LOS ANGELES, United States — Dior chief executive Sidney Toledano first tried to hire Maria Grazia Chiuri 18 years ago, right after she completed a decade of work at Fendi and just before she joined Valentino, where she began in accessories and went on to enjoy a successful run as co-creative director of the house alongside Pierpaolo Piccioli.
At the time, Toledano was after Chiuri to design handbags. Now, she is Dior’s first female artistic director for women’s haute couture, ready-to-wear and accessories. “Very often, fashion designers who are pure couture or ready-to-wear have no experience with the bags, for instance,” Toledano told BoF on Thursday, sitting on the patio of the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge, just hours before Chiuri would present her first Dior cruise collection, a lavish spectacle staged in the Santa Monica mountains, a 45-minute drive from Beverly Hills. “She has that, but she developed real fashion experience at Valentino, learning from Mr. Valentino himself and working with the atelier. I must say that she is a couture woman.”
That morning, the fruits of her labour were on full display. Dior clients — 350 of whom were invited to the runway show in what has become a commercially successful practice among luxury’s elite brands — sported full looks as they paraded down the hotel’s red-carpeted exit way. The favourite pairing of the moment, it seems, is a logo t-shirt worn with a long tulle skirt, grosgrain “J'adior” slingbacks and a sturdy cross-body bag, a metal “DIOR” latch clamping it together.
Four seasons into Chiuri’s tenure at the storied couture house, the brand continues to grow, even in a relatively flat luxury market. In 2016, Christian Dior Couture — which does not include Dior’s sizeable fragrance business — generated net revenue of about $2 billion, up 3 percent from 2015. Sales accelerated in the fourth quarter of 2016, after Chiuri’s designs had reached the market. (Just last week, Christian Dior Couture was acquired by LMVH, which has long controlled the brand, in a simplification of the company’s ownership structure. The market reacted favourably, with LVMH shares rising almost instantly on Euronext Paris).
Joining Dior has been a great adjustment for Chiuri. “It’s different,” laughed the Italian designer, holed up in a corner at the Chateau Marmont hotel. “France was born couture. Italy was born prêt-à-porter. These are two different things,” she reasoned. “The French are closer with the tradition. The Italians, in my opinion, are not close enough with their heritage, but they are very smart in the moment. They go very fast.”
Chiuri now lives in Paris during the week, travelling to be with her family in Italy on the weekends. She is used to speaking Italian in the atelier and working with fellow Romans. At Dior, she listens to French and speaks a bit of it, but largely communicates in English, Italian and physical gestures. “It’s strange, but it’s very easy in the end,” she said of the language barrier. “You can speak with the clothes... I believe it’s very important that you do this job in a way that you feel happy.”
It’s that mix of pragmatism and optimism that Toledano seems to appreciate. Chiuri’s punchy, logo-ed and romantically embroidered garments and accessories — as popular on Instagram as they are with clients, many of whom have begun following the brand since her arrival, says Toledano — are a major departure for Dior, which, in recent years, has gone through a series of creative directors. Some have raised eyebrows at the impact that these changes may have on the brand over the long term.
Chiuri is the third per person to hold the position of artistic director of the house’s women’s collections in five years — fifth if you count interim designers Bill Gayten and the duo Lucie Meier and Serge Ruffieux. But the rapid turnover seems to have done little to bruise the power of the brand. That’s in part because Toledano, who has been Dior’s chief for two decades, is known to work the back-end magic, ensuring a blanket of brand consistency in such a way that makes the house much less reliant on creative directors.
Part of that has to do with Dior’s business model. Unlike many of its competitors, 93 percent of the business is direct-to-consumer. “Wholesale is fantastic when you have a new creative director. If [retailers] like it, they push it,” Toledano said. “But when they don’t like it... boom, they move. This is why [direct retail] has been our strategy since the beginning.”
Dior also sells far more than women’s fashion. Its offering includes menswear, childrenswear, cosmetics and fragrance, all led by different creators under one maison. “Dior is a fashion house, but it’s not a pure fashion company,” Toledano explained. “The brand is so strong that it allows for a transition period. The plane could fly for a given period without the main engine. But we need the main engine to come back and go higher.”
Perhaps Chiuri is the right engine for now, in part, because she appears to be driven by her work, not her ego. “Dior is Dior,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s a huge brand with a long story. Our reference is not only Mr. Dior, but also the other designers who have worked within Dior.”
For instance, showing Cruise in Los Angeles was not her idea: “In any case, I love this city and I found [the proposal] very exciting. LA is closely tied with celebrity, but at the same time it’s about this idea of open space. That’s why we decided to show in the desert.”
There is certainly plenty of context from which she can draw, as Dior has done Los Angeles before. Mr Christian Dior first visited the city in 1947, and again a decade later. In more recent years, the house has formed long-term, coveted relationships with an extensive list of Hollywood A-listers who wear its fashion on the red carpet and star in its glossy advertising.
But Dior is not the first fashion house to capitalise on Los Angeles’ rising cultural capital. In 2015, Louis Vuitton showed in nearby Palm Springs, while Burberry staged a show at the Griffith Observatory. So while showing here is no longer a revelation, the business opportunity remains real. “Because of the proximity of Silicon Valley, because of New Yorkers coming, because immigrants from Europe are coming — at the end you have a lot of galleries, artists coming here,” Toledano said. “You see tourists, but you have a change in the perception of the West Coast.”
So perhaps it’s no surprise the Hollywood sign was miles out of sight at the show on Thursday evening, even if Dior ambassadors Charlize Theron and Rihanna — along with a laundry list of stars including Anjelica Huston, Julie Delpy and Brie Larson — were in attendance. Instead, Dior pitched several very nice tents at the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, high up in the Santa Monica Mountains; a bonfire burned as two hot air balloons sat on the horizon, emblazoned with the evening’s mantra: “Dior Sauvage.”
Folded on each seat was an engineer-knit blanket to keep the chill away, with knotted burlap rugs laid out below to keep the dust at bay. The wide-open space served, more than anything, to remind the audience of the utter vastness of California.
The collection — a riff on “wild and ancient femininity” — was an homage, in part, to the shirt-dress-heavy, black-and-white-leaning wardrobe of Georgia O'Keeffe, currently the subject of a knockout exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum — which Chiuri has already visited twice. But more broadly, it was her take on Western garb, re-imagined in Dior silhouettes new and old: A carpetbag circle skirt, a buffalo-check jacket nipped at the waist with a thin belt, a camp shirt embroidered with yellow roses, the skirt suit done in dark denim.
Dozens of visual elements, engineered with precision in the Dior atelier, were worked into each look, be it illustrations of herds of horses and oxen knitted into jumpers and printed onto silk, or embroidered patchwork depicting Vicki Noble’s feminist tarot card deck fashioned into a long skirt.
Those seeking new ideas were left wanting. Instead, Chiuri layered an oft-visited theme — favoured by American houses like Coach and Ralph Lauren — over designs she has been toying with since her arrival. Her look still lacks emotional resonance, but it's building as she further explores ideas of female strength and independence. And it's emerging as something more wearable than her predecessors, with the foundation being a long tulle skirt — sometimes embroidered — worn with a blazer, or a t-shirt, or an army jacket.
Many of the women in the audience paired theirs with trainers, but whatever the styling trick, it reads as youthful. Dior, like many luxury houses, vies for the attention of the younger generations, which account for a growing percentage of luxury spending. And the designer’s focus on that customer is perhaps best exemplified not simply in how far her pieces travel on social media, but in how good Jennifer Lawrence — who signed on as a Dior ambassador in 2012 — looks in the garments. (The 26-year-old actress appears infinitely more comfortable in Chiuri’s fairy princess bodices than in former creative director Raf Simons’ sharp columns.)
Toledano, however, says that the company doesn’t think in terms of demographics: “We don’t make calculations like that. Maria Grazia is connected to her generation, and to the younger generation. Observing the young allows you to put in your collection a spirit of modernity for those who [currently] have the buying power. And in the young generation, you have to create desire.”
Disclosure: LVMH, which controls Christian Dior Couture, is part of a group of investors who, together, hold a minority interest in The Business of Fashion. All investors have signed shareholder’s documentation guaranteeing BoF’s complete editorial independence. Lauren Sherman travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of Christian Dior Couture.