On Saturday, while 673 women’s marches were taking place in cities across the world, Maria Grazia Chiuri, the new artistic director of Christian Dior, was fitting her spring/summer 2017 couture collection in Paris. She was wearing a T-shirt from her first Dior collection printed with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s line “We Should All Be Feminists,” worn underneath a black wool “Bar” jacket from the same collection, whose name and curvaceous silhouette is an homage to the tailleur Bar, a suit from Dior’s 1947 debut. Fashion often echoes the mood of the times, subconsciously or otherwise. Yves Saint Laurent designed a collection inspired by the May 1968 Paris riots; by contrast, Dior’s “New Look” was a salve for the wounds of wartime, making people forget the hardships and revel in luxury. For her collection, Chiuri interprets the “New Look” again, in ivory organza with a peplum of pleats above wide chiffon culottes. It’s an ensemble whose inherent lightness and elastic ease of movement feels like a reflection of that juxtaposition of contemporary feminism (the slogan T-shirt) and historical throwback (the Bar jacket) currently on her own back.
Chiuri’s debut couture collection is important not only because it is her first for the house — and the first by a solo female creative director — but also because it marks the 70th birthday of Dior. Which isn’t to be taken lightly, least of all by the couture house itself. In 1947, when Christian Dior made his own debut, he was declared to have “saved France.” Hyperbolic, maybe, but he did revitalize the then-moribund haute couture industry and created his own legend in the process via his wasp-waisted, full-skirted, unashamedly feminine line that swept away the strict and austere lines that characterized the Second World War.
Chiuri, along with the show’s stylist, Karl Templer, watched as a model padded through the room wearing Chiuri’s iteration of the New Look. The chiffon skirt, Chiuri reasoned, must be shorter. An atelier worker raised it at the waistband, hiking it up to hang higher. Chiuri murmured her approval: “Bella.” She often falls into speaking Italian; when speaking English, her native Roman accent is strong. (Chiuri was formerly co-creative director of the house of Valentino, also based in Rome.) Stephen Jones, the British milliner, adjusted a hat. Three languages ricocheted around the room.
Witnessing work on an haute couture collection is remarkable. It is made-to-measure clothing produced to the highest possible standards, by teams of specialist craftspeople — and it is extraordinarily expensive, ranging from around $50,000 to $200,000 per outfit, according to Pascal Morand, the executive president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, the governing body of French fashion. That means that in charting the 48 hours before a show, you don’t just see the designer, but entire armies of people laboring, lavishing hundreds or even thousands of hours of work on these clothes.
It’s easy to get lost inside the house of Dior. Occupying almost an entire block in the 8th Arrondissement of Paris, the atelier stretches out from 30 Avenue Montaigne, where Christian Dior founded the house, along the Rue Francois 1er, where Chiuri’s studio and the workrooms are located. The ateliers sit in the eaves of the headquarters, divided into workrooms devoted to tailoring and flou — the expressive French term for all that is fluid and light, including everything from blouses to ballgowns. Dresses were still in construction, with pleats painstakingly pressed and sewn and ballgowns in pieces. One consisted of silk flowers pressed between layers of tulle. “Like they’re pressed inside a book,” Chiuri said. On the sixth floor, in one of the two flou ateliers, the head of the workroom Florence Chehet oversaw the fitting of a lacy black evening dress. The room around her buzzed quietly with activity, as Dior’s seamstresses stitched Chiuri’s folds and foliate decorations. There wasn’t the sound of a single sewing machine whirring during our entire visit: Another hallmark of haute couture is that almost everything is sewn entirely by hand.
The building is a labyrinth — which, incidentally, is one of the inspirations Chiuri cited for this collection. She staged the show as a bal masqué in a topiary maze custom-built by Alexandre de Betak and team in the gardens of the Musée Rodin. “But this is my labyrinth,” she laughed, gesturing around at the rising and falling stairs carpeted in Dior gray of her atelier. “And everything here is new for me.”
Today, haute couture dresses at most 2,000 women worldwide. But for Chiuri, haute couture is, first and foremost, about women. “When I started couture at Dior, the first thing I thought was that Monsieur Dior did couture in a very classic way, because there wasn’t ready-to-wear,” she reasoned, riffing through a litany of Dior’s previous artistic directors (she’s the seventh). “Monsieur Dior, but also Monsieur Saint Laurent, and Monsieur Bohan and even Monsieur Ferré. They did real couture, couture to dress women.”
You get the sense that’s precisely what Chiuri wants to do, too. Over the past few decades, couture has been relegated to an unaffordable, unattainable dream-factory. Which Chiuri can certainly appreciate. “At the end I hope that my couture is dreaming, but wearable,” she stated. Then, she laughed again. “I would like to wear couture myself!”
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