kicked-up a few notches. The Valentino man looked ready to dress up - possibly after spending a summer lolling on a yacht in the crisp khaki safari jackets and Japanese denim suits of spring. Hence coats fastened like capes over slick tuxedos, velvet bowties slightly skew-whiff. Was that an ironic reference to the tantrum a preteen Valentino allegedly threw when his mother tried to add a 'coarse' butterfly bow to his ensemble? Perhaps, but 'nudge nudge, wink wink' retro referencing isn't really very Valentino, past or present.
Overall, this collection felt as if it talked about something new for the Valentino team: if the womenswear can often become about surface, about the unabashed luxury and pleasure in gilding fashion's lily, the menswear was an arena for the duo to experiment in shape and form. The wider shoulders, bulky top-heavy silhouettes above pipecleaner legs looked slick and elegant, tapering to a hefty shoe. And one couldn't help but think how much Signore Garavani must love Chiuri and Piccioli's touches of unabashed luxury: the cashmere felts, the satin facings, and the squashy kidskin clutch-bags in flesh, navy and cognac. Nothing shouts Valentino Uomo quite like a man-bag.