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When I was much younger — a mere girl, really — I was thrilled to be invited to a luncheon given by the great Christian Dior. As one can imagine, everything was magnificent, but it was the dessert that captivated me: a large chocolate egg. I cut into mine right after he did and out poured hot chocolate sauce. You know I have a sweet tooth, and I was in Heaven.
I’ve never forgotten the courtesy of Dior and the smile on his face as he cut into that egg. He was the Humpty Dumpty of fashion (but never fell off the wall).
After lunch, he extended a rare invitation for me to watch him work on his next collection. We went downstairs into the all-gray salon, sat in the little golden couture chairs and out came the first mannequin. She wore a suit called the Three Swallows. Dior lifted the long stick he always used when he worked, pointed to the sleeve and said in his quiet voice, “I think something is wrong with the sleeve. It’s too thick. I think we need to fix it.”
Right away, the premier seamstress of the suit atelier cut into the arm and removed some of the padding. As it came out, a huge smile came across Dior’s face, just like when he was consuming his chocolate egg.
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You could tell his joy in making a collection and it made you feel happy, too. The way he directed the design staff and touched the clothes, you could tell he was the type of man whom people would strive to do their best for because they liked him so much. He was a Grand Monsieur, and there were — and are — very few in the fashion world.
Dior then invited me upstairs to the atelier to show me the toile of the Three Swallows suit. In those days, and only sometimes today, designers worked in canvas toile to settle on the shape of every style. After the toiles were completed, they would then match the fabric to the shape rather than the other way around.
Some of those toiles were later in high demand by the manufacturers of Seventh Avenue, who bought them in paper (they were too cheap to buy the toiles themselves) to knock off the designer creations for Middle America. Those were the days when the runways still ruled fashion.
Having seen the toiles and the collection in progress, I was eager to see the show. At that time, the Dior couture shows were only for the press and important ladies. There were no major celebrities other than the Duchess of Windsor. The audience would file in, kiss Suzanne Luling, the directrice of the salon who was almost as tall as a giraffe, whom they adored, and then find their chairs.
There was the occasional hiccup. On one very hot day, the show was delayed because of one of the great fashion editors, Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar. She didn’t travel with an entourage, unlike some fashion editors today, but arrived alone and asked if she could have a daiquiri. They quickly made her one — and then the audience waited, and waited and waited. It turned out that poor Carmel had accidentally locked herself in the bathroom and they had to remove the door to get her out. When she walked into the salon, the entire audience applauded.
There were personalities then who were personalities simply to be that, not for publicity or to get a blog. At that time at Dior, the Marquis Robert de Maussabre worked in public relations. One day, to protest France’s high taxes, the marquis blew up his chateau, which his family had owned since 1894 and which had been classified as a historic monument. It naturally created a sensation — but France’s taxes are still high.
The couture shows represented the best of fashion and were done with a romantic feeling that only the air of Paris can give. There was no pushing or shoving; it just happened in a formal but cozy way. The show began with each model getting a slight ripple of applause, and near the end, with the evening dresses, the applause grew stronger. Dior sat unseen behind the curtain, although one time I glimpsed a skinny young man with glasses peeking out through it as the mannequins passed. It was the young Yves Saint Laurent.
After the show ended and as the audience left, a crowd of passersby filled Avenue Montaigne. They applauded and cheered as Dior came out onto the balcony of the maison and waved. It was a tradition that continued for years, even after Dior’s death and once Saint Laurent and others took over.
The French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phrase plus ça change but things do change. The gentility of those Dior days is long gone. There’s nothing cozy about fashion any longer, and over the next six weeks, as the fashion masses schlump through New York, London, Milan and Paris, it will be one big circus with thumping music, migraine-inducing lights and endless pushing, shoving and trying to figure out who the C-list celebrity in the front row is and why she is there.
It’s all very serious, overly Hollywood-ized and all for overly egocentric designers. The shows have a lot of flash and dash but no quiet elegance.
But everything comes to an end. Talking privately with Dior, I once asked him if he was ever interested in the reviews of his collections. He said no, there was so much work to do that he was on to the next one right after he finished the last.
He became exhausted by it all, and a few years later, while taking the cure in Montecatini, he died of a heart attack at age 52. We were all stunned and very, very saddened. When it came time to write the headline for the story in WWD, it was simple:
Enough to Say Dior.