‘I’m very re­laxed when peo­ple crit­i­cise me ’

ELLE (UK) - - September Fashion 2017 - THE IN­TER­VIEW Maria Grazia Chi­uri

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 matter-of-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 AW17 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 OK 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 AW16, she ex­plored the fenc­ing kit, with its padded vests, breeches and sneak­ers. For SS17, 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, “OK, 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.’

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