Maria Grazia Chiuri is in a reflective mood when she meets Vogue at Christian Dior’s design headquarters in Paris, ahead of their AW19 show. The artistic director of the French fashion house, now aged 55, first met Karl Lagerfeld when she was a 25-year-old designer at Fendi, and news of his passing has led her to contemplate her role in the fashion world. “He was the original creative director, the first to work under another house name like Chanel and Fendi,” she says. “You have to reflect the history of a brand when you are designing for somewhere like Dior, people on the outside recognise the code, and the most important code of Dior is the Fifties silhouette.”
But this season, Chiuri didn’t want to rely solely on the nipped waists and voluminous skirts of Dior’s iconic New Look. She is excited by the “completely new point of view” that curator Oriole Cullen has brought to the Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (until 14 July). The show centres on Mr Dior’s anglophile leanings—not only did he famously dress Princess Margaret, he had a penchant for Savile Row suits, enjoyed starting the day with a traditional English breakfast and, in his own words, loved “English traditions, English politeness, English architecture”. And so, Chiuri started looking for her own new point of view for Dior’s AW19 collection.
The Teddy Girls-inspired silhouette
“You never know where inspiration is going to come from when you work in fashion,” says Chiuri. For this season’s boxy blazers in leather, denim and corduroy we have Stephen Jones to thank. About six months ago, the British milliner—who has been creating headpieces for the house of Dior since 1996—brought Chiuri a photograph taken by his friend’s father, the late film director Ken Russell. In the 1950s, before directing films like the Oscar-winning Women in Love (1969), and The Who’s rock opera Tommy (1975), Russell spent time documenting the Teddy Girls and Boys of London on his Rolleicord camera. The photograph that Jones gave to Chiuri was of 14-year-old Jean Rayner, who befriended Russell and introduced him to this post-war subculture. “She had attitude by the truckload,” Russell told the Guardian in 2010. “They were tough, these kids… they knew their worth. They just wore what they wore.” The Teddy Girls created an arresting visual identity by styling Edwardian drape coats—an aristocratic hallmark—with American rock-and-roll-inspired fashion, such as rolled-up jeans and flat shoes. They exemplify, Chiuri says, everything that fascinates her about British style: “It speaks about tradition, but at the same time it really breaks the rules.”
T-shirt prints quoting feminist literature
When Chiuri joined Dior in July 2016—the first woman creative director in the house’s 73-year history—she took the opportunity to rethink her approach to design. “I was very naive when I started working in fashion, it was all about self-expression back then,” she says. “Now, I see it as my job to deliver a positive message to society. I really believe that we are responsible for the next generation.” At Dior, Chiuri has instilled that message via her collaborators—choosing photographer Brigitte Lacombe to shoot the campaigns and commissioning women artists from around the world to redesign the Dior Lady bag. Her objective, she says, is to create a “global conversation around femininity”. For her SS17 collection, Chiuri printed the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essays, We Should All Be Feminists on white T-shirts; and for AW19, she has once again emblazoned the cotton basic with feminist directives, this time with the cover art of Sisterhood Is Global, the international women’s movement anthology by American author Robin Morgan. “It’s a promotion for the book,” she adds. “I want Dior to be about collaborating with other women to support one another’s point of view.”
The set designed by artist Tomaso Binga
“When you collaborate with another artist you have to give them freedom to express themselves,” says Chiuri. For AW19, she asked 88-year-old Italian artist Bianca Pucciarelli Menna to create the set. “I met her to speak out the project and then left her to it,” Chiuri continues. Menna is better known by her male alter ego Tomaso Binga, which she adopted in order to penetrate the misogynistic art world in the 1960s, before revealing her true identity as a form of protest during the feminist movement of the 1970s. Building on two bodies of work from the latter decade—Living Writing and Alfabetiere Murale—Menna photographed herself naked in poses that resemble letters. These prints have been arranged around the interior of the Musée Rodin in Paris, where the Dior show is taking place, so the letters spell out one of Menna’s poems. “Words are a very important source of inspiration to me,” says Chiuri. “Books aren’t like a film where everything is defined, when you read, you dream.”
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