"If fashion is about today, then today it's time to go back to elegance," said Pier Paolo Piccioli, after a collection that put the seal on his and co-designer Maria Grazia Chiuri's creative stewardship of Valentino. "Elegance is subversive," he added. "The real subversion is culture." And, in the duo's eyes, haute couture is a way to flex some cultural muscle.

Piccioli's somewhat opaque words actually helped to explain the paradox of the collection: how something so blatantly pretty, pale, and light could also feel like it had an irresistible germ of, if not subversion, then at least oddness. It wasn't just the penitent hair and makeup, or Freja's opening outfit, in all its vestal virginity. Chiuri said there was a secret in the collection, in the way the pleats fell, the way the sheer fabrics seemed about to reveal something while keeping it hidden. That secret was presumably the girl inside the clothes. If she was covered up, she wasn't demure. The models walked with a diffident hauteur, hardly innocent.

Chiuri and Piccioli's signatures may be delicate—lace, bows, flowers, plissé—but underlying that delicacy is an intense emphasis on workmanship. "Researching lightness, subtracting weight," said Piccioli. The process of subtraction applied equally to the openwork on the seams of an ivory crepe dress (daywear in this collection) and the lace insets that made the trailing eveningwear seem barely there.

Put today's show together with the duo's ready-to-wear and the menswear line they launched in Paris last week, and you get the inescapable sense that they have a genuine vision for the Valentino brand—coherent and seductive, every way you look at it.