Talk about drama. Given Dior’s yearlong hunt to fill the role ofcreative director, the scandal that had opened the position in the firstplace and Raf Simons’ blockbuster finale for Jil Sander punctuatingwhat was, in effect, his unceremonious, bizarre firing, the designer’sDior show on Friday afternoon would prove the most eagerly awaitedready-to-wear debut at a major house in years.

Well worth everydrop of anticipation and every second of the wait, Simons blew pastexpectations. In 14 dazzling minutes (albeit with lots of intense workprior), he thrust Dior into a place it hasn’t been in some time, a placewhere clothes count as more than glossy foils around which to explodecash-cow accessories and beauty businesses. This collection pulsed withthat Holy-Grail fusion of currency and cool.

It’s difficult toimagine Simons’ emotions during the prelude to the big event. If at allunnerved, he gave no indication in a preshow conversation with WWD.Unlike his open, bright white front-of-house, Simons’ private salonbackstage was tented in black and fitted with a dark sofa and a pair ofchairs. Calm but animated, the designer was open about his thoughtprocess coming into Dior and declared his exit from Sander “so out of mysystem.” He also took issue with past characteristics of himself as aminimalist.

“Everyone thought I was a minimalist,” Simonsnoted of his tenure at Sander. “I love minimalism. There will often bethat kind of aesthetic; that kind of concept will be very often a partof my world. But it’s not the only thing that I’m interested in.”

He would soon illustrate that point in a collection that establishedDior’s new baseline: controlled but decorative, feminine, sensual. And,to use his word, “liberating,” a concept he insisted was first broughtto the house by its founder.

While by today’s standards theNew 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 fantasyagain, and the whole idea about sensuality and the female body. And [thefocus on] the waist, and the hip and the breast. It was a way offreeing up from a certain kind of restriction.”

Simons wants towave the freedom flag as well. While he considers the current rush ofminimalism often attractive and “probably necessary,” he identified alack of forward motion resulting in too-familiar clothes and a mundanedilution of the original concept. “Why does it look so related to whatit was in the Nineties? That’s my question. Why is it so much whitecotton shirting [buttoned] up to the neck? And why do I not see sex, andwhy do I not see fun in that world, and why do I not see movement inthat world? And why do I not see the female body in that world? I thinkit’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 thelead-up to this show, Simons immersed himself in the house archives andpondered how to best achieve such integration. In fact, he had aconsiderable head start. Beginning with his “couture” collection forSander several seasons ago, he had begun to incorporate more obviousflourish into his work. For Dior, he liked the notion of a futuristicspin, not only in the expected (from him) intellectual sense of constantforward projection, but in the more playful fashion sense, through aSixties lens.

Consider it done. Guests approaching the showvenue, the courtyard of the Hôtel National des Invalides, came upon asquare white box of a pavilion, its Corbusier-esque midcentury modernitypristine against the bright sky. One couldn’t help but feel instantrefreshment. And extremely well treated. As much as 25 minutes beforethe 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 — SalonRose, Salon Bleu — all with multiple windows of various square andrectangular sizes from which hung featherweight pastel curtains.Suddenly all those black-box show spaces we trudge and trip through sooften felt old and ominous.

But a well-run door and prettysetting only go so far. A fashion show is about the clothes, and Simons’were stellar. Here was not the lyricism of his emotional goodbye atSander, but a strong, confident entrée that blasted a big-pictureobjective. It stated from the outset that, unlike those breezy curtains,these clothes are not window dressing. These are clothes for women tobuy and wear not only for big evenings but during the day, somethingwith which Dior has long struggled. Simons strengthened the point viajudicious use of handbags. Yes, accessories matter; there’s time enoughahead to ply the audience with bags signature and seasonal. Dior isfirst and foremost a fashion house.

Simons opened with a seriesof smokings. Despite takes on the Bar and nods to his own couturecollection in July, one might have perceived a tiny tease thrown YSL’sway. The first three models out wore wide ribbons around their necks —an unfettered update on Dior’s use of chokers. Other archival elementscame in a focus on pleats and riffs on the Ligne A and Ligne H jackets.Some fabulous short coatdresses — he called them jacket-dresses — werecut with waists; others, falling away from the body in that languidA-shape. Making these more than exercises in perfect tailoring:unexpected embroideries and flashes of iridescence in overlays or insetpleats. “I wasn’t interested in white shirts or big, still pants andthings you automatically connect with ‘minimalist,’” Simons said. “I’minterested in how to make tailoring sensual and feminine.”

Dresses came as LBDs (one featured a plain front and quiver of pleats inback) and in a more colorful, more decorated and more surprising rangethat referenced the Sixties without getting lost there. “That period wasabout freeing up,” Simons said. “The thought process was futurist. Theymade the mini, the loose A-shapes — free, free, free. That is whatinterests me for Dior.”

Throughout, Simons kept the surprisescoming: flyaway veilings over lean sheaths, a row of sequined floralbuttons down the back of a bodice, a geometric bar of embroidery at thehem of a coatdress. Evening featured thin black sweaters with big skirtsin iridescent silk florals and, conversely, shiny “cutoff” ballgownsover black. Either way, a delightful modernist distortion of a classic.Maison Dior is in good hands.

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