The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dior was part of the patriarchy. Then she changed everything.

Maria Grazia Chiuri isn’t flashy, but the company’s first female creative director designs clothes to make a feminist statement.

Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first female creative director of Dior, was honored by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington this month for elevating women's voices. “It was not easy to find my way,” she says. “I think that is really something that you have to work on.” (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post)
12 min

She did not mince words or play coy. She did not deflect the compliments and acknowledgments.

From the moment in 2016 when Dior named Maria Grazia Chiuri the company’s new creative director, the designer knew it was a big deal. She has been acutely aware and supremely proud that she’s the first woman to hold such an elevated position at the French fashion house.

Since its founding in 1946, a host of prominent men preceded Chiuri. Yves Saint Laurent succeeded the house’s namesake after his death in 1957. Saint Laurent was followed by Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano and finally Raf Simons. During their time in the public eye, they were at turns domineering, combustible and tortured. All of them brought an exacting eye to their designs; each worked in concert with a fashion industry that was built on social rules, gender dictates and the notion that attire was fundamentally a kind of feminine plumage.

To use the language of feminism, Dior, throughout its history, has been firmly aligned with the patriarchy.

Chiuri arrived intent on changing that dynamic. “For me, it was a mission,” says the Italian-born designer.

She’s a rarity in fashion’s universe of billion-dollar brands: a self-proclaimed feminist. And her tenure has brought an element of calm to the house’s aesthetic. Her clothes are approachable and oftentimes even pragmatic. She doesn’t doll her models up in fantastical makeup. She has an affinity for accessorizing her ensembles with sturdy, comfortable shoes: loafers, work boots, block heels and sneakers. Collections have included anoraks and tweed blazers, fitted coats and swishy skirts, coveralls and slogan T-shirts, as well as embroidered evening gowns as delicate and colorful as a butterfly’s wing.

She hasn’t spawned a new aesthetic vocabulary like some of her colleagues at Gucci and Balenciaga. Still, her work has been well-received by customers who have kept the brand growing by double-digits and propelled it to nearly $7 billion in sales in 2021. And unlike its competitor Chanel, Dior has not made dramatic hikes in prices.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts celebrated the designer at a gala earlier this month, alongside Mellody Hobson, the African American financial wizard, and Judy Chicago, the diminutive eminence whose monumental installation “The Dinner Party” is one of the great works of feminist art. Chiuri has broken one of fashion’s glass ceilings with intention, finding inspiration in the work of female painters, writers and choreographers. She has studied the manifestos of progressive thinkers, often turning her runways into seminars on gender dynamics, cultural erasure and the divine feminine. Women’s studies undergirds her work.

But the relationship between feminism and the fashion industry can be full of complications and tensions. Fashion has a habit of trying to prescribe the correct appearance for a woman, and those prescriptions are typically quite limiting. And yet, fashion delights the senses. It can be beautiful and orgasmic.

At Dior, amid the pretty frocks, a host of fashion’s nagging depictions, exclusions and stereotypes endure. A virtual presentation in 2020 was cast with almost all White models. Chiuri attributed the decision to the show being inspired by Botticelli and Greek mythology. But that also reflects a stubborn momentum. Somehow Chiuri couldn’t see a way to broaden familiar fictional stories so they reflected the 21st century.

The models at Dior are still mostly young and skinny. “The models don’t represent women,” Chiuri explains. “When you see a model, it’s not that you want to dream about being a model. You have to see yourself in the dress. The model is only a girl that passes in front of you.”

“We have to change a mentality,” Chiuri says. In other words, we have to stop imbuing models with so much power, which seems like a worthy task. But in the meantime, why not simply share the power they already possess with a more diverse assemblage?

The female body continues to be objectified. The evening gowns are see-through. The nudity is titillating. And yet at Dior, a woman is at long last doing the creating, the objectifying and the teasing. Chiuri says she’s constantly expanding her own limited education, explaining that as a young fashion student, she was taught to consider the technical aspects of clothes, but not the cultural ones. Perhaps recognizing one’s own lapses is enough to signify change.

What does an intellectual reckoning look like in one’s closet? Perhaps it’s just a matter of being publicly, boldly delighted by fashion.

In 1997, the literary critic Elaine Showalter, then teaching at Princeton University, wrote an essay for Vogue magazine titled “The Professor Wore Prada”: “During the years that I was an aspiring feminist intellectual, I constantly struggled against the Joy of Shopping. On my first trip to Paris as a graduate student and bride, I tramped glumly through museums and churches by my husband’s side … my first really feminist epiphany of our marriage probably came when I wandered off to the grand magasins alone,” referring to the city’s famed department stores. Almost 20 years later, the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explained that her decision to be a beauty ambassador was in part to remind society that women can have a multiplicity of interests. Fashion doesn’t diminish one’s social justice concerns.

In 2022, perhaps Dior is feminist fashion because Chiuri is striving for it to be.

Chiuri, 58, was born in Rome and spent much of her career working for Italian design houses. She designed accessories at Fendi before moving to Valentino, where she and Pierpaolo Piccioli served as joint creative directors. When she arrived at Dior, she was not an ingenue, an enfant terrible or a wunderkind. She was a woman in full, and by her own description, she was profoundly regular.

“I have two kids. I’m married. There is nothing cool about me,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not skinny. I’m not fat. I have just a normal body.”

“I’m not desperate for fashion,” Chiuri says, which may be one of the key factors in her success. She is committed to the work, but she remains clear-eyed about it. She is a woman who, over the years, has striven to find her voice. It may not be as radical as some would prefer. Or as edgy. But it’s hers and that is an accomplishment.

“With the maturity, you know, you are not scared of the critics. You accept the criticism of other people. I respect also the people that criticize me because I found sometimes the critics are very helpful to understand some aspect of me. That is possible only with maturity,” Chiuri says. “When you are younger, sometime you are fragile. You are more scared to make a mistake. Now I am more, I am confident. If I do make a mistake, I say, ‘Okay, I start again.’ The problem when you are younger, a little mistake can give you anxiety: ‘Oh my God! The mistake!’ Now, it is different.”

Chiuri’s success has been built, in large measure, by seeking kinship with other women. She found common ground with artists like Chicago and Niki de Saint Phalle, whose outsize sculptures pay tribute to robust female forms. Italian artist Bianca Pucciarelli Menna, who adopted the masculine nom de plume Tomaso Binga, opened one Dior show with a reading. Chiuri has rooted through the writings of American art historian Linda Nochlin, known for her 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” She has quoted the work of Adichie, who declared that “we should all be feminists.” Virtually every ready-to-wear collection seemed to offer a T-shirt with a phrase encouraging people to hear women’s voices: “Sisterhood is powerful.” “Sisterhood is global.”

“I understood that Dior has a big audience, so the idea was to share this big audience with other women, because I really believe that we have to work in a community way,” Chiuri says. “And this conversation with the artists, with photographers, writers from different countries, different ages, different experiences, helps me to reflect about my work at Dior.”

Chiuri’s shows challenge the intellect, even if the clothes sometimes fail to make the kind of emotional connection that the most mesmerizing fashion can. Her clothes know few extremes. They aren’t austere and minimal, refusing all the frills that define female attire. They aren’t urgently sexy, turning fashion into a way for a woman to publicly declare ownership of her sensuality. The clothes don’t scream power or gravitas. In some ways, they are simply lovely, well-made clothes detached from any great need to represent anything other than the precise way that a woman wants to dress in a given moment.

The Dior runway had thought-provoking feminist commentary again. But the clothes? Meh.

After a pandemic pause and a reliance on virtual presentations, Chiuri is once again showing collections to live audiences and trotting those collections around the globe to Athens and soon, Seville. Despite all the soul-searching two years ago that occurred within an industry known for its enormous carbon footprint and exhausting travel schedule, fashion is back to its old habits. Chiuri is sitting at her desk in Paris in an expansive office, video-chatting with The Washington Post a few days before she heads to the United States, where she will be feted in the nation’s capital and then New York. The camera offers a wide-angle view of an architecturally elegant space filled with warm-honey tones but that has reduced Chiuri to a platinum-haired speck in the distance.

“I am so far! This is impossible,” Chiuri complains to unseen colleagues situated beyond the camera’s sweep. “Move the video, please. Just a little bit. Move the table. I’m sorry. I’m not so digital.”

Chiuri slowly comes into view. She may not be the reigning queen of TikTok, but she has some 470,000 followers on her personal Instagram, where her posts are a combination of brand marketing, homages to notable women such as bell hooks and shout-outs to her husband and children. It is a collage of her influences: her professional team, a salon of public intellectuals and a kitchen cabinet of intimates.

Like so many women, Chiuri sometimes underestimates herself. She came of age in the late 1970s and early ’80s. She is older than entrepreneurs such as Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo and younger than baby boomer stalwarts Miuccia Prada and Donatella Versace. She is neither an iconoclastic founder of her own brand or the heir to a family business. She’s faced hurdles presented by an industry that has long looked to men as oracles and to women as mere muses. But other obstacles have been a matter of personal confidence and the ability to ignore cultural judgment.

“I never imagined that [it] could be possible for me to arrive in this position,” Chiuri says. “We are living in a patriarchal world. That is the real feeling for women, for myself. It was not easy to find my way. I think that is really something that you have to work on.”

“If a man [has] kids and is really involved in his career, it’s okay. If [women] have kids and you want to make a career, it’s ‘Oh! You left your kids!’ It’s not easy,” Chiuri says. “When I decided to move to Paris at 52 years old, and left my husband in Rome with my son, I left my comfort zone.” Chiuri was, she says, defying the Italian tradition of multiple generations of a family sticking close to home.

Fashion has been a process of learning, Chiuri says, about history, culture and herself.

A few days after tangling with technology from her Paris office and gushing her admiration for Judy Chicago, Chiuri is at the National Building Museum surrounded by hundreds of guests in black tie who have come to celebrate her, Hobson and, of course, Chicago — her shag cut streaked with purple, or perhaps it’s fuchsia. The artist’s textile banners adorn the space. “What if women ruled the world?” asks the largest of them.

After two years of postponements, it’s a familiar party scene of shoulder-to-shoulder guests sipping cocktails, with the men mostly in classic tuxedos and the women in evening gowns with a particular emphasis on Dior, which is the event’s main sponsor. The most popular Dior gowns tonight are those embellished with delicate embroidery, that graze the floor and that are sheer enough to reveal the silhouette of legs and hips as the fabric flows around the body. The dresses recall Dior’s history as a fashion house that reveres classic femininity and romance. They’re worn by women who are diverse in age, race and size. None of them looks like the runway’s wispy willows. They are sturdier and far more daunting.

The designer is wearing trousers and a plush tuxedo jacket with low heels. Her hair is pulled back into an imperfect ponytail and her eyes are brushed with dark shadow. She is fretting about her English in the minutes before she thanks the audience for embracing her work and her goals for the brand.

Earlier, Chicago had remarked: “Because human beings created this world, human beings also have the potential to change it. And change it we must.” Chiuri has declared it her mission to alter her small corner of it.

“Each person uses clothes in a very personal way,” Chiuri says. “In the past, the creative director didn’t receive the kind of education to understand very well what there is behind clothes.” Today, there is greater clarity. At Dior, behind the clothes, there is a woman.