In the 70th year of the sto­ried Parisian house, game-chang­ing artis­tic di­rec­tor Maria Grazia Chi­uri talks fash­ion and fem­i­nism

ELLE (Australia) - - Fashion -

All the good ta­bles at L’av­enue – the al­fresco ones – are full. Slim, well-dressed men and women tuck into even skin­nier rose­mary fries and flutes of cham­pagne, while Chris­tian Dior, Chanel and Louis Vuit­ton hand­bags snooze on seats next to them. The chic restau­rant hums with the melodic din of voices steeped in the lilts of Monaco, Mi­lan, Hong Kong and Moscow, while chauf­feured cars-in-wait­ing hum out­side. A woman walks in – her hair un­ruly, her jeans stiff and her T-shirt plain – with a gi­ant tote bag that reads, “Fem­i­nist”, the black­ness of its can­vas throw­ing each bold let­ter into sharp re­lief. Wel­come to Maria Grazia Chi­uri’s Paris.

In a way, the en­trance of that un­known woman with her loud and proud bag in the swish restau­rant mir­rors the Ital­ian de­signer’s ar­rival at Chris­tian Dior – the first fe­male artis­tic di­rec­tor in the house’s 70-year his­tory – as much as it re­flects the change hap­pen­ing in the fash­ion world right now. “There’s some ar­gu­ment that peo­ple’s be­liefs are po­lit­i­cal and so they pre­fer not to speak about them. But if you have a point of view, I think you are po­lit­i­cal in some way; ev­ery­thing is po­lit­i­cal now,” Chi­uri tells me later that day, when I ask about her own open­ing fem­i­nist state­ment, which she mem­o­rably made dur­ing her de­but with the house last Septem­ber.

Born in Rome, Chi­uri is still ad­just­ing to hav­ing to speak French as much as she does English, and tends to pause thought­fully be­tween words. We’re sit­ting in an in­cred­i­bly bright, plush sa­lon in the com­pany’s Paris head­quar­ters on rue de Marig­nan. With her plat­inum-blonde bob, gothic eye­liner and logo kit­ten heels (Dior, of course), she cuts a stark con­trast to her soft, gen­teel sur­round­ings. This will be­come a theme in Chi­uri’s story. When she showed her de­but col­lec­tion, it was her se­ries of plain white T-shirts shout­ing, “We should all be fem­i­nists”, that spoke the loud­est, rather than the up­dated Bar jack­ets and ethe­real tulle skirts. The col­lec­tion’s sporty, quilted fenc­ing vests and jack­ets and bags with knuck­le­duster logo straps in gold hard­ware couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent from the work of her pre­de­ces­sors, in­clud­ing the grandiose gowns of John Gal­liano and el­e­gant fem­i­nin­ity of Raf Si­mons. A few months later, her AW17-18 col­lec­tion, done al­most en­tirely in navy and filled with tai­lored work­wear and sturdy denim, drove home her change in di­rec­tion. At Chi­uri’s Dior, the re­al­ity of women’s lives would not take a back seat to the fan­tasy.

“It was about my vi­sion for women now,” she says. “There’s some­times this think­ing that if you’re in fash­ion, you can­not speak about your time; you can­not look around at life and what prob­lems there are at the mo­ment. I have a huge in­ter­est in this, be­cause if you have kids, you think about their fu­ture; you want to know what’s hap­pen­ing in the world.”

When Dior an­nounced its ap­point­ment of Chi­uri in July 2016, the world was em­broiled in the af­ter­math of Bri­tain’s EU ref­er­en­dum and the build­ing in­ten­sity of the US elec­tion, one in which fem­i­nist dis­course reached a new high as it be­came clear a Trump pres­i­dency could put ba­sic women’s rights at stake. Chi­uri says she had to ac­knowl­edge the po­lit­i­cally charged cli­mate and the evolv­ing re­al­ity of the women she de­signs for. “It’s not pos­si­ble to not speak about it. I think to be fem­i­nine now – and this brand speaks about fem­i­nin­ity – to speak about the way you dress your­self, your point of view, you de­fine your­self in the way you want. Be­cause fash­ion on one hand is a beau­ti­ful dress, but if there’s no mes­sage, it’s just a beau­ti­ful dress.”

Her vi­sion for the house was divi­sive. At her de­but, the au­di­ence gave a stand­ing ova­tion, while women the world over cel­e­brated Chi­uri’s strong mes­sag­ing on so­cial me­dia with zeal­ous re­grams and a cho­rus of “Hell, yeah!”. But some fash­ion crit­ics

dis­ap­proved of her mat­ter-of-fact ap­proach to the clothes. They com­plained her col­lec­tions were too com­mer­cial, im­ply­ing that denim and T-shirts were too pedes­trian for one of the in­dus­try’s most revered houses. No mat­ter: other de­sign­ers fol­lowed her lead by pro­duc­ing po­lit­i­cally minded col­lec­tions, and the AW17-18 sea­son was an ex­plo­sion of this, com­plete with protest-slo­gan tees. “I think to speak about any ar­gu­ment is good,” says Chi­uri. “Some ar­gu­ments need to be fo­cused on: equal­ity, in­tol­er­ance, many dif­fer­ent ar­gu­ments. Be­cause in one mo­ment it can change. So I’m very re­laxed when peo­ple crit­i­cise me; it’s okay and I don’t worry about it too much,” she laughs.

The mixed re­sponse to Chi­uri’s time at Dior so far has brought to mind the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing an­other high-pro­file de­but, Hedi Sli­mane at Saint Lau­rent in 2012. His grunge baby-doll dresses and rocker skinny trousers dis­mayed some long­stand­ing mem­bers of the fash­ion press, but shop­pers loved the change and the house’s prof­its dou­bled in three years. Only time will tell if Chi­uri will have the same im­pact at Dior. She cer­tainly had the Mi­das touch at Valentino, where, with her co-cre­ative di­rec­tor Pier­paolo Pic­ci­oli, she helped quadru­ple sales be­tween 2009 and 2016. But the de­signer seems in­tent on push­ing the house to a place where it be­comes a woman’s go-to for her dayto-day wardrobe, as well as for spe­cial oc­ca­sions.

In a way, the uni­form – an idea that epit­o­mises the no­tion of wardrobe ba­sics – has be­come the con­duit. For SS17, she ex­plored the fenc­ing kit, with its padded vests, breeches and sneak­ers. For AW17-18, it was the work­wear of the women who kept WWII-ERA fac­to­ries afloat (denim boil­er­suits), mixed with el­e­ments of the ’60s mil­i­tant’s uni­form (util­ity jack­ets, leather berets). “The uni­form in­flu­ences the fash­ion world,” she says. “There are so many uni­forms for work, and they all give dif­fer­ent mes­sages. I think it helps you to be more con­fi­dent in your­self. There are other mo­ments where you want to pro­tect your­self, and it can be used in this way. So my mes­sage is to find your per­sonal uni­form. It’s not al­ways easy for women to de­fine their iden­tity, plus so­ci­ety pushes on us a vi­sion of this when we’re young that we prob­a­bly feel isn’t right for us. You need to work to dis­cover what your per­sonal iden­tity is.”

In Chi­uri’s case, her ex­is­tence as an Ital­ian woman, a mother and an ex­pat im­pacts her work the most, with the de­signer talk­ing about her ca­reer as a fam­ily ef­fort. “When I moved from Valentino to Dior, it wasn’t only about Dior but rather a per­sonal thing. I wanted to test my­self. I’m 53, you know; it’s a time where you see your life in a dif­fer­ent way. You’re not young, but you are young enough to have the en­ergy to do some­thing new. I dis­cussed it with my fam­ily, try­ing an­other ad­ven­ture in an­other coun­try. And they told me, ‘Okay, now is the right time.’ My son Ni­colo is 23; my daugh­ter Rachele is 20; my hus­band loves Paris and can travel. We can do this now.”

And she de­scribes her early days as a par­ent – tak­ing Rachele to work dur­ing her time at Fendi – as trans­for­ma­tive. “This job is part of my life,” she says. “In many ways I share this job with my fam­ily – some­times too much. We grew up in fash­ion, the whole fam­ily; it’s a strange sit­u­a­tion. I have a photo of Rachele, Ni­colo and me in the fac­tory when they were kids. Just imag­ine: a small Ni­colo walk­ing around the show­room with the bags. I was very lucky to start with the Fendi fam­ily be­cause it was five sis­ters with kids and they un­der­stood me per­fectly. I would say any woman needs the sup­port of her fam­ily to be suc­cess­ful, but par­tic­u­larly in fash­ion, I think, be­cause it’s such a unique busi­ness. It’s not like it starts at 9am and ends at 5pm.”

Chi­uri lives in Paris full-time, her hus­band Paolo Regini owns a shirt­mak­ing ate­lier in Rome, where Ni­colo is a stu­dent, and Rachele is at uni­ver­sity in Lon­don. But the dis­tance hasn’t damp­ened their close­ness. Her daugh­ter’s in­flu­ence is reg­u­larly ap­par­ent in her work through Chi­uri’s de­sire to un­der­stand and ap­peal to the mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion. “I think they’re very in­spir­ing, be­cause they have an­other point of view about life. The new gen­er­a­tion are the new clients.” And she cites her re­la­tion­ship with both her chil­dren as a di­rect in­flu­ence on her de­ci­sion to be vo­cal po­lit­i­cally. “I have a daugh­ter and a son and that changes your point of view. I started think­ing: what’s hap­pen­ing now? I live in Italy – well, I live ev­ery­where now; I don’t know where I live! – but in Italy there is a very tra­di­tional, ma­cho cul­ture. And I thought it was not right for Rachele to stay there.” So she moved her to Lon­don when she was 17. “I wanted to push her in a more mul­ti­cul­tural di­rec­tion; for her to see a dif­fer­ent point of view. And I dis­cov­ered other women felt the same about this tra­di­tional view of women; that there was the risk we were go­ing back to the past. And I said, ‘We have to do some­thing about this.’”

So per­haps we shouldn’t ex­pect the mes­sage to leave the dress any­time soon. Chi­uri’s cou­ture col­lec­tion, shown this July at Paris’ Hô­tel Na­tional Des In­valides, was about ad­dress­ing “all kinds of wom­an­hood”, and un­der­lined her un­fussy take on glam­our (bor­row­ing heav­ily from menswear in the process). Un­der Chi­uri’s vi­sion, women have places to go and bat­tles to win, much like the de­signer her­self. “I’m very happy the world is giv­ing dif­fi­cult po­si­tions to women. Ev­ery­one was so sur­prised when Dior gave me this op­por­tu­nity. But why? Be­cause it’s not the usual. I want to see a fu­ture in which women have more sol­i­dar­ity. To­gether we can make a dif­fer­ence. But we need to do it to­gether.”

SHOW STOP­PER Maria Grazia Chi­uri pre­pares to take a bow after pre­sent­ing her de­but Dior col­lec­tion

GRAND EN­TRANCE The Co­quette dress from Dior’s au­tumn/win­ter 1948 haute cou­ture col­lec­tion

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