One in a series on the clothes that made a statement at Paris Fashion Week.
PARIS — The clothes mattered — but in the case of Christian Dior, the sentiment mattered more.
When Maria Grazia Chiuri made her debut as the creative director of Dior Friday, she did so with an unequivocal statement about feminism. It was a driving force in conceptualizing the look of her ready-to-wear collection. Feminism was referenced in bold letters on a T-shirt worn by a model on her runway.
And it was evoked in excerpts from a speech by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that echoed throughout the show’s musical soundtrack: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.”
Presented in a temporary pavilion constructed in the courtyard of the Rodin Museum, Chiuri’s spring 2017 collection was not a political statement. No flat-footed speechifying or overly intellectualized garments. The clothes were not fraught with deep meaning. Nothing beyond that’s-a-pretty-dress or my-what-a-great-jacket. Instead, in a straightforward manner, Chiuri simply voiced her consideration of gender inequities, whether within the highest ranks of business — including the fashion industry — or the way masculinity provides a default template of authority.
When Chiuri was appointed creative director at Dior this summer, she became the first woman ever to helm the prestigious fashion house. Dior is not simply another brand — certainly not within the legacy of French fashion. It has roots dating to 1946, when founder Christian Dior, created the “New Look,” a tailored but lush style of dress that helped revive the entire French fashion industry after World War II.
Dior maintains a couture atelier, continuing the tradition of clothes whose handmade details elevate them to a kind of artistry. The company has dressed the wives of French presidents. It is not merely a significant business, it is one that is deeply rooted in France’s cultural identity.
Over the years, the house has been run by a steady stream of men: from Dior himself and his successor Marc Bohan to Gianfranco Ferre, John Galliano and Raf Simons. Until finally, Chiuri, who arrived after a successful run at Valentino.
“I strive to be attentive and open to the world and to create fashion that resembles the women of today,” Chiuri said in her show notes.
What does that mean? It entails creating clothes for women whose lives have become over-scheduled and who have neither the time nor the inclination to indulge in a wardrobe that requires an excessive amount of effort. Women still care about clothes, but their interest in them has shifted. Unless they are blogging stars or Instagram geeks, women long ago stopped being ruled by designer pronouncements. They don’t kowtow to what’s in and what’s out. For them, fashion is for work and private life, which means it needs to make them feel like they’re more than just competent — like they’re firing on all cylinders. And fashion is entertainment.
Chiuri focused on addressing those two demands while also making a strong argument that they are not necessarily conflicting. She was inspired by fencing uniforms, in part because they are unisex. As she noted, aside from a few protective elements, there’s very little difference between uniforms worn by men and women. She’s not arguing for androgynous dressing, but she’s questioning the notion that masculine style has to be the standard against which everything else is compared.
There are white jackets that fit snugly like a fencing uniform, white vests that buckle across the back, and heart-shaped embroidery on bodices. There was also a play for street cool with visible underwear bearing the Christian Dior name in bold letters.
There are fanciful crew-neck sweaters and white jeans, which unfortunately look a bit like Mom’s. And there was that white cotton T-shirt that read: “We should all be feminists.” The T-shirt was paired with a navy embroidered tulle skirt.
The show ended with a steady stream of models in tulle dresses embroidered with colorful flora, insects and other whimsical strokes.
Much of the accessible and easy daywear did not, at first glance, seem to have the luxurious details and mark of a designer hand that make them worth Dior prices. But the evening gowns were charming and glamorous, each bearing evidence that they were conceived with singular vision and executed by accomplished artisans.
Chiuri’s debut was laudable mostly because she made one want to see more. How will she turn Dior into a house that lays claim to its history but that also speaks to modern women of ambition, accomplishment and style? How will Dior thrive in the now?
Feminism is not a design aesthetic but it is potent inspiration.