CHANTILLY, France — They say the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. You might include horses, too.
Maria Grazia Chiuri decided to bring a dash of Latin American showmanship to the royal stables of the Domaine de Chantilly by kicking off her cruise show for Christian Dior on Friday night with a display by a team of female Mexican rodeo riders.
But she got a little more drama than she bargained for, as a heavy rainstorm broke moments before the start of the show, dousing the models as they made their way around the semi-open venue.
Guests fared slightly better. A greeter held an umbrella over Isabelle Adjani as she arrived, wearing a vaporous blue dress and sunglasses — though by this point, the sky was a threatening shade of slate gray. Another stood guard in front of Bernard Arnault, the luxury titan who owns Christian Dior Couture, and his wife Hélène.
Billie Lourd was excited, even though she literally can’t stand horses. “I’m allergic, and it’s the saddest thing ever, but honestly, I’ll still go on them because they’re so beautiful,” the “American Horror Story” star said wistfully.
Florence Pugh is a seasoned rider herself. “I grew up on horses — I used to live in Spain where I did proper ‘El Campo’ horse riding. It’s great,” said the English actress, who is gearing up for a banner year, with the upcoming release of movies including “Fighting With My Family.”
Paris Jackson posed for photographers against the backdrop of a beribboned tentpole at the center of the sandy horse arena. “I love horses very much. I’m ecstatic,” said the starlet, noting she rides western or bareback — “preferably bareback.”
Organizers anxiously monitored the sky, amid reports that a storm was set to hit the town, some 30 miles north of Paris, at 9.17 p.m. precisely. With guests held up in rush hour traffic, the show finally began just as sheets of rain started driving down.
Wearing embroidered black-and-white dresses custom-made by Dior, a team of eight Mexican escaramuzas galloped out and started to perform their precision maneuvers. As they whipped through their high-speed horseback ballet, they brought to mind a gang of modern-day Annie Oakleys.
The fearlessness of the sport taps right into Chiuri’s love for strong women, a running thread in all her collections since she took over as creative director for women’s wear in 2016, marking her debut show with “We should all be feminists” T-shirts.
“The reason I like the escaramuzas is because they do something that is so macho — rodeo — in our vision, but they decided to do that in their traditional dresses which are so pretty, so feminine,” she said during a fitting at Dior’s ready-to-wear workshop in Paris.
But it all proved too much for Jackson, who huffed out barefoot, having earlier asked two assistants to help her out of her high-heeled sandals. Whether the issue was animal welfare, or simply an extreme aversion to rain, was not clear.
It was her loss, since Chiuri sent out a beautiful collection that melded the finest of Latin American and European equestrian traditions.
Full riding skirts in dense embroidered motifs were worn “gaucha” style with crisp white shirts and black cravats. Ruth Bell, meanwhile, demonstrated how the English do rain: with a tan canvas trouser suit and a stiff upper lip.
Models wore their hair tied into sweeping ponytails, many topped with leather riding hats or sombreros designed by Stephen Jones.
Naturally, there were variations on the Saddle bag, the Aughts “It” bag that has become a vintage bestseller in recent years, and was unveiled in its modernized version as part of Dior’s fall collection shown in February.
While the Adelita dresses that the escaramuzas wear for charreada tournaments obey strict codes — starched petticoats are de rigueur — the versions that Chiuri showed on the catwalk offered a more relaxed take on the aesthetic.
Flared skirts in crisp light cotton, printed with muddy Toile de Jouy motifs or monochrome stripe patterns, were worn over cloudlike layers of tulle. Lace — a specialty of the region — appeared in endless variations, including as graphic inlays or dense ruffles on dresses worn with wide black leather belts and riding boots.
Founder Christian Dior was fond of the material and its origin, christening an evening dress from his fall 1947 collection after Chantilly and its famous castle. But he was equally inclined toward channeling men’s tailoring, dressing women like Marlene Dietrich in his nip-waisted wool jackets.
On Chiuri’s mood board, two looks stood out. A 1948 design named Rodeo, featuring a long pencil skirt with flared panels inspired by cowboy chaps, inspired the bulging pockets on this season’s signature hourglass jacket, while draped skirts nodded to the 1951 Amazon dress, named after the French term for riding sidesaddle.
“I am really obsessed with this Dior look, Amazon, because it’s beautiful. In some ways, it’s a modern vision of the Dior Amazon,” she explained. “It’s important to look to the heritage, but it’s important to see it with the eye of the now, otherwise you are doing vintage or a museum piece.”
She delivered the newness in spades, pairing a sleek black jacket with a knife-pleated skirt, or working the look in glossy black leather, the skirt a marvel of openwork.
The intricate embroidery on high-necked blouses and cinched bustier dresses evoked the exceptional craftsmanship of haute couture. More practical items — a cream sweater, say, or blue jeans — were printed with Chiuri’s compelling new take on Toile de Jouy, featuring lions, monkeys and serpents.
For the escaramuzas’ outfits, she was inspired by the embroidered linens of hope chests. “It’s a really female tradition, to have embroidery and stitching, so it was not so difficult to understand what they really want for their uniform,” she said.
At a fitting before the show, America Martinez, captain of the Rayenari team, based in Phoenix, explained they usually have their outfits made in Mexico. “I always have to send the measurements, but we don’t get to try on our dresses. They just send them over and we hope that they fit,” she said.
Those petticoats hide powerful legs: the women all ride sidesaddle. “You hang on — if you don’t have strength in your core, then you get tired easily,” said Martinez, in the understatement of the century.
While the team, which won the U.S. national championship in 2014, is used to shuttling between the U.S. and Mexico to compete, most had never been to Paris before. “Coming here is like a dream. When they reached out to us, it felt really weird, because I never imagined an opportunity like this. It was hard to believe at first,” she said.
Chiuri said she hoped to tap into that sense of the unexpected with her Dior Rodeo. While the Chantilly stables frequently host top-level equestrian displays, the demonstrations are usually devoted to the haute-école art of horse training.
The designer aimed to conjure the mood of Chilean author Isabel Allende’s “The House of the Spirits,” a classic of the magical realism literary genre, explaining that she loved the way the story, anchored around strong women, blends reality and fantasy.
“I think that speaks in some way also about fashion: it’s something real and magical at the same time,” Chiuri said. “I think in Chantilly, to see the horse in another dimension is something that is really magical, because it’s unexpected.”
While the spectacle ended up being even more surreal than she could have anticipated, watching the escaramuzas stand guard in the rain as the models marched past certainly was a lesson in female resilience. As their horses stopped to bow in front of Arnault, the crowd went wild. “That was fabulous,” exhaled celebrity stylist Brad Goreski.
Jeanne Damas, an avid rider who has reached “galop four,” almost the highest level of the French riding system, was equally taken. “I almost thought that it was on purpose, it was so beautiful,” she said of the downpour.
As water began to form deep pools between the centuries-old courtyard cobblestones, guests made a dash for the building’s great nave, an indoor space with majestic arches, for the after party, where pick-me-ups included Don Julio tequila and Ruinart Champagne.
Flitting by, Dior chief executive officer Pietro Beccari tried to put a positive spin on events: “They say that when it rains, it’s good for business.”