The house’s artis­tic direc­tor talks fash­ion and fem­i­nism

ELLE (UK) - - September Fashion 2017 - KENYA HUNT

All the good ta­bles at L’Av­enue – the al­fresco ones – are full. Slim, well­dressed 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 SS17, 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.’

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