As a Dior show under the direction of Maria Grazia Chiuri, it was naturally going to be a visual treatise on feminism. Since her debut with the house in the fall of 2016, the designer has firmly rooted her version of Dior in the politics of feminism, the indomitable spirit of women and their unlimited potential. Chiuri is the first woman at the creative helm of the prestigious French house in its more than 70 years, and this is a distinction she does not take lightly.
For two years, Chiuri has given her audiences a crash course in women’s studies with particular emphasis on the enduring effects of the patriarchy. She has sent T-shirts down the runway that turned a call for gender equality into a logo: “We Should All be Feminists.” She has quoted from and found inspiration in the late Linda Nochlin’s 1971 seminal art history essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists?” And she has celebrated the more recent work of the feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Along the way, Chiuri has spoken up about what it means to have taken on a sprawling creative enterprise and the network of boutiques, global production, advertising and international prestige it entails. And she has presented herself as a kind of everywoman, sorting out what it means to be a modern professional with a complicated mix of desires and obligations. (It is perfectly reasonable to speak of elections and embroidery in the same conversation. Why do we work so hard to pretend that it is not?)
Chiuri gives her audience an abundance to chew over. But ultimately, her primary responsibility is to the clothes: the look of them, their allure, their functionality. And, of course, there is this: Chiuri has also asked her audience to consider the way in which the clothes further the conversation about feminism that she has started.
She has put quite a burden on a few frocks. Bless her for setting her sights high.
For fall, Chiuri was inspired, she explained in her show notes, by the Paris 1968 uprising against the French state, its bourgeois traditions and the rules that infantilized women. It was a revolt that roiled society here, from governmental elites to the working class — an often violent clash that was led by young people.
For the fashion industry here in 1968, there were fundamental logistical concerns about production and sales. Would wealthy clients dare come to Paris when parts of the city were riot zones? But there were existential worries as well. Would this new generation of defiant young women allow themselves to be dictated to by a designer in an haute couture atelier? Would they engage in the formalities of fashion?
Dior itself was the object of of their outrage, both here and abroad, with women raising placards of anger and disdain for the brand’s conservative hemlines and imperious ways.
Chiuri mines these complicated times and emerges with a collection that exudes a Haight-Ashbury aesethetic. While it begins with prim kilts and matching jackets, it quickly evolves into patchwork blazers, macramé dresses, and embroidered frocks that call to mind Woodstock. Chiuri alludes to fashion’s “youthquake” of the 1960s, when miniskirts and go-go boots became popular. In modern terms, she pays homage to the American designer Anna Sui, who has stubbornly stayed true to a kind of music-festival chic throughout her long career.
It’s all perfectly fine clothing, but what does any of this have to do with Dior and the role that it plays in a cultural conversation about feminism? Are these the clothes that Monsieur Christian Dior himself should have been offering women in 1968? Is this what Chiuri – a woman – would have served up back then? Is this what Chiuri wishes Dior could have been?
More than anything, Chiuri’s aim seems to be to speak to a new Dior customer: today’s equivalent of those young women who protested in the 1960s and helped open up all manner of opportunities for themselves and for others. How does Dior speak to them? How do the brand’s aesthetics tell their story?
One is generally loathe to draw comparisons between behemoths like Dior and a small company such as the four-year-old brand Koché. But here it sees apt, in part because both are led by women. They showed their collections mere hours apart. And both seem to be striving for clothes that resonate beyond showrooms and runways.
Christelle Kocher launched her brand after gaining experiences at houses such as Dries Van Noten and Bottega Veneta. Her work has roots in street style, but it is elevated with a luxurious eye. She designs for both men and women; her models comes in a diverse range of ethnicities and sizes; her clothes look valuable but not precious.
Her fall collection, which she presented in the Casino de Paris with its stained burgundy carpeting and mirrored disco ball, was a strong aesthetic statement about gender equality, beauty and power. She offered oversized tailoring in forest green, knit dresses with deflated ruffles that drape with a melancholy flourish, and gilded coats and jackets that give her earthbound models an almost angelic character.
Whether one believes in the financial viability of Kocher’s vision or sees the beauty in it, her point of view is clear. Her voice rises above the noise. It isn’t stuck in intellectual muck.
At Dior, the clothes are beautifully constructed. The embroidery is glorious. The macramé-style dresses are exquisite. The tailoring? It oozes luxury. But that is the work of the Dior atelier. That’s the work of the men and women who keep the brand humming as designers come and go. They are the extraordinarily adept orchestra. But what about the conductor? Where is Chiuri leading them?
Power, activists will tell you, lies in finding your voice and in using it. Chiuri has absorbed countless books, essays and speeches about feminism. She is a terrific student. She is the friend ready with a reading list of inspiring prose.
But she has not yet found her own voice as the kind of feminist designer she aspires to be.
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