DIOR NEXT DOOR – cel­e­brat­ing 70 years and New Zealand’s role in it

As the French la­bel cel­e­brates a sig­nif­i­cant birth­day, Jes­sica-belle Greer re­dis­cov­ers the New Zealand es­tab­lish­ment that played a part in its global suc­cess.

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Cris­tian Dior is cel­e­brat­ing its 70th an­niver­sary, and with this comes flow­ing cham­pagne, cou­ture col­lec­tions hark­ing back to the mai­son’s bril­liant be­gin­nings and ex­hi­bi­tions that en­able us to ap­pre­ci­ate the magic of the la­bel up close. At the haute cou­ture Fash­ion Week show in Paris in July, cre­ative di­rec­tor Maria Grazia Chi­uri paid homage to founder Chris­tian Dior with sil­hou­ettes in­spired by the brand’s ar­chives. Af­ter­wards she toasted the open­ing of ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive Chris­tian Dior: De­signer of Dreams at the Musée des Arts Dé­co­rat­ifs, where an army of man­nequins in nipped-in waists and vo­lu­mi­nous skirts are on dis­play un­til Jan­uary.

Closer to home, Mel­bourne’s Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria is paint­ing the walls Dior grey for The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Cou­ture ex­hi­bi­tion. But Auck­lan­ders who wish to revel in the brand’s his­tory need only to walk up the cen­tral city’s Kingston Street to the sign that has in­trigued fash­ion fol­low­ers for decades. It reads: El Jay – Man­u­fac­turer Un­der Li­cence of Chris­tian Dior – Prêt-à-porter.

Peer through the dusty win­dows, past the Auck­land store’s faded façade, and you’ll find an ex­act replica of Chris­tian Dior’s orig­i­nal sa­lon on Av­enue Mon­taigne in Paris. De­spite the New Zealand du­pli­cate clos­ing its doors around 30 years ago, its or­nate re­cep­tion chairs re­main in the foyer along with an el­e­gant porce­lain hound, the last soul left to watch over the res­i­dence. The sa­lon was built by late fash­ion de­signer and art pa­tron Gus Fisher in the 1960s, when he owned suc­cess­ful la­bel El Jay and was the New Zealand agent for Chris­tian Dior. A per­sonal friend of the French founder, he was privy to the orig­i­nal plans of the famed head­quar­ters.

Be­fore El Jay shut up shop – and many of its sam­ples, fab­rics and more were sent to the ar­chives in France to in­spire the next gen­er­a­tion of de­sign­ers – the premises brimmed with the lat­est fash­ion from Europe. Adorned with gilded mir­rors and fresh flow­ers in the colours of the sea­son, the ground-floor show­room hosted guests and fash­ion shows. As well as the hum of the El Jay work­rooms on the sec­ond and third floor, a sep­a­rate, se­cre­tive Chris­tian Dior workspace on the first floor op­er­ated at a slower pace. Us­ing the cou­ture meth­ods of the Parisian ate­lier, it re­pro­duced se­lect styles one piece at a time from the same pat­terns, and of­ten the same ma­te­ri­als.

Hav­ing built a rep­u­ta­tion for top-qual­ity, stylish designs with El Jay, Fisher was scouted to be a li­censee for Chris­tian Dior in 1953. The pre­mium brand was then only six years old and seek­ing to ex­pand its reach while in­ter­na­tional trade was still re­stricted. Fisher signed an agree­ment with Dior him­self while the full­skirted

‘New Look’ was in full swing, and was de­lighted to be hand-picked by one of the most in­flu­en­tial la­bels of the time. “When he got the of­fer, he was thrilled to bits,” says Fisher’s son, Michael. “He was deeply hon­oured by the whole thing.”

Founder of the New Zealand Fash­ion Mu­seum, Doris de Pont, who cu­rated Look­ing Ter­rific: The Story of El Jay in 2010, says the styles Fisher brought to our shores added a con­ti­nen­tal flair to the do­mes­tic fash­ion scene, which of­ten looked to Eng­land for sar­to­rial cues. He trav­elled to Europe twice a year to view the lat­est col­lec­tions and keep up with the in­dus­try’s elite, forg­ing a friend­ship with Dior. After Dior’s un­timely pass­ing in 1957, Fisher formed a work­ing re­la­tion­ship with his suc­ces­sors, pro­tégé Yves Saint Lau­rent, then de­signer Marc Bo­han.

“I got the im­pres­sion it was a very ex­cit­ing world,” says Michael. “He rubbed shoul­ders with lead­ing de­sign­ers – some­thing had to rub off on him.”

For­mer model and friend of Fisher Anne Feigel (née Mc­clurg) says he ar­rived home from his trips in­spired to trans­late what he saw into looks that would con­nect with the lo­cal mar­ket. “I loved work­ing with him be­cause he was the most in­cred­i­ble, cre­ative per­son.”

Feigel says the Chris­tian Dior by El Jay gar­ments she mod­elled were glo­ri­ous. “When you walked into the show­room, you knew you looked a mil­lion dol­lars – you couldn’t help it.”

In fact, ac­cord­ing to de Pont, a go­ing-away out­fit, like the pink linen piece pur­chased by a cus­tomer who kept the re­ceipt, cost just over £33, the equiv­a­lent of half a day’s av­er­age salary.

As well as be­ing a man of style, Fisher was an ex­act­ing de­signer. Michael de­scribes him as a “hu­man pho­to­copier”, sketch­ing ev­ery last de­tail as the dresses swanned through the Parisian par­lour.

His at­ten­tion to de­tail suited Chris­tian Dior well. As spec­i­fied un­der the agree­ment, Fisher sent gar­ments and sam­ples to the French head­quar­ters for in­spec­tion, but after 20 years, he was told he no longer needed to, be­cause the qual­ity-con­trol team knew ev­ery but­ton would be in its right­ful po­si­tion. On Chris­tian Dior’s 40th an­niver­sary, he was sent a gilded plaque con­grat­u­lat­ing him as the long­est-stand­ing li­cence holder for the brand.

Fisher sold a lim­ited num­ber of the Chris­tian Dior designs to lead­ing lo­cal re­tail­ers, in­clud­ing Smith & Caughey’s and Bal­lan­tynes, and opened his own store, The French Shop, in Re­muera, where he stocked his more ad­ven­tur­ous en­sem­bles that weren’t picked up by the depart­ment stores. In their charm­ing cock­tail dresses, sleek lit­tle black dresses and per­fectly ex­e­cuted suits and coats, his cus­tomers were the chicest in town.

“He thought he had a mis­sion to help ev­ery woman look her best,” says Michael. “I’m very proud of him for fol­low­ing his pas­sion with such style.”

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