Lady Dior

As Dior cel­e­brates its 70th year with three block­bust­ing ex­hi­bi­tions in Paris, Mel­bourne and New York, cre­ative di­rec­tor Maria Grazia Chi­uri cel­e­brates her first at the house. Kenya Hunt meets her in Paris

ELLE (Malaysia) - - AGENDA FEA­TURE -

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 their own­ers, gold and sil­ver chain-link han­dles coiled around sleek, lo­goed leather bod­ies like ex­otic snakes sun­ning in the desert. The chic restau­rant hums with the melodic din of mel­liflu­ous 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 on her arm that reads ‘FEM­I­NIST’, the black­ness of its can­vas throw­ing each large, bold Hel­vetica let­ter into sharp relief. Wel­come to Maria Grazia Chi­uri’s Paris.

In a way, the en­trance of that un­known woman with the loud and proud tote bag in the swish restau­rant mir­rors the Ital­ian de­signer’s ar­rival at Chris­tian Dior – the first fe­male artis­tic di­rec­tor in the com­pany’s 70-year-his­tory – as much as it re­flects the change hap­pen­ing in the fash­ion world right now.

“There is 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 her about her own open­ing fem­i­nist state­ment, which she mem­o­rably made dur­ing her de­but with the house last Septem­ber. A na­tive Ital­ian speaker (Chi­uri was born in Rome), she’s 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, re­mark­ably plush sa­lon in the com­pany’s Paris head­quar­ters on rue de Marig­nan. With the ex­cep­tion of her plat­inum-blonde bob, Chi­uri is a vi­sion in black, from her gothic eye­liner to her vo­lu­mi­nous, an­kle-length skirt and lo­goed kit­ten heels (all Dior, of course), and 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 in cap­i­tals, ‘WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS’, in­spired by the nov­el­ist Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie’s es­say, 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 hip-hop knuck­le­duster logo straps in gold hard­ware couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent from the work of her pre­de­ces­sors, in­clud­ing the re­gal, sweep­ing, grandiose gowns of John Gal­liano and soigné fem­i­nin­ity of Raf Si­mons. Chi­uri’s sec­ond col­lec­tion, for A/W ’17, done en­tirely in navy blue 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,” says Chi­uri. “Be­cause Dior is a fem­i­nine brand. But what makes me speak about women to­day? That’s a ques­tion that ob­sesses me. There is some­times this think­ing that if you are in fash­ion, you can­not speak about your time; that you can­not look around at what’s hap­pen­ing, 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,” she says.

When Dior an­nounced its ap­point­ment of Chi­uri last July, the world was em­broiled in the con­fus­ing af­ter­math of the 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 it was im­pos­si­ble for her not to ac­knowl­edge the po­lit­i­cally charged cli­mate or the evolv­ing re­al­ity of the women she de­signs for. “I work in fash­ion, so I have to also speak about this. 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 rau­cous 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 al­though Dior’s pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive Sid­ney Toledano ap­prov­ingly de­scribed Chi­uri as a “very di­rect per­son, con­crete, prag­matic” when telling Women’s

Wear Daily why Chi­uri was the right woman for the job, some fash­ion crit­ics dis­ap­proved of her mat­terof-fact ap­proach to the clothes. They com­plained her col­lec­tions were too com­mer­cial, im­ply­ing that denim, boiler suits and T-shirts were too pedes­trian for one of the in­dus­try’s most sto­ried and revered houses, one that gen­er­ates roughly €5bn in an­nual sales. No mat­ter: other de­sign­ers fol­lowed her lead by pro­duc­ing po­lit­i­cally minded col­lec­tions, and the A/W ’17 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:

“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.”

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 crit­i­cal re­sponse – so strong, so di­vided – 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 baby­doll 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 whether Chi­uri will have the same im­pact at Dior. She cer­tainly had the Mi­das touch at Valentino, where, to­gether with her cocre­ative 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 day-to-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 S/S ’17, she ex­plored the fenc­ing kit, with its padded vests, breeches and sneak­ers. For A/W ’17, it was the work­wear of the women who kept World Word II-era fac­to­ries afloat (sturdy denim dun­ga­rees), with el­e­ments of the Six­ties mil­i­tant’s uni­form (the util­ity jacket, leather berets) mixed in. “In some way, the uni­form in­flu­ences the fash­ion world,” she ex­plains. “It de­scribes the peo­ple that use it, as there are so many uni­forms for work, and they all give dif­fer­ent mes­sages. I think some­times 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 are young that we prob­a­bly feel isn’t right for us. And so 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. Through­out our con­ver­sa­tion, she talks 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, Nic­colo, 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. 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, Nic­colo and I in the fac­tory when they were kids. Just imag­ine: a small Nic­colo 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,” she says. “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, while Rachele is in Lon­don, at­tend­ing Gold­smiths Univer­sity; her hus­band, Paolo Regini, owns a shirt­mak­ing ate­lier in Rome, where Nic­colo is a stu­dent. But the dis­tance doesn’t seem to have 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 are very in­spir­ing for me, 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’s gilded 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.”

Scenes from ‘Chris­tian Dior, Cou­turier du Rêve’ at the Musée des Arts Dé­co­rat­ifs in Paris

The ‘Junon’ gown, de­signed by Chris­tian Dior in 1949

The om­bré petal skirt was in­tended to re­sem­ble pea­cock feath­ers

Chris­tian Dior at home in 1946

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