Cultural Appropriation: In Their Own Words: Pierpaolo Piccioli

By Miles Socha, WWD

“I think it is essential to do as much as I can to immerse myself in that culture so I can try to understand the references as much as possible,” the designer says.

“Our emotions about African culture, the idea of beauty [achieved by] the interaction of different cultures, the idea of tolerance, this is the message we wanted to deliver,” Pierpaolo Piccioli told WWD in 2017, speaking about Valentino’s then widely praised spring 2017 collection.

The theme extended into the advertising campaign, lensed by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry in a Maasai village between Kenya and Tanzania.

Several years have passed, and sensibilities have changed. Here, Piccioli shares his latest views on cross-cultural inspirations.

WWD: What has compelled you in the past to reference other cultures? How does this feed your creativity or design process?

Pierpaolo Piccioli: Every creative process is an open source that takes and gives back. Referring, looking, talking to other cultures, as you said, is what we do on a daily basis because it is part of the natural mind-set of our job. I think it is essential to do as much as I can to immerse myself in that culture so I can try to understand the references as much as possible. It is my job as a creative director to amplify the voices of that culture and try to give back as a way to thank the culture for the creative inspiration it has given me. Social media has dramatically changed the perception of what “other cultures” means to us, everything is global now. No matter how far you are you can be perceived as very close. But this is the trick, this where we should all be careful.

The point is to establish how to look at other cultures, without incurring in the mistake of “taking” without understanding. The big, huge difference is always based on culture, knowledge and awareness.

WWD: Do you ever take inspiration trips, travel with your mind, or do research in other ways?

P.P.: Of course. I constantly use traveling and theoretical research as a source of inspiration. Curiosity leads to movement, movement to discovery and discovery to reinterpretation, it has always worked in this way, at least for me.

I think that subtracting some “purpose” from the cultural trips and let reality strike you with no pre-conception of any kind helps gain a very privileged and natural point of view, preserving the wonder without which no creative process is possible. And of course places can offer a huge amount of inputs, but in the end what really inspires me are people, human beings, with their story, with their personalities, humanity is the real inspiration.

WWD: Have you ever faced accusations of cultural appropriation? If so, when, and how did you react?

P.P.: Every one of us has faced such critics. I remember a collection designed with Maria Grazia that was highly influenced by African cultures and even shot in that landscape, followed by skeptical comments. I listened carefully to the objections coming from external observers and reflected about the implications of our aesthetic choices: although they had been done with complete respect and creative freedom, we had the duty to consider their social and emotional impact.

WWD: Have you changed the use of cross-cultural references, or your methods, given current sensibilities?

P.P.: Yes, I think I modified my way of looking at diversity while becoming more familiar with it. Nowadays I talk about things that I know, mainly, and keep paying homage every now and then to some of the ones I love, but that are not necessarily part of my background. The caution I use toward different cultures does not only derive from others’ sensibility, but also from my personal consciousness and limits. I know myself better and enjoy the pleasure of this strengthening of identity. On the other hand, being more aligned with your own personality helps you dialoguing with others in a more natural and harmless way.

WWD: Does fashion risk losing anything, or gaining something, if designers limit themselves to their local culture?

P.P.: Those designers who belong to a very defined, limited, shaped society raise their hands. We may come from cultural specificities, we may love our background and be experts of our local traditions, we may preserve our heritage with pride and seriousness, but we live in a world that has loosened its borders, at least the mental ones. Which means we cannot stick to a confined reality while taking part in a universal imaginary and cultural landscape.