MARRAKECH — Cultural appropriation is dead. Long live cultural appreciation!
That was the message of the Dior cruise show staged here on Monday night, which saw creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri collaborating with a host of guest designers from the African continent and beyond in a shared tribute to craftsmanship.
The location of the display, the remains of the magnificent El Badi Palace, spoke of ancient dynasties and rulers. The clothes themselves were a dialogue with the world of today, a celebration of globalization and inclusivity.
Celebrities including Jessica Alba, Shailene Woodley, Lupita Nyong’o and Diana Ross were among the roughly 800 guests who took in the mega-production, staged shortly after sunset around a water basin dotted with dozens of candles and seven flaming braziers.
To a hypnotic soundtrack of Jajouka musicians, accompanied by British electronic band The Orb, a diverse cast of models walked in more than 110 looks ranging from African wax separates to black evening gowns that carried a whiff of Yves Saint Laurent, the former Dior designer who considered Marrakech his second home.
Alba, flanked by her husband Cash Warren, was fresh off celebrating her 38th birthday the night before at a welcome dinner held at the neighboring Bahia Palace in a setting worthy of an “Arabian Nights” fable.
“Cash and I don’t get out away from the kids very often, and especially on a trip like this, so this was really a big treat for us,” the actress and entrepreneur said.
Woodley was gearing up for the premiere on June 9 of season two of the HBO series “Big Little Lies,” with Meryl Streep joining her and the rest of the cast, including Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz.
“There’s not quite any words that can describe this experience,” she said, taking in the surroundings as dark clouds loomed and the scent of burning wood filled the air. “It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I think the colors of Morocco and the craftsmanship of Morocco speak so deeply to the core of this house.”
Known for her commitment to environmental causes, the actress and activist splayed her beaded gown to underline her point.
“You don’t think about craftsmanship when you think about luxury, and a lot of times, you don’t think about craftsmanship when you think about fashion, but every single detail that goes into these creations, it’s pure artists that come up with the idea, and then incredible artisans who are able to execute it,” she enthused.
Chiuri conceived the show as a creative exchange with African cultures through skills handed down from generation to generation, dubbing the display Dior Common Ground, in reference to a quote from the feminist philosopher Naomi Zack cited in the program notes.
“With this collection, I tried to speak about this world through collaborations because honestly I really believe, especially in craftsmanship, that there is a common ground,” Chiuri told WWD in a preview.
“I think that if you move to another country to stage a show, you have to reflect about your codes, but also have a conversation with the whole continent,” she added.
In an unprecedented move for the house, she tapped a host of creatives to contribute looks to the show, among them London-based designer Grace Wales Bonner; American artist Mickalene Thomas; Pathé Ouédraogo, the Burkina Faso-born designer better known as Pathé’O, and local artisans.
“Today fashion is not only clothes: it’s a moment, it’s an experience,” she said, describing the process as a natural extension of her work with choreographer Sharon Eyal on the spring 2019 ready-to-wear show, and with female acrobatic troupe Mimbre on her recent spring haute couture display.
“Inviting people means working together on a project,” Chiuri added. “It means building something together.”
The designer made sure local women artisans were involved in almost every aspect of the three-day event. The set featured cushions covered with artisanal fabrics made by Sumano, an organization dedicated to preserving the know-how of female weavers and potters in Morocco.
The Sumano artisans also designed the opening look, a cream-colored opera coat with henna-painted geometric motifs at the hem, and made the hand-painted plates that graced the tables at the welcome dinner.
Central to the collection were the wax patterns designed by Uniwax, an Ivory Coast-based factory that is one of the last to produce the traditional fabric using artisanal techniques. Chiuri said she discovered its history thanks to anthropologist Anne Grosfilley, a specialist on wax who ended up working with the Dior design team.
Chiuri was intrigued by the history of the material, originally influenced by Indonesian batik, brought to the Netherlands by Dutch merchants, and finally adopted in West Africa in the late 19th century. Uniwax, a subsidiary of Dutch company Vlisco, is the only company whose wax is 100 percent made in Africa.
“When you speak about craftsmanship, you see craftsmanship traveling around the world,” she noted, adding that it was the same thing with the murrine glass beads, harking from Italy and used across much of Africa, which were interspersed with raffia motifs on sheer embroidered dresses.
“You give a different interpretation of the same thing. Sometimes we don’t know where they come from,” said Chiuri, saying this meant that knee-jerk allegations of cultural appropriation were not always clear-cut.
“In this moment where we speak a lot about cultural appropriation, gender, post-colonialism, the environment — as a fashion house it is important to reflect about these issues and think about how we can start a different conversation with our audience,” she said.
It’s an issue she is forever debating with her daughter Rachele Regini, who has challenged her in the past about referencing other cultures.
“She pushed me so much about this,” said Chiuri. “It’s a conversation, probably, with my daughter. I would like to explain to her that many references which she believes come from one country probably came originally from another country.”
Using the fabrics also casts a welcome spotlight on techniques that otherwise risk dying out, including wax, which is under threat from cheaper digital copies.
“If there are no brands that have a huge platform and huge visibility to promote certain products, the risk is that they will be lost, but I think it’s our responsibility. That’s part of what it means to be a couture brand: to maintain this kind of tradition,” Chiuri said.
In that spirit, Dior asked Uniwax’s graphic designers, working out of Abidjan, to come up with their own version of house codes such as the Toile de Jouy and tarot card motifs. The resulting patterns — either in earth tones, or indigo shades that evoked nomadic desert tribes — informed the looks throughout.
Annabel Olivier, creative director of Uniwax, had only been in the job for a month when the commission arrived.
“When I was told we were going to work for Dior, I didn’t think of Christian Dior, because Dior is a Senegalese name, so I thought it was for a Senegalese designer. They told me, ‘No, no, it’s Christian.’ So I said, ‘I’m going to sit down,’” she recalled with a laugh.
While the designers were enthusiastic about the project, there was one sticking point: nobody wanted to work on the Death card in the tarot deck. “It finally fell to the youngest designer on the team,” she said, adding that the resulting skull design was inspired by a traditional African wrap skirt.
The heavy cotton wax fabric, complete with signature irregularities, was used for everything from tailored bar jackets to mannish oversized shirts and floor-length pleated skirts.
“This technique is unbelievable, because it’s a really couture way to print the textile. It’s double-faced,” said Chiuri, showing off the pristine underside of a shirt. “There is this stereotypical idea that cotton is not something expensive, and especially cotton that comes from Africa. You don’t think that it’s a technique that is so high-level.”
The patterns were echoed on other outfits, via a variety of traditional French and Italian weaving techniques: double cashmere jacquard for sweeping opera coats; fil coupé for a camouflage-style jacket crawling with palm trees, or a chiné silk jacquard for a maxi-length bustier dress.
Pathé’O contributed one of his signature patterned shirts, emblazoned with a portrait of late South African president Nelson Mandela, who frequently wore his designs. Meanwhile, Thomas and Wales Bonner both reinterpreted the New Look silhouette first designed by founder Christian Dior in 1947.
Thomas, who created a handbag for the Dior Lady Art project last year, applied a lush patchwork of fabric and glass beads onto the sleeves and back of a black velvet Bar jacket and paired it with a Lurex skirt — both inspired by her paintings, collages and photographic portraits celebrating African American women.
“Thinking about wearable art and the body as sculpture, and [being] interested in replicating some of the elements from my paintings into a fashionable, practical and wearable garment, was really fun and exciting,” she said.
“I feel like my vocabulary with fabric is very elementary at the moment, but I’m really excited to learn more about fabrics,” she said, hinting that another project with Dior is currently in the works.
Wales Bonner, who was the 2016 winner of the LVMH Prize for Young Designers — organized by the luxury conglomerate that owns Dior as well as brands including Louis Vuitton and Fendi — drew on her experience as a men’s wear designer to tackle the project.
“My work’s always about a kind of hybridity and a meeting point between two cultures, so to be able to work with something so emblematic as the Bar jacket, but also to integrate it with a different cultural perspective, is something that is really interesting for me,” she explained.
“My take is probably integrating different craft traditions that come from a more Caribbean cultural perspective within the techniques of couture and tailoring,” Wales Bonner added of her design, which featured colorful horizontal stripes made of crocheted raffia and silk.
The authenticity of the endeavor shone through, down to the members of Chiuri’s team, who described the collection as their most ambitious and most memorable to date.
Indeed, the catwalk was a veritable fireworks display of techniques, with multicolored patchwork shearling coats rubbing shoulders with camouflage fil coupé rain ponchos, which took on a special appeal when a few minutes into the display, heavy drops began to spatter the audience as thunderbolts lit up the horizon.
Rather than the torrential downpour that marred last year’s Dior cruise display in Chantilly, however, this was a case of intermittent showers that did not prevent Ross from performing at the after party.
Dior chose to stage the show in Morocco for its long-standing links with the country. As far back as 1951, the brand struck a deal with the Casablanca-based Maison Joste, which for more than 20 years would produce styles based on patterns provided by Dior in Paris for the Mediterranean market.
The house set aside competitive considerations to embrace the Saint Laurent connection, inviting editors on a private visit of his cherished Villa Oasis residence, followed by the rather more overcrowded Majorelle Garden and Yves Saint Laurent Museum next door.
Chiuri noted that Marrakech, sitting at the crossroads between Europe and Africa, had long inspired not only designers, but also photographers like Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn, as well as writers including Paul Bowles.
Pietro Beccari, chief executive officer of Dior, said while there was a long-standing love affair between French people and Morocco, the continent is enjoying a moment in the creative spotlight.
“It’s a period of Africa, which has named Marrakech as the first African capital of culture in 2020, and we are the very first to do a fashion show in Africa, so we’re very, very proud. It’s just highlighting a love and an emotion which is already in the air,” he said.
“This city is paying us back with this beautiful fantastic scenario here tonight. These shows are to generate emotion and to generate passion,” he added.
It’s safe to bet the collaborative spirit will extend beyond Monday night’s extravaganza. “As long as the collaborations are spontaneous and natural, they are very welcome. I don’t think it should be a strategy, because if you are forced to do something unnatural or just because it’s marketing, I think we are going to fail,” Beccari said.