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The Evolution Of Christian Dior: 70 Years, 7 Creative Minds

By Guan Tan

A scenography shot at the ongoing exhibition, 'Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams' in Paris.
Adrien Dirand
A scenography shot at the ongoing exhibition, 'Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams' in Paris.

It was December 1946. Christian Dior was 41 years old, and, with the help of an established French industrial businessman and 'King of Cotton', Marcel Boussac, opened doors to 'Christian Dior', the fashion house.

For 70 years, like a tidal wave of creative energy, the house ebbed and flowed. Since Christian Dior's sudden cardiac arrest and death in 1957, the venerable house has been succeeded by several of the most esteemed names in the industry – Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and now Maria Grazia Chiuri. Here, a glance at each designer, what they've brought to the house of Dior.

Christian Dior
1946 – 1957

Adrien DirandThe 1947 New Look – a Bar jacket and a padded full skirt, designed by Christian Dior that caused a stir in the French fashion industry.
The 1947 New Look – a Bar jacket and a padded full skirt, designed by Christian Dior that caused a stir in the French fashion industry.

Monsieur Dior didn't tarry. His most significant show was indubitably his first – the Corolle in February 1947. You would know it as the 'New Look', a term coined by then editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar, Carmel Snow. Corolle literally means Corolla in English, which is a botanical term for the petals of a flower. He sculpted the female silhouette like an inverted flower bud – nipped in the waist before blooming into a blossomed flower skirt. Throughout his career, Dior designed with shapes in mind. His newfangled silhouettes always reverberate throughout the French fashion industry. 

He later introduced the H-line, a boxy collection of garments, the A-line as we know it now, a narrower shoulder leading into a wide hemline. He too released the Y-line, which doesn't actually translate into a broad shoulder but is, in fact, a V-neck falling into figure-hugging dresses. Dior was arguably the designer who defined and redefined contemporary womenswear's silhouettes. 

Yves Saint Laurent
1958 – 1960

Adrien DirandYves Saint Laurent's designs for Christian Dior.
Yves Saint Laurent's designs for Christian Dior.

Saint Laurent was reportedly only 17 when he was made Dior's assistant. He famously designed the Y-line evening dress that model Dovima wore when she was photographed with elephants at a Paris circus in 1955. When Dior passed on suddenly, the reigns were naturally passed to him. During his tenure at Dior, his most significant show was the Trapeze collection presented in January 1958. Saint Laurent continued the creative convictions of Dior in shifting silhouettes. The trapeze was quite similar to Monsieur Dior's A-line silhouette. The shoulders were narrow, leading to a wider hemline that fell below the knees. Saint Laurent's collection showed to critical acclaim. 

In 1960, he presented a Beat collection, inspired by the beatniks of Paris' left bank. His dose of youth culture did not sit well with Marcel Boussac, the media, the atelier's team and its couture clients. But Saint Laurent did sow the seeds for his successor, Marc Bohan's injections of youth culture into couture. 

Marc Bohan
1960 – 1989

Adrien DirandFrenchman Marc Bohan's designs for Christian Dior.
Frenchman Marc Bohan's designs for Christian Dior.

You perhaps haven't heard much about Marc Bohan, but he was the longest-serving creative director at the house of Dior. In his 30-year long tenure, Bohan was immensely inspired by 1920s French fashion and the Russian director Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes. He sent models down the runway, clad in decadent Paul Poiret-like dresses with head wraps, and swinging hemlines that were reminiscent of Poiret's lampshade tunic silhouette. That particular collection showed in autumn 1966. It was later widely quoted as Bohan's most remarkable show. 

Bohan reportedly travelled to London in a bid to experience the youthquake for himself. He like Saint Laurent, injected youth rebellion into the collections – albeit Bohan did it subtly. A higher hemline here, a risque cut-out there, Bohan never went all out. He was prudent to not offend Dior's investors and clientele. 

Gianfranco Ferré
1989 – 1997

Adrien DirandItalian architect-turned-designer Gianfranco Ferré's designs for Christian Dior.
Italian architect-turned-designer Gianfranco Ferré's designs for Christian Dior.

News broke that the Italian architect-turned-designer was appointed to helm the French couture house in 1988.  His designation was met with scorn from the industry. Giorgio Armani said, "You'd think [the French] could find someone talented enough amongst themselves." But soon after Ferré unveiled his first collection for Dior in 1989, La Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne decorated him with the Golden Thimble Award (Dé d'Or). 

Ferré's designs were for females with "strong personalities", the designer revealed. He drew on foreign, oriental influences, and always added a dash of dramaticism – encapsulated in his memorable final Orient collection for Dior. Ferré's architectural sensibility coupled with his Italian flair for flamboyance gave rise to the most technically complex and visually stunning collections. 

John Galliano
1997 – 2011

Adrien DirandGibraltar-born John Galliano's designs for Christian Dior.
Gibraltar-born John Galliano's designs for Christian Dior.

At this juncture, "Dior was rightly descended into death. It was not a house that had any sense of being on the cutting-edge," Anna Wintour was quoted saying in 1996.

Karl Lagerfeld echoed her sentiments, "Structure exists but they need new, fresh blood. And I think for that, he's perfect. He brings something fresh, even wild." Wild indeed, Galliano's melodramatic shows at Dior were extravagant narratives. His collections often pirouetted around a fictional character from his travelogues.

What came with Galliano was a tenure of exceptional shows. If you were to ask around, everyone has a personal favourite. Two most commonly quoted shows were Spring 1998 Couture and Fall 1999 Couture, aka the Matrix. With Spring 1998, Galliano held the couture show at Paris' Opera Garnier. Models sauntered down the grand stairway in the most opulent clothes, inspired by the Ballet Russes and Marchesa Casati. This show continues to be one of the most memorable shows of all time. 

Raf Simons
2012 – 2015 

Adrien DirandBelgian designer Raf Simons' works for Christian Dior.
Belgian designer Raf Simons' works for Christian Dior.

There were varied opinions on what Raf Simons brought to Dior. One uncontested thought was how Simons refreshed the language and codes of Monsieur Dior. In 'Dior and I', a documentary that followed Simons' debut Fall 2012 Couture collection. It revealed a high-strung Simons submerged in the house's archives. 

His research precipitated reiterations of the Bar jacket, the Corolle silhouette, A-line gowns, Y-line necklines, some hints of Marc Bohan's Ballet Russes-inspired silhouettes. It was as if the entire trajectory of the house was surmised into one splendid show. 

Maria Grazia Chiuri
2017 – Present

Adrien DirandRome-born Maria Grazia Chiuri's designs for Christian Dior.
Rome-born Maria Grazia Chiuri's designs for Christian Dior.

The first female to helm the house, Maria Grazia Chiuri acts like an intermediary or translator. She digests the house's codes, and paraphrases them into clothes relevant for real women today. "When you are a woman making clothes for women, then fashion is not just about how you look. It is about how you feel and how you think," she said in March.

Take for instance her debut Spring 2017 collection where she famously styled a T-shirt with a ball-gown skirt, and her Spring 2017 Couture where she rehashed the Bar look in lightweight fabrics.

Like Monsieur Dior himself professed, "The world is wonderfully full of beautiful women whose shapes and tastes offer an inexhaustible diversity. My collection[s] must cater individually for each of them." In her short tenure till date, what Chiuri has brought to the house of Dior is more than a statement, style or influence. She brought women back to the heart of Christian Dior.

Exhibition 'Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve' runs from 5th July 2017 to 7th January 2018 at The Museum of Decorative Arts (Les Arts Décoratifs) in Paris for 11 Euros (S$17.44).