PARIS, France — For her debut show at Dior in September 2016, Maria Grazia Chiuri designed a collection that flopped with key critics. Her fencing jackets, frilly lace tops, tulle skirts and “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirts were “cookie-cutter,” according to The Cut’s Cathy Horyn. And let’s not forget the whispers on the front row that, between Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, who worked together at Valentino, Dior had picked the wrong designer. In fact, season after season, critics have noted Chiuri’s lack of creative invention and wondered, in the words of Horyn, whether she was the “right designer to lead Dior.”
And yet, customers have lapped up Chiuri’s designs. Total sales of Christian Dior Couture (which includes the much smaller menswear line designed by Kim Jones) are expected to hit €3.2 billion for 2019, up 26 percent from the previous year, surpassing sales at Christian Dior Parfums, the separately managed beauty side of the brand, according to estimates from Morgan Stanley. (In 2016, the year Chiuri joined the company, sales at Christian Dior Couture were a mere €1.9 billion).
To be sure, Chiuri has offered up plenty of Dior clichés. But her re-working of the house codes with an easy-to-wear, modern twist, alongside savvy marketing and merchandising strategies, has been a success.
At their core, Chiuri’s collections are composed of wearable, no-brainer takes on Dior icons like the bar suit and the layered tulle dresses that both heavily reference the archives and flatter a range of body types, speaking to the large segment of consumers who are looking for easy clothes that make a brand statement.
Maria Grazia knows how to talk to women. She has a real knowledge of what you want to wear.
Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. Chiuri reportedly had a major role to play in creating the first-ever "It" bag — the baguette at Fendi, where she started her career. Moving to Valentino in 1999 as accessories designer, she played a role in creating the hugely successful rockstud franchise there.
Bestselling Dior items on parent company LVMH’s multi-brand e-commerce platform 24S include the brand’s slingback pumps, which the site’s Global Buying Director Maud Barrionuevo calls “accessible and easy to wear.” From the ready-to-wear collection, the iconic Dior silhouettes and slogan knits perform best. “She delves into the heritage and brings something else,” Barrionuevo said.
Chiuri is Dior’s first female designer and, according to buyers, this gives her an advantage. “There is something special about a woman designing for women which is what Maria Grazia has tapped into; the clothes are luxurious but also have a degree of comfort and practicality about them,” said Maria Milano, Harrods’ head of womenswear.
Chiuri has also tapped into the cultural zeitgeist. For example, her feminist slogans “arrived at a time when the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum, so there was a captive audience,” explained Milano. "Maria Grazia knows how to talk to women,” added Barrionuevo. “She has a real knowledge of what you want to wear. And at the same time, she carries a very positive message about women that is in tune with the times.” (The set for Dior’s show today is said to reference sustainability).
“A fantastic eye on merchandising” is another of Chiuri’s key skills, according to luxury analyst Mario Ortelli. “Maria Grazia’s ability to produce cleverly merchandised collections have brought increased relevance and desirability for the brand,” added Milano.
Maria Grazia Chiuri is a bulldozer. She even sets up the showroom for buyers.
When, in 2018, Chiuri brought back Dior’s iconic saddle bag, created by John Galliano in 1999, the launch was accompanied by a coordinated Instagram blitz involving over 100 influencers. The campaign was an instant hit, generating $3.4 million in earned media value (EMV) for the third quarter of 2018, according to Tribe Dynamics. Dior would not disclose how this translated into sales. (Dior currently ranks high in social media engagement, ranking third amongst luxury brands, behind only Gucci and Chanel, according to Bernstein).
Then, there’s Chiuri’s partnership with Dior Chief Executive Pietro Beccari. “Dior is on fire,” said Bernstein luxury analyst Luca Solca. “I think that the combination of an excellent chief executive and a very effective and commercial creative director is proving [to be] a winner.”
Beccari’s professional relationship with Chiuri is an important factor in Dior’s success, according to Solca. A fellow Italian, Beccari joined Dior from Fendi and shares with Chiuri a common commercial vision: “Beccari is known to be a demanding and sharp leader,” said a former Dior employee. “The partnership between him and Chiuri is proving successful." Added one internal source: “Maria Grazia Chiuri is a bulldozer. She even sets up the showroom for buyers.”
Looking ahead, analysts are bullish on the future of Dior. “We believe that Dior brand sales could grow to more than an estimated €9 billion by 2025 [from an estimated €6.3 billion in 2019] and that the value of the brand today could be €40 billion in LVMH’s Statement Of Position rather than the value of €15-20 billion that is currently priced in,” said a recent report from Kepler Chevreux.
Disclosure: LVMH is part of a group of investors who, together, hold a minority interest in The Business of Fashion. All investors have signed shareholders’ documentation guaranteeing BoF’s complete editorial independence.