In “Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve,” the lavish exhibition installed in Les Arts Décoratifs to mark the house’s 70th anniversary, Maria Grazia Chiuri’s work stands up well alongside that of three of the greatest designers to ever live — Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and John Galliano. Yet her runway continues to perplex.
Chiuri is a brave fashion soul, boldly addressing two of fashion’s current causes — one external: How to express a socially conscious point of view on the runway; the other, the giant question (one of them, anyway) facing luxury: How to woo the Millennial customer.
Chiuri is at the forefront of the former movement. The “We should all be feminists” T-shirts from her debut ready-to-wear collection for Dior, shown prior to the U.S. presidential election, ignited a pan-industry signage craze a season later, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory. On the Millennial front, since arriving at the house, Chiuri has often stated her interest in speaking to a powerful young generation.
Admirable points of focus, for sure, and, at least regarding the second issue, essential, as Millennials will one day age into luxury’s primary consumer base. Yet those two preoccupations seem to cloud Chiuri’s showtime perspective at Dior, at least if one thinks her runway should first and foremost reflect the house’s status as one of the two most hallowed names of French fashion. In crafting her seasonal stories of female empowerment and youthful eccentricity, she gives short shrift to the elegance that is core to the Dior ethos.
For fall, Chiuri found inspiration in two women. The work of Marc Bohan-era muse, the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, is having a moment with pieces on display in Paris, Saint-Tropez and Singapore. Her giant, colorful fun-house sculptures on long-term loan to Waterfront Park in San Diego indicate the spirit to which Chiuri was drawn, their inspiration revealed in the collection’s vibrant palette and flashy, irregular paillettes; a fanciful dragon motif used in cooperation with the artist’s estate and an artisanal, intricately wrought sweater. More subtly, Chiuri fashioned some fine tailored looks after those worn by Saint Phalle in archival pictures.
Feminist art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay ”Why have there not been great women artists?” resonates deeply with Chiuri. “I would like to involve the young generation with this book, because at times, I think women are not so confident in themselves…,” she said during a preview. “Sometimes the problem is not on the outside; it is on the inside.” And you can tackle it with words on a T-shirt, such as the one that opened the show.
That deep cultural query aside, the show’s overall takeaway was of a playful cacophony that, at the luxury level, has its limits. Up close, many of Chiuri’s clothes are exquisite; all are painstakingly considered and masterfully crafted. Yet layered over feisty fun-house stripes (rompers, bras, briefs, socks), the beautiful transparencies took on the aura of rich-kid juniors, back when the adolescent set dressed from that department.
Chiuri has introduced a new ease at Dior, freeing herself and the house from excessive Bar reverence — all good. Yet the ongoing forward motion that sidesteps Dior’s genetic allegiance to elegance will likely prove counterproductive in the long term. Dior can’t stand still. It must stand for fashion’s highest level of chic.