As couturiers, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli found the idea of the wunderkammer particularly appealing. "In a cabinet of curiosities, the pieces are very unique, very one-of-a-kind," Piccioli said. "We've tried to make something that is not only special, but also surprising, unexpected."

The first surprise of their enchanting Valentino show tonight came on the macro level: The designers, not unlike others this season, put an emphasis on daywear. Couture is not only for ceremonies, they insisted. But wearing a herringbone coat collaged with double-face cashmere etched with lions' heads could turn even going out to the curb and hailing a taxi into a major event. Their cashmere sheaths with curving seams down the front to accentuate an hourglass shape were the least ostentatious and yet the most luxurious dresses of the week. Leonardo da Vinci's quote "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" was front and center on their mood board. The restraint of those dresses could expand the boundaries of the way we think about couture.

Still, most clients want obvious bang for their buck. That's where the micro-level pleasures of the designers' wunderkammer came in. Take, for instance, the scrolls of cashmere caught between a layer of lace and another layer of net on a pencil skirt and matching coat. Or a long-sleeved black dress constructed from laser-cut black astrakhan embroidered with crystals that took five hundred hours to make. Or another coat that looked like silk Ottoman brocade but was actually handwoven from the thinnest strips of raffia. Or the pièce de résistance, a gown and the train that fell from its shoulders stitched with 2,200 river pearls and gold thread.

There were other sublime moments: a long, narrow skirt in a mosaic of feathers, a tapestry coat embroidered with a dragon on its back. Chiuri and Piccioli established a sort of call and response between pieces such as those and others with an almost monastic undercurrent—see the brown velvet, lantern-sleeve, above-the-ankle dress. It's the Valentino designers' mastery of both extravagance and understatement that's the real wonder.