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Talk about drama. Given Dior’s yearlong hunt to fill the role of creative director, the scandal that had opened the position in the first place and Raf Simons’ blockbuster finale for Jil Sander punctuating what was, in effect, his unceremonious, bizarre firing, the designer’s Dior show on Friday afternoon would prove the most eagerly awaited ready-to-wear debut at a major house in years.
Well worth every drop of anticipation and every second of the wait, Simons blew past expectations. In 14 dazzling minutes (albeit with lots of intense work prior), he thrust Dior into a place it hasn’t been in some time, a place where clothes count as more than glossy foils around which to explode cash-cow accessories and beauty businesses. This collection pulsed with that Holy-Grail fusion of currency and cool.
It’s difficult to imagine Simons’ emotions during the prelude to the big event. If at all unnerved, he gave no indication in a preshow conversation with WWD. Unlike his open, bright white front-of-house, Simons’ private salon backstage was tented in black and fitted with a dark sofa and a pair of chairs. Calm but animated, the designer was open about his thought process coming into Dior and declared his exit from Sander “so out of my system.” He also took issue with past characteristics of himself as a minimalist.
“Everyone thought I was a minimalist,” Simons noted of his tenure at Sander. “I love minimalism. There will often be that kind of aesthetic; that kind of concept will be very often a part of my world. But it’s not the only thing that I’m interested in.”
He would soon illustrate that point in a collection that established Dior’s new baseline: controlled but decorative, feminine, sensual. And, to use his word, “liberating,” a concept he insisted was first brought to the house by its founder.
While by today’s standards the New Look hardly seems liberating, Simons begged to differ. “Mr. Christian Dior was giving a reaction to the aesthetic of the moment, which was a restrictive aesthetic,” he argued. “He brought fantasy again, and the whole idea about sensuality and the female body. And [the focus on] the waist, and the hip and the breast. It was a way of freeing up from a certain kind of restriction.”
Simons wants to wave the freedom flag as well. While he considers the current rush of minimalism often attractive and “probably necessary,” he identified a lack of forward motion resulting in too-familiar clothes and a mundane dilution of the original concept. “Why does it look so related to what it was in the Nineties? That’s my question. Why is it so much white cotton shirting [buttoned] up to the neck? And why do I not see sex, and why do I not see fun in that world, and why do I not see movement in that world? And why do I not see the female body in that world? I think it’s interesting to bring part [of minimalism] into the world of Dior, but I also want to make it very sensual and sexual and very free. Liberated is probably the most important message.”
In the lead-up to this show, Simons immersed himself in the house archives and pondered how to best achieve such integration. In fact, he had a considerable head start. Beginning with his “couture” collection for Sander several seasons ago, he had begun to incorporate more obvious flourish into his work. For Dior, he liked the notion of a futuristic spin, not only in the expected (from him) intellectual sense of constant forward projection, but in the more playful fashion sense, through a Sixties lens.
Consider it done. Guests approaching the show venue, the courtyard of the Hôtel National des Invalides, came upon a square white box of a pavilion, its Corbusier-esque midcentury modernity pristine against the bright sky. One couldn’t help but feel instant refreshment. And extremely well treated. As much as 25 minutes before the stated show time of 2:30, people were — get this — allowed in. To their seats. There they found a series of spacious salons named after colors — Salon Rose, Salon Bleu — all with multiple windows of various square and rectangular sizes from which hung featherweight pastel curtains. Suddenly all those black-box show spaces we trudge and trip through so often felt old and ominous.
But a well-run door and pretty setting only go so far. A fashion show is about the clothes, and Simons’ were stellar. Here was not the lyricism of his emotional goodbye at Sander, but a strong, confident entrée that blasted a big-picture objective. It stated from the outset that, unlike those breezy curtains, these clothes are not window dressing. These are clothes for women to buy and wear not only for big evenings but during the day, something with which Dior has long struggled. Simons strengthened the point via judicious use of handbags. Yes, accessories matter; there’s time enough ahead to ply the audience with bags signature and seasonal. Dior is first and foremost a fashion house.
Simons opened with a series of smokings. Despite takes on the Bar and nods to his own couture collection in July, one might have perceived a tiny tease thrown YSL’s way. The first three models out wore wide ribbons around their necks — an unfettered update on Dior’s use of chokers. Other archival elements came in a focus on pleats and riffs on the Ligne A and Ligne H jackets. Some fabulous short coatdresses — he called them jacket-dresses — were cut with waists; others, falling away from the body in that languid A-shape. Making these more than exercises in perfect tailoring: unexpected embroideries and flashes of iridescence in overlays or inset pleats. “I wasn’t interested in white shirts or big, still pants and things you automatically connect with ‘minimalist,’” Simons said. “I’m interested in how to make tailoring sensual and feminine.”
Dresses came as LBDs (one featured a plain front and quiver of pleats in back) and in a more colorful, more decorated and more surprising range that referenced the Sixties without getting lost there. “That period was about freeing up,” Simons said. “The thought process was futurist. They made the mini, the loose A-shapes — free, free, free. That is what interests me for Dior.”
Throughout, Simons kept the surprises coming: flyaway veilings over lean sheaths, a row of sequined floral buttons down the back of a bodice, a geometric bar of embroidery at the hem of a coatdress. Evening featured thin black sweaters with big skirts in iridescent silk florals and, conversely, shiny “cutoff” ballgowns over black. Either way, a delightful modernist distortion of a classic. Maison Dior is in good hands.