The house’s artistic director talks fashion and feminism
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.’