'Who is your woman' is a question often thrown at designers. Giambattista Valli has a short, sweet answer: he can sweep a hand along his front row, peppered with the sort of boldface names most other designers quote as inspiration rather than actual clients. Klossowski, Niarchos, Radziwill - all dressed to the nines in Valli. Dressing to the nines is what Giambattista does best. It's what to wear before nine - outside of fashion week that is, when cocktail dresses and six-inch heels before noon are the norm rather than a calling girl calling-card - that usually has him stumped.
Valli attempted to address that imbalance in this Autumn/Winter 2012 collection. He opened with a knit tunic, in nubby salt-and-pepper wool, over slender skirt and slender-er trousers. It had pockets, and no discernible waist. It's probably the closest Valli's ever come to a big cozy cardigan. There were other references to loungey leisurewear, matchy-matchy pyjama-style suits of monochrome checks or a russet, rust and black print reminiscent of Rothko. Boucle wool was cut into slim tops, sometimes interspersed with panels of chiffon to give lightness to a slouchy skirt. Once it came fused with a white shirt - like a Chanel jacket - thrown over carrot-shaped trousers and worn with flats. Yes, flats. That's a revolution in Valli's world, and the wardrobes of his women.
Alas, the rest of the world has moved on much faster than the Valli girls. This collection was staid, it felt mired in a vision of dressing that has slid way beyond middle age and is ready to be put out to pasture. There were a few glimmers of excitement, in the gilded excess of a golden crocodile trench, for example, or some of those riotous prints, but they didn't feel terribly Valli.
The couture touches that have always singled out Valli's work were played down: the crystal embellishments, for example, came shrouded under layers of chiffon that only dulled their glisten. Perhaps that's because Valli now has an haute couture catwalk to experiment with pleating, draping, embroidery and the frou-frou evening frocks he does so very well, but the dour seventies-style print dresses he tricked out at the end of this offering certainly couldn't stand up as alternatives to those. More's the pity - Valli's known for pitching his ready-to-wear as more demi-couture than anything else. If you strip away the couture, you're left with half a story. This half would have been better left unsaid. If Valli wants to forge an identity for his ready-to-wear that's entirely separate from his new and newly-burgeoning couture line, he needs to think long and hard about what that message should be.