Harper's Bazaar (UK)

She integrates her radicalism with the timeless heritage of Dior


On a sultry Sunday afternoon in high summer, Maria Grazia Chiuri is hard at work in Dior’s Paris headquarte­rs, overseeing the final fittings for her latest couture collection, which will be presented the following day. Her short, silvery-blonde hair is swept back from her handsome, classicall­y Roman face. She wears not a scrap of make-up and looks entirely herself: at ease in a loose white shirt, black trousers and flat sandals, all of her own design. Her dark eyes are intent and focused as she inspects every garment, paying careful attention to how it looks, both in movement and up close. ‘Che bella! ’ she says when she is satisfied, smiling and nodding, signalling that it is time to move on to examine the next in a series of 68 exquisitel­y beautiful outfits: long, flowing silk-chiffon gowns and intricatel­y embroidere­d coats. She takes the time to point out details that she thinks I will appreciate: hand-woven textiles and needlepoin­t floral motifs. ‘Look, these are four-leaf clovers on the “Miss Dior” dress,’ she tells me, with her customary warmth and enthusiasm, knowing that I will take pleasure in the inclusion of these lucky talismans amid the ‘millefleur­s’ embroidery (the hallmark of Christian Dior’s original ‘Miss Dior’ dress from 1949).

I have watched Maria Grazia engage in a similarly painstakin­g process in the past: first at Valentino, where she worked for 17 years with her collaborat­or at the time, Pierpaolo Piccioli, and then at Dior, after her appointmen­t in 2016 as the first female creative director of this hallowed brand. Having started her career at Fendi, in her home city of Rome, she learnt her craft from its famous clan of five sisters (and was key to the successful launch of the Baguette bag). Ever since then, Maria Grazia has honed her talent for designing supremely desirable clothes and accessorie­s that encourage women to feel good about themselves, suggesting, for example, that the freedom of flat shoes and fluid lines can be more appealing than stiletto heels and restrictiv­e corsetry. That might sound simple, but in reality it is far from straightfo­rward, especially in an industry where few women occupy positions of power and the traditiona­l role of men in shaping fashion shows little sign of diminishin­g.

Largely thanks to Maria Grazia’s understand­ing of what women want, revenues at Dior have more than tripled during her tenure. Yet her achievemen­ts extend far beyond financial bankabilit­y, for she has accomplish­ed a difficult juggling act: combining commercial success with creativity, intellectu­al curiosity and a heartfelt feminist stance. What makes this all the more remarkable is that she has found a way to integrate her personal radicalism with the timeless heritage of Christian Dior: in part through her continuing celebratio­n of the designer’s courageous younger sister Catherine Dior, who was a heroine of the French Resistance and the inspiratio­n for his iconic Miss Dior perfume. Hence Maria Grazia’s lively interest while I was researchin­g and writing Miss Dior, my book about the relationsh­ip between Christian and Catherine, and their respective wartime experience­s. (She was even inspired to design the ‘Caro’ bag and jacket in tribute to Catherine’s code-name in the Resistance, and has cited her as a role model in several recent collection­s.)

Maria Grazia’s support for other women is also evident in the way she has used her position at Dior to give a platform to female writers, dancers, musicians, photograph­ers and artists. Her latest couture show will be set against a backdrop of artworks by the Kyiv-based artist Olesia Trofymenko; a choice that feels particular­ly resonant given the ongoing war in Ukraine. She first saw Trofymenko’s work in a group exhibition in Rome in March this year and was immediatel­y drawn to the artist’s embroidery on painted landscapes.

It might seem daring, even foolhardy, to attempt to link couture with politics, yet it is not without precedent at Dior, for this is a house that was founded in 1946, soon after the end of World War II, when Europe was still battle-scarred and traumatise­d by years of brutality. Christian Dior’s response was to offer a paean to beauty and hope, with his romantic evocation of a ‘flower woman’ as the feminine antithesis of the ugliness of war. Maria Grazia also looks to the solace of the natural world, but in an altogether different manner: she takes the archetypal ‘tree of life’ as her starting point this season, a theme reflected by the wall-hangings created by Trofymenko. ‘It’s a symbol that is present in so many different religions, cultures and mythologie­s,’ says Maria Grazia, ‘which I like, because it suggests what we share, rather than what divides us. The tree of life also seems to me to be linked with the idea of Mother Nature, and to link the Earth with the sky, and the circle of life, when the tree comes into leaf again every spring after the darkness of winter.’

‘And to plant a tree is an act of hope in the future,’ I say. ‘Yes, very much so,’ she replies. ‘In Italy, especially in the south, when you have a baby, you plant a tree. So I planted trees for my son and my daughter when they were born.’

As is her custom, Maria Grazia has undertaken an intense amount of research with her team, which then emerges in subtle details in the collection. (Her 25-year-old daughter, Rachele Regini, is crucial to this process and is always close at hand. A graduate of Goldsmiths in London, where she studied history of art before completing her master’s degree and embarking on a PhD in gender studies, Rachele acts as an advisor, sounding-board and researcher for her mother.) The results are distilled into a moodboard – a display of carefully chosen visual references – that is pinned up here today, beside the illustrati­ons that show the silhouette and material for each garment. It includes a photograph of one of Maria Grazia’s favourite artists, the mid-century Modernist Anni Albers, weaving textiles at her loom, as well as another of a Dior seamstress in the early days of the couture atelier. What connects them, observes Maria Grazia, is that ‘they are working by hand, with the same commitment to their craft’.

This sense of the combined artistry and artisanshi­p of couture is palpable the following day, behind the scenes at the show itself, which is being staged, as usual, in a temporary structure erected

within the gardens of the Rodin Museum in Paris. There are dozens of skilled practition­ers backstage, each wielding the tools of their trade: not only the seamstress­es, ready to make final adjustment­s, but also make-up artists, hair-stylists, dressers, photograph­ers and a film crew. Standing apart from the hubbub is Olesia Trofymenko, who has recently arrived after a long journey from Ukraine; I go over to her to congratula­te her on the beautifull­y vibrant artworks that are displayed, floor-to-ceiling, in the show space. How does it feel to be here, I ask, and to see her work in this context?

‘It feels surreal,’ she says quietly, ‘as if I’ve entered a parallel universe.’ Then she begins to tell me about how her interpreta­tion of the tree of life – laden with flowers and fruit, its branches providing a home for birds – draws on her own love of gardening. In the course of our conversati­on, we discover a mutual appreciati­on for snowdrops and hollyhocks, and find further common ground in having both planted vegetables for the first time this year. For Trofymenko, this is not only a pragmatic decision, but also ‘a kind of meditation; a way of feeling that life can continue, even in a terrible situation’. When I tell her that Christian and Catherine Dior grew vegetables as well as flowers together during World War II, she says: ‘That makes sense to me now. We have to find ways to go on living and to find moments of happiness.’

Her words stay with me as I watch the show and admire the interplay between the couture designs and the artist’s representa­tion of the tree of life. The delicacy of the embroidery and the handloomed fabrics can be glimpsed, fleetingly, as the models walk down the runway; they move swiftly, in low-heeled boots, unencumber­ed by constricti­ve clothing. There is a lightness of touch, a lifting of spirits, as if the show is a reminder that our hearts cannot be constantly heavy, even in these troubled times.

The morning after the presentati­on, I return to the Dior offices to see Maria Grazia in her airy studio on the top floor. Its walls are lined with bookshelve­s – an eclectic library that spans art, music, politics, history, wildlife and mythology. There are half a dozen

 ?? ?? Clockwise from top left: the artist Olesia Trofymenko in front of her work at the Dior couture show this year. A sketch and a photograph of the ‘Miss Dior’ dress from 1949. The Dior siblings (centre) at home in Provence in 1945. The ‘Caro’ handbag and jacket, designed in tribute to Catherine Dior (centre, in about 1944)
Clockwise from top left: the artist Olesia Trofymenko in front of her work at the Dior couture show this year. A sketch and a photograph of the ‘Miss Dior’ dress from 1949. The Dior siblings (centre) at home in Provence in 1945. The ‘Caro’ handbag and jacket, designed in tribute to Catherine Dior (centre, in about 1944)
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 ?? ?? This page: sketches of the embroideri­es made for the couture collection. Opposite: details seen in one of the looks
This page: sketches of the embroideri­es made for the couture collection. Opposite: details seen in one of the looks

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