Exit the elevator and, instantly, you’re swept into a tide of activity. Banks of computers line the wall, with staff busily clacking away at keyboards, while models stride by in glittering skull caps and dreamy couture dresses further afield. Rows of frilled gowns and suit separates reminiscent of a ringmaster’s attire are installed in neat rows, each tagged with a sketch of the look and a photo of the model who will wear it on the catwalk. Petite mains are present with scissors and measuring tape, making last-minute adjustments, while mood and model fitting boards line the walls.
With over 25 staff members flown in from Paris to handle more than 80 looks for Dior’s first show ever in Dubai (which will be staged to showcase its recent circus-themed Spring 2019 Couture collection) and less than 48 hours until the show begins, the atmosphere is surprisingly peaceful – serene even. The relaxed, organized scene at hand has everything to do with Creative Director Maria Grazia Chiuri, who is nonchalantly stationed along a row of floor-to-ceiling windows, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings.
Casually dressed in baggy bleach-striped jeans, a simple black top, and a magnificent array of antique rings, she exudes warmth and calm. At Dior, all roads lead to Chiuri, and it is to her credit that she leads with quiet strength. In this illuminating conversation, Savoir Flair goes deep into the feminist philosophy that undergirds her creative work, her vision for increasing Dior’s global reach, and her perspective on the pressures women place on themselves. Listen in.
It’s such an honor to be with you today during such a busy time. We’ve noted that you have created 15 new looks for the #DiorDreamParade couture collection specifically for Dubai. Can you tell us more about them?
We would like to maintain the concept about the circus because the circus is very close to the idea of a fashion show, no? When there is a fashion show in Milan or Paris, there is an atmosphere of a circus. When I proposed that we come to Dubai, I wanted to bring the couture circus collection, but have pieces that spoke to this special city. We tried to make something in a mode that works well in a city where there is so much sun.
We transformed some of the themes from our couture collection with more playful shapes and bright colors. So, we did a patchwork with different materials to create a kaleidoscopic palette. We also proposed the idea of a cape, which is an element of the circus, but we mixed it with the ‘Bar’ jacket line. While this collection blends the codes of Dior with the code of the circus, it was still a challenge to make something new.
When you come to the circus, you want a moment when you dream, when you forget what’s happening around you. We want the audience to feel that.
What does #DiorDreamParade mean to you?
When you come to the circus, you want a moment when you dream, when you forget what’s happening around you. We want the audience to feel that. I think it is very important to give this idea that we are all living in a moment together, but it is a moment when we share in dreaming. It’s not just about a model, the clothes, and the background. The audience has to be involved in the moment. If you think about it, the show is short – only eight minutes long – but you have to tell a story in eight minutes. The audience has to be a part of the story, a part of the dream.
You have transformed fashion into something more, into an experience.
Yes, fashion is an experience now. I really think that, in this moment, fashion is speaking another language. When you go to Paris, you see many different shows, so what you remember is the experience you have when you attend the show.
Why Dubai? What is important to you about this market?
Honestly, we’ve been wanting to come for a long time. It’s not possible for everyone to come to Paris, so I wanted to take Dior to unexpected places. Given the logistics and the company’s schedule, it can be impossible, but this March, it worked out that we could finally come. I think it’s important to see all of the markets. In the future, I want to go to India, and we’ll soon go to Marrakech – I want to show in unexpected places. I love going around the world. My dream in my life, before I die, is to tour the world.
While your collections are reality-based in that they reflect things happening in society, they also have a strong element of escapism.
Exactly. I constantly say, ‘I want to dream, but at the same time, I must live my real life.’ Dreaming and reality, I think that they have to be connected.
How do you achieve this concept on a global scale?
When I arrived at Dior, they said Dior is a feminine brand. I wondered what that meant, what femininity means today. See, we must not forget that we are a global brand – yes, a French brand, but also a global brand. We have to speak with women who are all over the world. What do we have in common with these women? They all want something that makes them feel good, but at the same time, they want something that feels personal. Women are both fragile and strong – these two elements are in all women, and men too. We have to speak in a new way about fashion.
Because fashion is communication.
Yes, it’s not only clothes. You know that clothes help express yourself, express what you feel. I think for a brand like Dior that is global, that is made for women, you must propose something that is personal, for their personal style. Monsieur Dior is of course a reference, but his was another time. At his time, he imposed a ‘New Look’.
I think you cannot speak in this way now. Yes, you have to maintain the codes of Monsieur Dior, but in a way that is more open-minded. You have to propose a look that has the DNA of Dior, but one that women can mix with their personal style. Women are so different now. This idea of imposing a look is very close to the past.
You’re right. Although it bears the name of its founder, the house of Dior isn’t singular. It has been defined by all of the hands who have touched it, shaped it, and changed it with their own distinct perspectives. How would you describe the changes that Dior has been through so far?
When we think of Dior as Monsieur Dior, you have to think about the time he was in. He started his career after the Second World War, so he was creating for women who were coming out of it. He gave them optimism, he gave them a sense of rebirth with the ‘New Look’. That is the key of his unbelievable success. Prior to that, women wore uniforms. They needed something beautiful, something nostalgic of femininity. His references were his mother, the gardens of Granville – very feminine codes.
Afterwards, with Yves Saint Laurent, he was so young and Dior was so famous. I believe it was scary for him. So initially, he designed very much like Monsieur Dior, but with his last collection with the black jacket he created, you could see that he understood that times were changing. Meanwhile, Marc Bohan understood that women were becoming more complicated. He introduced pants, short skirts, and the like. It is evident that all designers change as the times change. When women change, fashion reflects the time.
Gianfranco Ferre was the first Italian designer at Dior, and it was the beginning of ready-to-wear in Italy. You saw that he immediately proposed architectural shapes with big proportions, which are prêt-à–porter ideas. John Galliano, in my point of view, introduced big cinematic ideas. His reference was Versailles. Versailles is a symbol of French grandeur, but it was not a symbol of Monsieur Dior. Galliano was an English designer interpreting another culture, and it is now part of the heritage of the house. Raf Simons brought it back to minimalism, fine construction, the flower – the codes that Monsieur Dior first started.
And the Maria Grazia Chiuri era?
For me, it was a big change initially because I had never worked at a French house. I had worked for Italian companies all my life. I knew immediately that I would have to understand another point of view. Italian fashion is not as institutional. The French lead fashion in a way that is more institutional. So, I had to find a balance between the DNA of the house and my personal culture, my way to lead fashion. I think it’s working out [laughs].
One of the aspects that you’ve brought to the house is a strong feminist point of view. What is the source of your feminist messaging?
My daughter, Rachele, is my reference. I wanted to speak with a new audience. I really appreciate this new generation because, with the help of new media, they have more information than we had in the past. They are incredible.
Every collection has intentionally elevated women artists, activist, poets, and other creatives. Why is this outreach important to you?
I really love to work with other women, other artists. Creativity is something that is enhanced when you work with other creative people. To build something together, that is what I really love. I love music, art, cinema. I am so lucky to meet so many people from these different worlds through this kind of of life. When I find someone who inspires me, I’ve found they are always open to working together. I have found so many women around the world who are really willing to collaborate, to test themselves in a system that is completely unusual.
Fashion is scary for artists, but honestly, I have found so many open-minded people who are willing to try something new. You know, Monsieur Dior did the same at the time. When he was in Paris, he was working in a city that was an epicenter of different art movements. It was a city of freedom. There are so many opportunities there to discover theater, cinema, art shows – I found so many different inspirations when I arrived.
You once said, ‘Fashion used to only impose a point of view, now it has to be a dialogue.’ When you put your message out there with a new collection, what kind of dialogue do you receive back? What are women saying to you about your creations?
I’m very happy when I go to the store and find clients who are so happy with my collections. Long-time clients are saying to me that they could never imagine dressing this way before, but they love it now. They love that there are stylish but comfortable shoes, clothes that are beautiful but functional. I also want women to feel good about themselves when they wear the pieces. The message is: We will take care of you. They enjoy Dior, and they take some risks to wear something that they never would’ve worn otherwise.
I think that’s what is so exciting to have a women at the head of one of the world’s biggest luxury brands, especially someone who is so concerned with women – not just a certain privileged sector of women, but all women. This message is vital right now.
My children have helped me see the problems in the fashion system. They say, ‘You have to understand other points of view.’ When you are too close to your work, you think that your passion and love is enough, but you don’t realize the message that you’re passing along. With my new job at Dior, I take great care with the message. It is so important. We never reflected enough about that in the past because we were like children, we believed everyone else thinks like us – it was all about ego. We forgot that fashion is for other people.
Your children seem to be very instrumental in the direction that Dior has taken.
Yes, because when I was growing up in Italy, school was very traditional. They never spoke, for example, about gender, environment, and cultural appropriation. Rachele introduced me to these ideas. She gave me many books to read, and I saw that what she was saying is true. But won’t find one woman mentioned in any of the art books in Italy – only men. I reflect on that a lot. If you grew up like this, this is your only reference. Some people say to me, ‘Why do you use so often the title of some book for your show?’ And I say, ‘It’s because I want to encourage young girls to actually read these books.’
I think this is exactly why Dior’s message is so inspiring to a new generation of women.
I hope so. I think that with new media, younger people are so lucky. I tell my daughter and son that, in my time, none of these technical things existed. There was no opportunity to learn something new in one second. I feel a little bit prehistoric with them. They can criticize my generation, but honestly, it was a completely different culture, what I came from.
Now, you can be exposed to a new book, new information, new music in one second. When I was my children’s age, I was like a child. They are so much more mature, they’ve been around the world. Even as a privileged girl, I didn’t have the same experiences as them growing up. Culture made the difference. It makes the difference now.
What do you think about the ongoing gender differences that are still prevalent today?
I think that women have made themselves into what men want. It’s an interesting thing. I think we impose limits on ourselves. That is the big problem. I don’t know why, religion maybe? I don’t know why you think you have to conform yourself to the system. That is the real unbelievable story. You can be free, but you choose not to be. That disturbs me a lot. I think it’s about being conscious of yourself. You don’t learn all of this or change in one day, it’s not easy.
For me, when they proposed for me to come to Dior, I was initially scared. I thought, ‘Oh my god, is this crazy? I’m 50 years old. And they want me to move to Paris? I will have to leave my husband, my daughter, and my son behind.’ But when I went to my family, they were so supportive. They encouraged me to test myself, to take the adventure now or live with regret. They were so excited for me, but I was scared to leave my comfort zone at first.
We must learn to love ourselves more, and criticize less.
You feel guilty for leaving your kids, but mine were like, ‘We can be alone. Please, go and do it.’ It can be scary to be brave, to make what we really want happen. We live with this idea that we must live for and please other people. I don’t know why, it’s in our DNA – that’s the problem. We put the pressures on ourselves to please everyone. We’re human, but we’re women, which means we are dreamers. We must find others who respect our dreams. You are so much more critical of yourself than others are of you. We have to learn to see ourselves with love. We must learn to love ourselves more, and criticize less.