Gracia Phang experiences the magic of Italian Renaissance under the historic arches of the Summer Palace in Beijing.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Looks from Valentino’s “Daydream” haute couture collection and Pierpaolo Piccioli’s mood board. 

With the hypnotic strains of Maria Callas reverberating down the hallowed halls of the Summer Palace in Beijing, a vision of pink loveliness emerged from the shadows, glittering like a disco ball courtesy of the silver sequins that covered her turtleneck sweater. Chinese model Cai Guannan slowly walked down the runway, her face emotionless yet beguiling from the shimmery silver paint covering every pore—a brilliant touch from makeup maestro Pat McGrath that brought to life her fantastical version of a silver screen siren.

For one enticing evening in November last year, the very same ancient halls and courtyards in which courtesans and Empresses scuffled on their tiny bound lotus feet sounded with the familiar stomp of heels to music as models filled the Summer Palace, which once housed guests of Empress Dowager Cixi over a century ago. That night, it hosted a fashion audience who were guests of Valentino’s Creative Director Pierpaolo Piccioli. Everyone was there to watch “Daydream”, a one-off haute couture collection where the lines of sportswear and high fashion were blurred, and East and West collided with magical results.

Exaggerated silhouettes, rich fabrics, bold colour and embellishments such as metallic embroidery defined the 45-look collection. Think jacquard coats in emerald; organza dresses with 3D floral appliqués; canary yellow feathered gowns; enormous bow details in gold and scarlet; and bejewelled accessories that obscured much of the models’ faces. 

My Reading Room
My Reading Room
My Reading Room
My Reading Room

From top: Close-ups of the looks featuring lace, embroidery and flower appliqués. A model’s face covered entirely in silver glitter, teamed with red lips and winged liner.

On the flip side, sporty culottes, athletic backless dresses and runner-style turtleneck tops shared the spotlight in Pierpaolo’s couture, defining what constitutes modern dressing today: a hybrid of styles and silhouettes not defined by occasion, fabric or season.

It was the second-last look, though, that truly captivated. The crowd let out a collective gasp as a silver-faced model, He Cong, stepped out in a magnificent long-sleeved sequinned silver gown complete with a balaclava—pure, otherworldly fashion fantasy, a palette cleanser among the exuberance of colours, feathers and exaggerated bows that came before it.

Setting the splendour of the Italian Renaissance against the opulence of imperial China, the showcase was a meeting of two vastly different cultures, with Piccioli displaying his Italian sensibilities in an unexpected context, bringing together two old worlds in harmonious new ways. A peek at the creative director’s mood board showed images of artwork by the early Italian Renaissance masters he loves, alongside painted portraits of imperial Chinese rulers and photographs capturing the architectural detail and decorative elements of the Summer Palace. These inspirations came through in the couture collection in the patterns, colours and embellishments used, revealing the rich aesthetics of two grand cultures that came to life in his masterful hands. And for that one magical night, the best of Italy and China became the perfect balance of yin and yang.