PARIS, France — Strange people in the fashion world. Take Dior. The couturier who founded the house with money provided by Marcel Boussac, the cotton baron, was secretive and superstitious, always looking for traitors hiding behind curtains. And nothing much seems to have changed since the man described by Cecil Beaton as “the Watteau of couturiers” first took the fashion world by storm in 1947, the year in which Christian Dior opened his doors with a big bang that became known as the New Look.
Since his death ten years later, there have been many different heads of design at this most famous of fashion houses: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano. Saint Laurent was sacked (almost immediately) for being too modern, Bohan (after a long run) for being too ordinaire, Ferré (for being too stilted) and we all know what happened to John Galliano. In no case did the house publicly acknowledge the work of the deposed designer.
But now we face a brave new world with Raf Simons at the helm. He is a bold and inspired choice by the Dior executives. He has a good track record and will soon have a worldwide profile. But not quite yet. And I think that the Dior executives are aware of this, which is why, for his first Dior outing, the show space was overwhelmed with an exceedingly ostentatious display of flowers that literally covered the walls of the venue. What’s more, an unusually large number of designers — Marc Jacobs, Alber Elbaz, Donatella Versace, Christopher Kane, Pierre Cardin, Diane von Furstenberg, Riccardo Tisci, Olivier Theyskens and Azzedine Alaïa — had been called in to fill the front rows.
But the over the top choreography was unnecessary. Raf Simons is a very good designer and Dior should have the confidence to stand by him without cheerleaders or fancy frills. They were part of the Galliano era, but that is gone and they have no place in Dior by Raf Simons.
Indeed, with Simons at the helm, Dior has the chance to move forward and modernise itself — but not if, like his predecessor, Simons feels the need to quarry through the archives and then try to stop them from looking old-fashioned. Don’t get me wrong. In Galliano’s hands, it was a magnificent homage to ’50s couture, but there is only one Galliano.
And there is only one Raf and he must be himself. There is no point in trying to do Galliano doing Dior doing the turn of the century when Dior’s mother was young and glamorous. Both of those men were about an anachronistic love of a previous period, not as a jumping off point, but as a valid recreation of the period in its own right. Both were theatrical. And even at the time, sophisticated fashion commentators saw the New Look only as a stop gap after the privations of the war years. Indeed, in the ‘50s, it was Balenciaga and Chanel who assured the future of fashion, not Dior. His memorial lies in the fact that he saved Paris as the world’s fashion capital, a much more important achievement, some might say.
But Chanel demonstrated why she was more important for the future of fashion than Dior. The Chanel suit was born modern and has needed no adaptation over the years in order to keep it modern. At Chanel, it seems there is no need to look back, whereas at Dior it’s become a fixed habit to do just that.
And this is precisely what Raf Simons must fight. He has reached maturity as a designer. He has his own philosophy. He understands modernity. He must capitalise on these things, and on the position of working for one of the greatest labels in the world, rich enough to indulge him in any way. He is in the unique position of being able to finally modernise couture and break out of the endlessly atavistic circles it has spun for so long.
But he will not do so if he spends his time simply giving his own spin to the thinking of Christian Dior and John Galliano. He must look into his heart and mind, remember what makes him unique and forget all about the Dior archive. It has been endlessly examined and re-examined and generally done to death already. Raf Simons has a strongly individual aesthetic. He has no need to lean on the past.
He is not son of John Galliano. He is Raf Simons, future leader of the pack.
Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.