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Fashion Diplomacy

Sixty years to the day since Christian Dior presented his first collection in Paris, an exhibition documenting the designer's special and often surprising relationship with Germany opened at Berlin's Kunstbibliothek.

Sixty years to the day since Christian Dior presented his first collection in Paris, an exhibition documenting the designer’s special and often surprising relationship with Germany opened at Berlin’s Kunstbibliothek.

More than an homage, the show, “Christian Dior and Germany, 1947 to 1957″ (which runs through May 28), and accompanying catalogue (from Arnoldsche Art Publishers, Stuttgart) provide a rich illustration of early Dior fashion and accessories — much of the latter under German license — as well as their presentation and reception via newsreels, press reports and Dior German-language publications.

There are 20 original couture models from Berlin and other German collections, many presented for the first time. Seven are from Marlene Dietrich’s wardrobe, including the three-piece evening dress “Saphir” from spring 1948, in which she reportedly “stole the show” at the 1951 Oscars; the day suit “Acacias,” (spring 1949), which she wore on-screen in gray in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” and offscreen in blue, as seen in Berlin, and a two-piece day dress and matching hat from the Dior New York prêt-à-porter deluxe collection from fall 1950 for the U.S. market.

Also on display are 24 original costume jewelry sets of rhodium, tombac (pinchbeck) or bronze with Swarovski glass stones and Dior pearls, produced between 1955 and 1957 for Dior by the Pforzheim, Germany, company Henkel & Grosse. Dior was a strong supporter of costume jewelry, as clearly stated in his “ABCs of Fashion,” which was also published in German in 1954.

The house’s choice of a German firm to do costume jewelry in what was at first a local and then a global license caused a political uproar in France, but financial considerations played a crucial role. Known for excellent quality, Henkel & Grosse, founded in 1907, had a strong international business prior to World War II, selling to stores like Harrods and Saks Fifth Avenue in the Thirties. Due to such contacts, the company could guarantee a minimum turnover “which would have amounted to twice the total French costume jewelry export volume,” catalogue essayist Maria Spitz wrote.

Dior’s licensing division was set up in 1950, and the first German license for Christian Dior stockings went to Werner Uhlmann in Lippstadt. “Dior — Made in Germany” handbags were produced by Goldpfeil in Offenbach, and by 1963, the Paris house had concluded more than 65 licensing agreements worldwide.

This story first appeared in the February 27, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Germany was still in ruins and pamphlets were offering its fashion-interested citizens tips on how to sew dresses from parachute silk and suits and coats from woolen blankets when the wives of three American generals got the ball rolling for the first Christian Dior fashion show in Germany. In April 1949, an American military aircraft flew the mannequins, clothes and some personnel from Paris to Frankfurt for a luncheon for 500 in Heidelberg. This was only the second time since Dior was founded that any of the collection was shown outside Paris.

The first show to the public, organized by the fashion magazine Constanze, attracted 3,000 people to three sold-out shows in Hamburg in December 1949. The proceeds of that show, as well as those that followed in Bad Godesberg and Düsseldorf in 1952, and Munich, Essen and Düsseldorf in 1953, were given to German and French aid agencies. The press frequently dubbed the Dior mannequins “diplomats of fashion,” and indeed, after the Hamburg show, the French consul general told Dior’s German representative “that we have done more for French-German relations and for the prestige of our country” than he himself had achieved in six months.

The designer’s first and only trip to postwar Germany in October 1955 was similarly greeted with headlines such as “Fashion — A Contribution of Neighborliness and Peace.”

In a six-day, six-city whirlwind tour to make business contacts, visit licensees and meet the press, Dior kept his patience and courtesy in countless, hopelessly repetitive interviews. Contemporary journalists have written how dapper and handsomely accessorized Dior looked in the famous photo of him strolling down Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm, while those of the day noted, “You might take him for a bank manager or university professor.”

Still another dared question the master on fit, suggesting the man who owned “18 companies on five continents and is the ruler of the worldwide realm of fashion…must, simply must, possess the creative spark — even though he does hide it beneath a rather too-fitted dark blue pinstripe suit.”