A giant, gnarled tree, its faux-ancient trunk, branches and protrusions twisting up the stairwell of Dior’s recently vacated, soon-to-be renovated headquarters. The tree anchored an intense, enchanting enclave, all fantastical yet derived from the natural world, created by artist Penny Slinger as the backdrop for Maria Grazia Chiuri’s fall couture show. Surreal surprises with subtle feminist undertones were revealed at every turn — a huge butterfly masking the face of a naked woman; a woman’s face breaking through rock crystals; a regal caryatid sculpture; night-sky stars dappling a stairway. There was so much to see within the meandering chambers of blacks and grays that one could miss the only bright spot off to the side — a glorious garden with an arch overrun with vibrant flowers.
It was all very heady. But then, Chiuri often takes a deep-thoughts approach to her work. This time out, she started with, she said, “the relationship between Dior and architectural elements.” The idea percolated after she came across Bernard Rudofsky’s “Are Clothes Modern?” She became riveted, not by the seminal exhibit installed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art per se, but the curator’s catalogue essay published in 1947, coincidentally, the same year Christian Dior’s New Look was christened.
Chiuri dove in and came out with rich inspiration. It made for a typical preview conversation as she distilled some of his motifs. “He did anthropological research into why humanity change their bodies, because they find the body boring. They want to use fashion to change their body. That is dysfunctional sometimes.
“The idea is that the clothes are a project, a project for the house for your body,” the designer said.
“In fashion there’s the idea that there’s a minimalist, more functional world, and a decorative world that is more dysfunctional. But they’re not always contradictions.”
Then Slinger, present during the preview, added some thoughts on her own work. “We’re trying to celebrate and memorialize this feminine spirit, the muse…and so she is embodied in this whole work in different forms and combined and mutated with all the different elements, and so we brought the Tree of Life right into the center of the house.”
Come show time, those deep thoughts would be punctuated by the first look out: a model in a white peplos (a riff on the fluid garb worn by every non-naked classical statue you’ve ever seen, and the template for all goddess gowns). This one looked casual and flaunted the latest iteration of Chiuri’s now-signature messaging here co-opted from, and credited to, Rudofsky. You guessed it, “Are clothes modern?”
In answer, Chiuri beautifully studied that contrast between minimalism and decoration, but not in a clinical, academic way. Rather, the mostly exquisite collection looked proudly and passionately couture. The qualification “mostly” applies because Chiuri’s haute daywear remains unresolved. Not that it was unattractive; in fact, it often looked quite lovely. But with their sweeping proportions and dense-looking fabrics (they appeared heavy but weren’t), several looks projected too self-conscious a grandeur for today.
But no matter. This was essentially an evening collection, and there, Chiuri soared. She worked almost exclusively in black; by extracting color, she put the focus deliberately on shape and the abundance of textures she worked both individually and in intriguing combinations. The goddess dresses were breathtaking — in black velvet, silver lamé, Lurex-shot chiffon jacquard — each one languid and alluring, descended from the caryatid while radiating modern ease.
Yet it was elsewhere that Chiuri made her most daring argument, with a trope integral to Dior, the ballgown. Her breathtaking versions were as grand and opulent as it gets, yet almost freakishly light in lavish yet ethereal materials. They came in lacquered organza, dégradé gauze jacquard, “tattoo” motif mesh over lace, and most often, some variation of layered mesh (inspired from an archival swatch book), here embroidered with velvet scrolls, there, with thistles and wildflowers.
They enchanted — quickly, as the models negotiated the wending salons as a speedy pace. Too speedily, perhaps, for the audience to fully absorb the lightness, the craft and personality differences. Yet the mesmerizing overview was enough to answer the show’s opening question: Are clothes modern? If beauty’s modern, then so are these clothes.