A conversation with Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri before the presentation of their new couture collection for Valentino quickly took a turn for the metaphysical. "If you don't think about fashion, you just do clothes," said Piccioli. "Fashion needs culture or it becomes empty." The duo found their cultural spine in the finest flowering of French thought, keying in on the eighteenth century's Age of Enlightenment and particularly the return to "real" values that Rousseau endorsed in his State of Nature philosophy. "Couture is a real value," Piccioli added. "It's not superficial."

But it was Marie Antoinette role-playing in her little farm on the grounds of Versailles who provided the collection's ambience. The first model seemed to arrive in the salons of the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild on a breath of cool country air. Sprigged flower prints covered almost everything. An antique fabric alchemy transformed taffeta into equally antique-looking blurred floral chaîne. The sense of precious old artisanship was also evident in the swirling bouilloné decoration. The volumes were diaphanous, bucolic, like the cloud of point d'esprit scattered with organza lace cutouts. The designers sought a "deep lightness." It was beautifully exemplified in dresses with up to five layers of lace and organza.

Examined up close in the atelier, the workmanship defied comprehension. The stitching was so fine it was invisible. It signaled the heart-stopping delicacy that distinguished the collection. But there was a real resilience, too. Hence the use of cotton amidst the lace, organza, and filigree, as in a coat with tone-on-tone embroidery that felt embossed. Hence also the flat shoes, which loaned their own kind of grace to the purity of an ivory coat dress decorated with tiny spirals (Piccioli compared them to stucco). A chaîne skirt had deep, useful pockets. Smocking was a rustic detail. There was a casual quality that made the clothes ultimately feel more modern than their long-sleeved, high-necked, and lace-gloved propriety would at first suggest.

Chiuri pointed out that she and Picciolo come from an accessories background, where they learned to tell a big story with a small object. That skill is now writ large in the collections they are designing at Valentino. Today's story was their most exquisite yet.