PARIS — Maria Grazia Chiuri’s arrival at Dior last year heralded more than just a new design direction.
As the first female couturier in the company’s history, she set about writing a new manifesto for the label known for its hourglass Bar jackets and quilted Lady Dior handbags — one that centered around women.
That Chiuri was the third creative director for women’s wear in the space of five years amplified the sense of creative churn. Add the fact that the expansive Italian designer could not be more different in character from her predecessor, the quiet Belgian Raf Simons, and the Dior teams could be forgiven for feeling a little unsettled.
How did Chiuri handle it? She embraced the chaos.
“When I arrived at Dior on July 18, I knew nothing about the company. I also knew nothing about French culture. So I started to work very fast, because we had to do the collection in three weeks,” she recalled. “And I don’t remember who said to me, ‘Everybody is talking about a Dior revolution.’”
Tickled by the idea, Chiuri decided to give the concept a playful spin. The resulting logo, Dio(r)evolution, became an emblem of her first collection, alongside the T-shirt emblazoned with “We Should All Be Feminists,” the title of an essay by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
“It was a game,” said Chiuri. “In the collection, you represent what you are living in the moment — your mood in the moment. With the first collection, the mood in the moment was very fun, exciting — you don’t know everybody inside very well.”
The move to Dior also represented more than a new gig for Chiuri: It marked her first time designing solo, after more than two decades of working in tandem with Pierpaolo Piccioli, first at Fendi and then at Valentino.
“We needed to express ourselves alone,” she reflected. “It’s normal to change, and also it’s good to have different opportunities that help to express yourself. When we met, we were two children, in a way. Now we are a woman and a man, [both] with a family. It’s a long story, a beautiful story. I am so proud of what we did together.”
Commenting on her appointment as artistic director of women’s haute couture, ready-to-wear and accessory collections, Sidney Toledano, president and chief executive officer of Christian Dior, said: “The idea of hiring a woman is something I had in mind, and this woman was the right one.”
For Chiuri, it was a matter of finding an emotional connection as powerful as the one she had with the Italian houses she worked with before.
“I was completely in love with the Fendi family and also with Valentino [Garavani] and [Giancarlo] Giammetti too. I was so lucky to work with the founder — I think that made a difference. I learned so much and he was so generous with me and they gave me an opportunity to grow up in my career,” she said.
“So for me, Fendi and Valentino are my first loves. This is my terzo marito [‘third husband.’] Mr. Toledano knows,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not only about brand, about career — this job is something more. If you have no passion for the brand, it’s very difficult. For me, it’s impossible. It’s not something mechanical.”
For her first season, Chiuri delved into the work of her predecessors — founder Christian Dior, but also Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano and Simons. As the 70th anniversary of the house approached, she felt the need to home in on Dior himself.
“When I did my first collection, I said immediately that I wanted to use all the references, all the designers in my personal way like a curator, because I believe that people around the world have a mix of references. But if you study very well only Mr. Dior, you see that there is just a little bit of a difference — he was very precise,” she said.
His slightly severe post-World War II daywear silhouettes informed her fall couture collection shown in July — hence the incongruous sight of models parading outdoors in a heat wave wearing high-neck wool jackets and full skirts. The show notes revealed that many of the outfits were named after the archival designs that inspired them.
“I used the very specific references because in some way, I would like to speak more about Mr. Dior,” Chiuri explained.
Though she did a deep dive into the house’s archives upon arriving at 30, Avenue Montaigne, Chiuri has been steadily garnering more information about the founder, thanks in part to “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” the exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs that runs until Jan. 7.
“It’s impossible to know everything. I discover something new every day,” she said. “In fact, I don’t think that it’s possible to say, ‘OK, I know the archive.’ With the archives, it’s a relationship. You go in the archive and you see something at different moments, because you are in a different mood.”
She noted that Dior had separate public and private personas, as summed up by the title of his autobiography, “Christian Dior and I,” published in 1956. The exhibition reveals more hidden facets of his personality.
“I really like his love for art. He was so curious about his time — before being a couturier he was a gallerist. He was in contact with all the avant-garde painters and also the writers, like Jean Cocteau. I think I really like his curiosity in intellectual and artistic things because I feel that I’m the same way — I’m very curious about what’s happening around me, about other artists that are working in other categories,” Chiuri said.
That curiosity is evident in the people she has brought into the Dior fold. Among the guests at her first show were Adichie, whose TED Talk about feminism was sampled in the Beyoncé song “Flawless” on the soundtrack, and Italian fencer Beatrice Vio, a gold medal winner at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Chiuri tapped another woman, Brigitte Lacombe, to shoot her first advertising campaign, and highlighted behind-the-scenes talents in a series of videos with the hashtag #thewomenbehindmydress. Her championing of women is the basis of a dialogue she wants to foster with Millennials, the new generation of Dior customer.
“When I arrived here, the first sentence that everybody said to me is, ‘This is a feminine brand,’ and I’m really proud to start to speak about women in this company,” she explained.
“I think there’s a special moment now in fashion when probably we have to reflect a lot about the relationship between fashion and women. I feel that for myself and for my daughter. And also, probably, this is the right place to reflect about this,” she added.
The designer has described Rachele Regini, her 21-year-old daughter, as her muse and it’s easy to see why. On the day of the interview, Regini showed up with her mother looking like the epitome of nonchalant cool in a floral-patterned dress paired with black-and-white Vans Old Skool sneakers.
Chiuri, who also has a 23-year-old son, Nicolo, said her children have taught her that selling a product is no longer enough. “I think that you have to give a message, you have to give not only clothes,” she remarked. “There is a new consciousness in the young generation and they have more information.”
She herself was a teenager during the first wave of feminism in the Seventies, when women began to demand the right to control their bodies. Chiuri said she thought that battle had been won but has come to realize that, several decades later, fashion still has a long way to go to promote body positivity for both sexes.
“Sometimes, it’s as if something that is wearable is less pretty. No: it’s only more wearable,” she argued. “I don’t think it’s easy, but I think that women have to be less passive and upset. They have a point of view. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’m reading a lot, I’m studying a lot — I reflect a lot about this kind of argument because I think it’s really important.”
Chiuri said she feels a responsibility to use the platform a fashion brand provides her with. “Fashion can do a lot because it’s so popular,” she noted.
“The body is something culturally relevant. So I think that we have to think about that and what we propose — a dialogue, especially with this new generation that is so different,” she added. “It’s a new start for everybody. I feel myself like a new designer in some way.”
Indeed, Chiuri believes the era of the all-powerful creative director is over. “I think that now, women want to find a point of view, but at the same time, they want to decide how they can use it. They don’t want you to impose them something — they want that you propose them something,” she opined.
In a daring move, she showed an all-navy fall rtw collection that left some observers griping about a lack of drama. But Chiuri is undeterred by her critics. “I have to accept it. You can’t do anything. You can only think about the fact that there is someone who gives you another point of view — why not?” she shrugged.
“I am very sure about my direction, but not because I don’t want to listen to the critics. I read the critics, but at the same time, I believe that you have to do what you really feel inside you. This job, anyway, is something really instinctive,” she added. “You can’t reflect too much.”
Toledano noted that detractors in the past chastised Galliano for showing overly theatrical clothes. “What strikes me is that some fashion critics expect designs to be a little unreal,” he said of those who now want Chiuri to ramp up the showmanship. “She has her feet on the ground, which others appreciate.”
The main thing, as far as he is concerned, is that customers are responding. “There is a convergence between the vision, the image and the product and when they come into stores and try the clothes, they want them,” he said. “She wants women to covet the clothes to look young, cool and beautiful, as Monsieur Dior wanted them to.”
Chiuri is convinced that unlike fashion insiders, her customers crave not only the latest trends, but also wardrobe building blocks. “For example, in my first collection I proposed a Bar jacket. I never changed it afterwards — it’s the same. Because I think if you find a Bar jacket that you really believe has the right fit, why do you have to change it every season?” she reasoned.
“People like fashion because honestly, I think that you like to dream, you like to change, you like to find a new look. But at the same time, there are moments when you want to protect yourself, so you need something that you know fits well, you are confident and you don’t have to think about it,” she added.
At 53, Chiuri’s personal style is sophisticated Goth. On the day of the interview, she wore her bleached blonde hair scraped back, accentuating dramatic charcoal-rimmed eyes. Dressed in a tailored black jacket and culottes, she accessorized with two oversized skull rings from Venetian jeweler Codognato and a studded Lady Dior handbag — though she confessed she had another two bags tucked away in her car.
“I completely love bags,” she said with a shrug. “I would like to use four bags. Bags are my home: I put everything inside them.” Her background as an accessories designer no doubt is a boon for Dior which, like every major luxury brand, relies on handbags as revenue drivers.
Chiuri has brought back logos with her J’Adior flap bags with hip-hop style gold lettering, and her revival of the Oblique canvas. “I really love logos. Dior is fantastic as a logo because it’s short. It’s perfect if you’re a born accessories designer like me,” she said.
Logos also have the international appeal that is key for a global brand like Dior — “like a hashtag,” she noted. Like the house’s founder, Chiuri is keenly aware of the importance of speaking to audiences in different territories. In the last 12 months, she has staged a couture show in Tokyo and showed her cruise collection in a California nature preserve.
Her couture show in July, meanwhile, was inspired by a 1953 Albert Decaris etching from the company’s archive that illustrates the house’s expansion around the world. Several looks bore the names of female explorers like Amelia Earhart, Freya Stark and Alexandra David-Néel.
“I think it’s important to go around the world to show the collection because it’s about a dialogue with the different countries. For me, some locations are really inspiring,” Chiuri said, though she admits she got a little more than she bargained for with the Calabasas resort show.
“Mamma mia — it was a huge experience,” she exclaimed about the spectacle, which involved hot air balloons, a fleet of SUVs and a front-row appearance by Rihanna. “I was obsessed with this idea with the desert. It was not easy. Now that I know what it entails, honestly I don’t know that I would propose it again.”
With its handcrafted details, artisanal touches and rich desert tones, the lineup nodded to Earth Mother muses including painter Georgia O’Keeffe and Vicki Noble, a feminist shamanic healer and author. But the prairie dresses travel well, as demonstrated by Rihanna at the LVMH Prize ceremony in Paris in June, where she wore a long white eyelet dress with a black bolero hat.
“I don’t think a look is related to a place; it’s more related to you and your feeling,” said Chiuri.
“I remember when I started to work in fashion, especially in the past, in all the meeting with the commercial side, they would say, ‘You have to think about Japan,’ like Japan was another world. I remember my first trip to Japan, I arrived there and I found all the women were dressed like me. And I thought, why do they speak about Japan like ‘other’ women? I think there are women that like fashion and this is the same around the world, and they dress themselves in a fashionable way everywhere they are,” she said.
As Chiuri forges ahead with her mission to update the house’s heritage, she comes across as an unstoppable force – though she admitted she is still getting used to seeing herself in the pantheon of Dior designers. The retrospective at Les Arts Décoratifs features a room dedicated to her work, alongside those of her predecessors.
“Normally I don’t stop there,” she said. “I have no mental image of this room, because it impresses me. I prefer to turn the corner very fast.”