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More Questions Than Answers at Dior

Maria Grazia Chiuri’s journey into Dior’s past brought her to Marc Bohan and his artist muse Niki de Saint Phalle. So how was Chiuri going to link that to her activist instincts?
By
  • Tim Blanks

PARIS, France — The sumptuous Christian Dior exhibition currently on show at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris highlights a failing in fashion history. Marc Bohan, the designer who served the house longest, and with great success, emerges as something of an unsung hero. No longer. Maria Grazia Chiuri, in her ongoing immersion in the archives of one of the world's most famous fashion brands, found a way to connect Bohan with her fervent effort to make Dior a standard-bearer for the activist spirit that was summed up by the now-notorious t-shirt from her first collection: WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS.

The bridge was the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, a friend and client of Bohan's, whose life and work embodied the struggle of an independent, original, creative and fragile sensibility to find success in a man's world in the second half of the last century. It was easy to see why Chiuri fell for her. A gamine beauty, de Saint Phalle was a Vogue model before she was an artist, and her interest in fashion meant that photos of her over the years encapsulated the evolution of one particular Parisienne. Pardon the cliché but Chiuri's collection was a journey, from the release of the 60s that the first look — jeans and a Breton-striped top — promised, through the long gilet over the pleated mini, which rang 70s changes, to lamé pajamas that screamed disco fabulosity at Le Palace, ending with the tulle-skirt-over-bodysuit that Chiuri has made a linchpin of her contemporary reconceptualisation of Dior. Some of that journey was de Saint Phalle's, most of it was Chiuri's, and it made a lot of people mad.

One major issue is that Chiuri is learning on the job. Niki de Saint Phalle was not a longheld passion of hers, she came to the artist through Dior's archives, so you could say that her surrender of her collection to the iconography of de Saint Phalle's art felt academic. The dragon, for instance, which cropped up in all sorts of places, big and small, throughout the show. In one instance, Chiuri reproduced the artist's revision of a classic Piero della Francesca image, in her version the woman leading the dragon like a puppy. It was crocheted on a top, crochet being something that would be broadly categorized as woman's work. And Chiuri wanting to celebrate that, in the same way she wanted to use the same materials de Saint Phalle used, knitwear, patchwork, canvas, mosaic, because those were the close-at-hand materials women artists often used.

Ah yes. This season’s manifesto-by-t-shirt: WHY HAVE THERE BEEN NO GREAT WOMEN ARTISTS? The title was taken from a 1971 essay by Linda Nochlin, which Dior obligingly reprinted and left on every guest’s seat. Worth reading, because it tracks right to the heart of male cultural hegemony, but how many in the audience did read it – or would? And how was it relevant for a fashion show? Well, the question made Chiuri think about context, how, when and why things are right. Bohan wasn’t as celebrated as other designers who’ve advanced the Dior legacy, but he arrived at the house when the world was changing for women, and he responded to that change. “It was no longer the designer who changed women,” Chiuri reflected. “The designer had to change because women were different.”

This is where she stands now. There is a new militancy in young women. Chiuri has scented that change. As incongruous as it seems for it to be nestled in the bosom of Christian Dior, them’s the breaks for the old guard.

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