In a nod to house founder Christian Dior’s mysticism, Chiuri embellished frothy party frocks with tarot-inspired symbols (seen here on the cotton candy-tressed models Frnanda Ly, left, and Lineisy Montero in the salon historique of M. Dior). Photographed by Patrick Demarchelier, Vogue, December 2016.
As the new artistic director of the storied house, Maria Grazia Chiuri drew from the great names who shaped its past—and from the girl-power style of her daughter, Rachele.
It is the beginning of September, and the calm in the Dior design studio on Paris’s Avenue Montaigne is almost preternatural. This is especially surprising considering that the new collection is due to be shown in less than a month and that Maria Grazia Chiuri, the house’s new peroxide-blonde, panda-eyed artistic director, arrived only in mid-July. Ten days later, Europe closed up shop for the summer holidays.
Chiuri’s debut collection was designed in two weeks, but even with the demands of fabric research, fittings, and castings—not to mention setting the tone for a brave new vision at the house—she has firmly resisted chief executive Sidney Toledano’s suggestion to postpone showing until November. To speed up the process—and to Toledano’s evident stupefaction—Chiuri also insisted on traveling herself to the factories in Florence that produce many of Dior’s accessories prototypes, instead of dispatching her minions. She was glad that she made the trip. “It’s unbelievable,” she says, “a beautiful atelier. And the people are very happy to build something new. If you want people to give the best, it’s important that they feel that they’re part of this project, that we’re building something special all together.”
In short order, she had also found a light-flooded apartment with views of the Luxembourg Gardens—but not for her the limousine purring outside 24/7. Instead, she is relishing the prospect of a half-hour walk to work every morning through new terrain. (Chiuri worked at Valentino for seventeen years, during which time her Paris life was proscribed by the intimate geographical circle comprising Valentino’s Place Vendôme HQ, the Ritz, Le Meurice, Colette, the Galignani bookshop, and the Angelina tearoom.)
Chiuri’s daunting task is made somewhat easier by the fact that Dior has her undivided attention. Her predecessors Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, and Raf Simons all juggled the demands of their own-name brands along with the complex luxury machine that is Dior, and not all of them survived the ordeal unscathed. But at 52, Chiuri is a very different sort of creative director—one whose no-nonsense pragmatism seems uniquely suited to the task at hand. “This kind of pressure could be dangerous if you don’t maintain balance,” she says firmly. She generally arrives at work at nine and leaves by seven. “I don’t like to work at night,” she says. “I prefer to go out to dinner, to see some friends. I put a lot of passion in this job, but I want to maintain control of my life.” She returns to Rome for the weekends to spend quality time with her husband, Paolo Regini, and their son, Nicolo, now 24, who is studying engineering there. The couple’s daughter, Rachele, 20, who is studying art at Goldsmiths in London, regularly makes the Eurostar commute to see her mom.
At Dior headquarters, Chiuri has her office in one building but her design studio in another around the corner, with pretty views onto rooftop terraces planted by Galliano with lush gardens of lemon trees, roses, Japanese anemones, and oleanders that have now reached romantic, messy maturity. “The brand is so huge,” Chiuri tells me. “There are so many buildings. It’s a little village!” In her first week, she asked for an organigram of the company structure but was told that her office was not big enough to display it; meanwhile, nearly 2,000 Dior employees are expected to attend the traditional annual Sainte Catherine and Saint Nicolas Day party on November 25, at which young single men and women don specially designed yellow-and-green Stephen Jones chapeaus.
It is a corporate world away from the family culture at Fendi—then dominated by the five formidable Fendi sisters—where Chiuri worked for ten years after studying fashion in Rome. With her longtime Fendi collaborator Pierpaolo Piccioli, Chiuri eventually left for Valentino, where the duo initially worked together on accessories. “It was another family in a way,” says Chiuri of their subsequent working life with Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti.
In 2008, following Garavani’s retirement and the brief tenure of Alessandra Facchinetti, Chiuri and Piccioli were appointed co–creative directors of Valentino. In short order, they used the house codes to create a compellingly ethereal image for the brand, along with a strong accessories base—a strategy that reestablished Valentino as a global influencer. (When Chiuri moved to Dior, Piccioli assumed the overall creative directorship for Valentino.)
Chiuri maintains that she and Piccioli have a good relationship—and each attended the other’s debut collection. “Working together was an incredible experience,” she says, “but the situation changed. Honestly, I never thought in my life that I could move from Valentino to Dior, but when they approached me, I said, ‘I’m 50. If I don’t test myself now, when do I?!’”
As she had at Valentino, Chiuri has delved into the brand’s history to extract her own vision. “If you think only about M. Dior, I think that you have lost your heritage,” she says, pointing out that Christian Dior himself was at the helm of the company he created for only ten years. (Dior died of a heart attack in 1957 while taking the waters at Montecatini, after which his dauphin—the brilliant, fragile 21-year-old Yves Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, assumed direction of the house.) “We have to understand that it’s possible to use the past in a modern way for modern women.”
With this end in mind, Chiuri has sampled elements from all the Dior designers—the elaborate underpinnings of Christian Dior’s 1954 Moulin Rouge dress, the Trapeze Line flare of Saint Laurent’s 1958 Roma dress, the gentle pleats of Marc Bohan’s retro dresses from the early seventies, the bravura white blouses that were Ferré’s signature, the industrious bee motif of Hedi Slimane, and Galliano’s street-smart j’adore dior T-shirt—and married them to the idea of historic fencing uniforms. The symbolism is clear: “You have to fight for what you really want in life,” she says. “But in fencing, you don’t kill the other person—you touch the heart.”
Chiuri is styling even the most fanciful tarot-motif-embroidered ball-gown skirts in a breezy, contemporary way that owes a debt to the looks her daughter puts together. “Of course she’s my muse,” says Chiuri of Rachele. “I really love fashion and I know what I like for myself, but I never think about myself, honestly.” When Chiuri first wanted to dress her daughter in the sort of romantic, pretty clothes that would become her calling card at Valentino, Rachele complained that she was being treated like a dress-up doll. “You have to listen to what they really want,” says Chiuri, who dutifully switched her focus for her daughter from froth to Goth. “Sometimes it’s the kids that teach the mother.” Chiuri credits this experience with helping her understand the needs of Dior customers, who span vast cultural divides. “Women are faceted, with different moods,” she says, “and we love the idea of a new generation of Dior girls that express themselves freely by mixing different elements together.”
The family’s adventuresome holidays always involve mother-and-daughter fashion foraging. They recently hit the Marrakech souk (the embroidered cardigan jackets that Rachele found there are her new wardrobe staples), went completely gaucho with ponchos and riding boots in Buenos Aires, invested in vintage kimonos in Japan, and plan on hitting the emporia of India for the Christmas holidays.
Paolo—a shirtmaker in Rome—watches all this from an amused distance. “He’s a very elegant man,” his daughter tells me. “I’ve never seen him wearing a T-shirt in his life. And my brother only wears blue, navy, gray, and white; he’s not very into fashion.” His mother confirms that Nicolo has never worn anything with a logo or from a luxury brand. The first time she proudly brought him a pair of the new Valentino sneakers she had designed, Nicolo took one look at them and said, “I’m sorry, but. . . .” “He likes simple things, simple shapes, and good quality,” says his mother.
Rachele was more excited by Chiuri’s fashion life. When her schedule allowed, she took time off school to attend her mother’s fashion shows. “I’m very proud of what she does,” Rachele says. “She’s such a great example and inspiration to me—as a woman with a career, and as a mother. Every woman should have the right to do both, and I’m so grateful to my mum for teaching me that.”
“We have a very strong relationship,” Chiuri says, “and I think she keeps me young, honestly. My children have a different point of view—they pose you new questions, and you have to find new answers.”
At Dior, those answers have had to be found fast. Chiuri laughingly admits that her tenuous grasp of French and her quirky English make the communication process easier. “I haven’t been taught the words to use to be polite,” she explains, “No. Yes. In. Out!”
Today, Chiuri has back-to-back meetings, first with event designer Alexandre de Betak to discuss the runway set, which is inspired by the fencing room in Visconti’s lush 1976 Belle Epoque film L’Innocente—a touchstone for Chiuri and her family, who curl up to watch movies every Sunday afternoon. (“No flowers,” she tells de Betak firmly.) Then she meets with sound designer Michel Gaubert—Chiuri wants to sample the inspirational Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TED Talk that Beyoncé featured in her song “Flawless.” (Chiuri is using the Nigerian writer’s “We Should All Be Feminists” mantra on message T-shirts.) In between are a host of other meetings to discuss such minutiae as the paper quality for the lookbooks, the font for the show invitations, and the details of the showroom—from the mannequins to the display modules—where the collection will be presented to buyers. She wants this to look “like a concept store, so that you see the product very well—I’m obsessed with visual merchandising,” she says. On the global level, she is also rethinking the Dior boutiques, which she finds too cold and old-fashioned. “We have to move this brand into the future,” she says, “and not everyone comes to the show—many people meet the brand in the store. They should understand immediately that something changed.”
She is also exasperated with the circus of the traditional show presentation itself—hence the visual palette cleanser of de Betak’s coolly gray “fencing room”—but even though she insisted that the guest list be sliced by a third, she was mortified that her mother, along with Pierre Cardin (who worked as a tailor on Dior’s 1947 New Look collection), was lost in the frenzied backstage melee of heavily styled brand ambassadors. Steely of purpose as she is, one suspects this status quo will soon be bent to her will.
After all, “Dior is a couture house,” as Chiuri avers, “and now luxury is very close with the idea of craftsmanship. Sometimes the image is so important that you forget the human touch, but the atelier gives an emotion. They put love and passion in what they do.”
After the show, which took place at the Musée Rodin, Chiuri took a week to relax with her family in Rome before working on the pre-fall collection and the all-important haute couture, to be shown in January. “I believe in couture,” she says. “I believe in craftsmanship: It’s in my culture and in my heritage.” (Chiuri’s mother was one of the skilled dressmakers who once abounded throughout Italy.)
Though Chiuri notes that Dior designers have traditionally used the couture as a laboratory of ideas to be adapted for the ready-to-wear collections, “for me it’s not the same culture,” she says. “In couture, we have to use another language. It has to be special, unique, extravagant—each dress in some ways is a piece of art, I hope. It’s very exciting. It’s a beautiful story. We like a fairy tale!”
Rachele, meanwhile, is living her own fashion fairy tale. The day after the show, she is already wearing the new Dior satchel purse slung across one shoulder of her Moroccan jacket, and she is coveting the leather fencing jacket shown on the runway. “It was hard sometimes having a mum doing such a tough job,” she confides. “But it has its advantages as well!”
“Of course she’s my muse,” says Maria Grazia Chiuri of Rachele, 20. Mother and daughter pause for a portrait the day after Chiuri’s Dior debut. Photo by Patrick Demarchelier, Vogue, December 2016.