Signature looks from the house (l-r): Christian Dior’s New Look (1947); a Dior look by Yves Saint Laurent (1958-59); Dior couture by Galliano – S&M with models’ hands bound together (A/W 00); Dior couture minimalist bar jacket by Raf Simons (A/W 12); ‘We should all be feminists’ (S/S 17).
It is Christian Dior who gazes down gravely from the portrait in oils, whose dresses are in the silver-framed photographs that sit at an elegant slant beneath the white orchids, and whose name is stamped in distinctive sharp-serifed font on the reception desk at Dior HQ on Rue de Marignan. But the living, breathing creative force of today’s Christian Dior, who darts in shaking the rain out of her tousled bob, is a woman. What’s more, Maria Grazia Chiuri is nothing like the full-skirted, doe-eyed figure whose image is conjured up by the name Dior. She wears a black sheepskin coat, flat buckled black shoes and black trousers with a Mod-sharp crease.
Maria Grazia Chiuri is here to reinvent Christian Dior. A house that has been selling feminine charm since 1947 has a woman in charge for the very first time. We walk the curved staircase to the first floor, into a salon with three tall white-shuttered windows, where oval-backed Louis XVI chairs are grouped gracefully around a generous expanse of freshly beeswaxed parquet.
On the staircase we passed Willy Maywald’s famous photograph of 40s Dior house model Renee, her feet posed in a balletic fourth on a cobbled Parisian street in a full black skirt and a white bar jacket. But we are not here to talk about full skirts or the New Look. After 70 years of white-gloved elegance and dove-grey refinement, the house of Dior now stands for something else: feminism. For her Dior debut in the Musée Rodin in September last year, Maria Grazia Chiuri sent on to the catwalk a T-shirt with the slogan “We Should All Be Feminists”, the title of a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Ted talk. So once Maria Grazia, as her team call her, has offloaded her D-fence saddlebag, a millennial-bait crossbody with the DIOR name spelt out in knuckleduster gold, on to the grey velvet upholstery, I ask her why she wanted to put feminism on the Paris catwalk.
“Dior is feminine,” she says. “That’s what I kept hearing when I told people I was coming here. But as a woman, ‘feminine’ means something different to me than it means to a man, perhaps. Feminine is about being a woman, no? I thought to myself: if Dior is about femininity, then it is about women. And not about what it was to be a woman 50 years ago, but to be a woman today.”
Maria Grazia herself is very much a woman of today. Her naturally dark hair is bleached a platinum blond, offset by sooty black eyes; the effect, teamed with her all-black outfit (“I am part of the generation that wears black,” she shrugs), is equal parts Debbie Harry and Donatella. The pussy bow of her sheer black blouse is tied in a rakish slim knot which is Mick Jagger rather than Nancy Reagan. Her hands, barnacled with rings, have an aesthetic that is more Hells Angel than chauffeur-driven: an eagle spreads across three fingers, an enormous pearl balances on another, a jagged flash of green on the other hand.
In the days running up to that first Dior show, Chiuri’s debut was trailed by a series of mini films on the Dior social media accounts under the title The Women Behind My Dress. Women in the modern Dior ateliers, from seamstresses to calligraphers, talked about their role models. The names ranged from Princess Diana to US Senator Elizabeth Warren. As Rihanna, Jennifer Lawrence, Bianca Jagger, Carla Bruni and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie took their seats in the front row, Dior released a pre-show statement that championed Adichie’s work “examining the question of racism and the place of women in society”. In previews, Chiuri had talked to editors not about her obsession with tulle or embroidery but about the influence of Women Who Run With The Wolves, Clarissa Estés’ book about the Wild Woman archetype and the patriarchy’s attempts to suppress her force in society.
“When you are a woman making clothes for women, then fashion is not just about how you look. It is about how you feel and how you think,” she says. I ask her what feminism means to her, but she bats the question away with a wave of those rings. “I am not interested in the old stereotypes, of what a feminist looks like or doesn’t look like. I don’t think there is one way to be a feminist.”
This inclusive agenda is as radical in the arena of Parisian high fashion as the presence of a political slogan on the catwalk. The higher echelons of French fashion are a world in which an image of swan-like unrufflement is maintained at all times and the Dior empire, which dominates prime real estate along Avenue Montaigne and Rue de Marignan, has an atmosphere as rarefied as a Disney castle. It is run by an immaculate female army whose faultless manners never falter. When I choose a seat for the interview, one of the Dior team moves a glass tank of white roses to the adjacent side table, “so that you have a nicer view”.
If the creative director of Dior is a kind of unofficial art director for femininity, then the appointment of a woman to the job after decades of mansplaining is a feminist moment that goes beyond T-shirts. Chiuri has already had a very successful career, alongside bringing up two children who are now both in their early 20s. At 53, she finds herself in a position to seize a new opportunity in a new country, living alone in Paris from Monday to Friday and returning home to her husband in Rome most weekends. “Feminism for me is about equal opportunities. If I am going to stand for something, I would like to stand for this idea: that if you are a woman you can have these opportunities in life.”
Chiuri was born in Rome, studied fashion and spent three decades working in the city, first at Fendi, then for 17 years at Valentino. Her reputation was built on a Midas touch with accessories – she was part of the team that created the Baguette at Fendi, and is credited with the Rockstud shoes and bags that played a huge role in raising both profile and profits at Valentino (the brand reached revenue of $1bn in 2015, two years ahead of forecast). For the last eight years of her Valentino tenure, she and her design partner, Pierpaolo Piccioli, were responsible for ready-to-wear, too. During that time, they blended Rome’s Renaissance past with a punky modern sensibility to create Valentino’s modern bohemian mash-up of hippy-length hemlines, slender feminine sleeves, tightly braided hair and hardware-studded accessories. Chiuri’s husband, Paolo Regini, is a shirtmaker; their son Nicolo, now studying engineering in Rome, and daughter Rachele, a visual arts student at Goldsmiths in London, were born during her Fendi years. “For any woman who works and has a family, it’s not easy. You get home from work and then you need more energy for your family. You need a lot of energy. But I was lucky to have had a husband who always supported me, and that I could afford to pay a babysitter.”
The Dior job was not a decision she took lightly. “We are a traditional Italian family. We ate together every night. So this was a very unusual idea, for us. But when I got the call I thought – at this moment in my life, I could do this. In the past, maybe it wouldn’t have been possible and in the future, well, who knows. Right now, I have the energy to do this.” She left behind in Rome not only her family but Piccioli, with whom she had built a creative partnership. She plays down the significance of working as a solo designer after a career spent in a duo (“All the time, the reality is that there is a team”) but in scrutiny terms, the combination of the Dior scale, the exposure of flying solo and the novelty of her being female have shone a spotlight on Chiuri more glaring than anything she knew in Rome.
Her first real challenge at Dior was more prosaic. “The hardest thing was just to find my office. This place is not just a building, it is a village.” (I can confirm this. What’s more, the miles of corridor and acres of stuccoed salon are done out entirely in the same pale grey and warm white, making orientation possible only by memorising the position of specific Avedon photographs.) One of the first times she left her office, she recalls with a throaty laugh, she had to call her assistant from the street for directions back. “But though the dimensions were bigger than I’d realised, the atmosphere was the opposite. This is a house that looks quite distant from the outside, and quite formal; instead I found a very relaxed, familiar atmosphere.”
She is tickled by the novelty of independent living in her new apartment near the Jardin du Luxembourg. “It’s like a second life! I feel like maybe I am a student at university in a foreign city!” She smiles. She misses Rome – “The weather, the light, the food. I realise how Italian I am about food, since I moved here” – but finds herself charmed by Paris. After the feminist splash of her ready-to-wear debut, the second Dior collection by Chiuri was a pre-fall line-up that took as its starting point Chiuri’s newly adopted city.
But the Chiuri take on Paris, as expressed in an eclectic line-up of slogan T-shirts, houndstooth capes, embroidered denim and tiered lace, is an instructively unconventional one. Not for her the Francophile cliches of café crèmes and bourgeois charm, or the familiar tropes of soignee French Girl dressing which have sold a thousand style books. Chiuri alighted instead on multicultural Paris and the city’s alternative life, citing as influences Harmony Korine’s countercultural film-making and Walter Benjamin’s urban sociology. “A city like Paris is not just French. Paris is a very specific space where many different people live.” Chiuri interprets the ideas and values that this Paris represents to her in clothes. It is a very meta mindset, but she wears it lightly. “There is not just one Paris. I live in Paris now, but in a way I still imagine Paris, do you know what I mean?”
The two people to whom Chiuri most frequently refers are Christian Dior and her daughter Rachele. The two seem to be in conversation in her head: the man who wrote the boilerplate copy for femininity, and the living, breathing incarnation of the modern female. When she had accepted the job, but before she moved to Paris, she read Christian Dior et Moi, the couturier’s autobiography. “When he spoke about his job, he would say, this dress would be perfect for this woman. He wasn’t making the dresses to please himself, he was making them for the women he dressed.”
This idea, of helping women to express themselves, is how Chiuri hopes to channel the founder. “Because it is not possible to have a reference that is a dress from the 50s. It is just too long ago. But the ideas are still modern.” Meanwhile, Rachele regularly takes the Eurostar to Paris, and could be spotted backstage on the day of the first show, eating lunch with her mum. “I listen to her because she is the new generation, and because she doesn’t say anything to please me. I need her real, honest opinion. It is impossible to work in fashion now if you don’t try to understand the new world.”
One of Chiuri’s most radical angles on Dior is the way she collages images from throughout the brand’s history, rather than worshipping at the New Look as if one collection could unlock all secrets, like fashion’s Rosetta Stone. “The Dior history can’t be just about something that happened 70 years ago,” she says. “For many women now, when they think of Dior, they think of [Sarah Jessica Parker wearing a Dior T-shirt in] Sex And The City. Mr Dior was only here for 10 years, so this company is also about all the designers after him – Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, Raf Simons. And Hedi Slimane [at Dior Homme] influenced this brand a lot, so it is not possible to talk about Dior and not talk about Hedi.” She sees herself as “a curator of the idea of Dior”.
The evening after her haute couture show in January, Chiuri had the venue reconfigured to host a blockbuster masked ball, an immersive extravaganza which invited suspension of disbelief at every stage from the “unicorns” who stood guard along the candlelit path (horses with gold horns and masked riders, but still) to the suspiciously handsome tarot card readers. On the banquet table, gold-painted lobsters, and tortoises carved from marble, tangled with swags of ripe grapes and quivering meringue gateaux, all lit as sumptuously as a Caravaggio still life. (Kendall Jenner channelling Audrey Hepburn in black shades, and Bella Hadid in a see-through dress on the dancefloor with A$AP Rocky – that part really happened.) It seemed to stand for a new era of informality and unpredictability at Dior.
The day after the party I went back to the Dior showroom on Avenue Montaigne. I was there for a closer look at the Dior pre-fall collection in all its crazy glory – leopard-print tailoring, blanket coats with logo-stamped hems, polka-dotted sheer knee-high boots – but was struck, traversing those labyrinthine grey corridors, by something else about the Dior look. The female workforce seemed to be mostly wearing black trousersuits, with not a full skirt to be seen. Chiuri herself is, she says, “obsessed with uniforms. Because a uniform is something that helps you live your life.” When she was dreaming up her first Dior collection, she watched Visconti’s 1976 film L’Innocente and was charmed by the beautiful images of fencing. “I thought to myself, this could be in some way a new bar jacket. And if I put it with pants, it could be a modern Dior uniform,” she says. The first look in her first collection became a white fencing jacket modelled by the crop-haired Brit Ruth Bell. “First I just loved the image, but after I saw the film, I started to read about fencing. I love the idea that you go into a duel, but you don’t kill. I think in some ways this is very close to the way I think. I don’t like violence at all. But I truly believe that you must fight for your ideas.”
This article appears in the spring/summer 2017 edition of The Fashion, the Guardian and the Observer’s biannual fashion supplement.
Maria Grazia Chiuri. Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe.