Christian Dior, a perennially fashionable alumnus

Who today would imagine that Christian Dior had been to Sciences Po? Pressured by his family to enrol in the school, he promptly fled the diplomatic career mapped out for him and set out on the path to an illustrious future in fashion. As the Dior exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris continues, we look back at an alumnus whose avant-garde vision has withstood the tests of time and of fashion. And who would perhaps have found the Sciences Po of 2017 more to his taste.

Cocteau once said of Christian Dior that with a name that was a contraction of the words “Dieu”, meaning God, and “or”, meaning gold, he was obviously destined for great things. And even if he didn’t start his fashion house until the age of 42, his was to be extraordinary destiny indeed.

Christian Dior was born in 1905 in Granville, Normandy, and grew up in Paris. He enrolled in the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques – which would later become Sciences Po – but through his contact with artists such as Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob and Christian Berard, he gave in to the charms of a more bohemian life. Dior soon shunned a diplomatic career to explore the world of art. He opened a gallery with Jacques Bonjean on Rue de la Boétie. But in 1932, the artistic venture came to an end due to a lack of funding. The young Dior had to close his gallery and sell off his stock of Braques and Picassos. After this failure, and facing serious financial difficulties, he made his debut in fashion “by chance”, as he would later admit. His talent for drawing was a ticket to a new life. He sold his first fashion sketches, styles for couture houses, in 1935. He also did illustrations for magazines. At the time he was fascinated by Edward Molyneux and “Mademoiselle” Chanel, two couturiers at the height of their success. In 1937, he began working for the house of Robert Piguet, which he joined the following year as house designer. After the armistice of 1940, Christian Dior moved to Provence and made do for a time with publishing a few fashion sketches in Le Figaro. In 1942, he returned to Paris and went to work for Lucien Lelong.   

“Women don’t dress to cover up but to please”

Everything changed when, at the end of the war, industrialist Marcel Boussac decided to revive his textile business with a fashion house. Christian Dior was approached to head the studio of “Philippe and Gaston”. After several interviews, it was decided instead that the house would be established under his name. In late 1946, the Maison Dior was set up in a town house at 30 Avenue Montaigne. At Dior’s side were muse and astute adviser Mitzah Bricard and, in the studio, a young designer by the name of Pierre Cardin. In his first collection, shown on 12 February 1947, Christian Dior resurrected a more spectacular vision of apparel. After the grim war years, there was a yearning for carefree frivolity. He met this need for charm with a flattering silhouette, reflecting his view that “women don’t dress to cover up but to please”. After the show, Carmel Snow, the powerful editor of Harper’s Bazaar, pronounced the collection a whole “new look”, a term that would remain associated with the Dior legend. The “New Look” became the emblem of Parisian fashion as it reclaimed its international status as the height of chic.

The success was dazzling. On the strength of his sudden notoriety, Christian Dior launched the perfume “Miss Dior”, created by perfumer Paul Vacher, in December 1947, less than a year after his first show. “I feel I’m as much a perfumer as a fashion designer”, Dior declared at the time. Having conquered perfume, he continued to multiply the house’s lines with Christian Dior Furs (1947), Christian Dior New York (1948), a license for stockings and tights in the United States (1949), a license for ties in the United States (1950) and Christian Dior Models in London (1952). Dior was a clever businessman as well as a designer and he understood that couture had to change faster. “It is boredom that supplants a fashion and encourages a perpetual need for renewal,” he remarked. He proposed new silhouettes every season, keeping his house at the cutting edge. The New Look Corolle line was succeeded by the Zig Zag, Vertical, Tulip, H, A and Y lines. The entire international elite, from millionaires to Hollywood stars, flocked to Dior. Marlène Dietrich obliged Alfred Hitchcock to use his costumes in 1949 with her famous quip, “No Dior, no Dietrich”. In October 1957, while taking the waters at Montecatini Terme, Italy, Christian Dior died suddenly of a heart attack. Paris Match headlined “Paris in mourning for Christian Dior”. Dior’s aura was such that some people wondered if this wouldn’t sound “the death knell of Parisian haute couture”.

Blue chip fashion with timeless appeal

At just 21 years old, house designer Yves-Mathieu Saint-Laurent took over. His first collection, “Trapeze”, was met with acclaim, proof that the house still had what it takes despite the death of its founder. But the young prodigy’s romance with the house ended in 1960. Marc Bohan succeeded Saint-Laurent as artistic director of Christian Dior in 1961, and remained until 1989. Stars and princesses faithfully continued to visit the salons of Dior on Avenue Montaigne for what was a guarantee of Parisian elegance. Italian designer Gianfranco Ferré attempted to restore the house’s glamour and loftiness. But it was the arrival of John Galliano in 1997 that marked the beginning of a new era. The English designer transposed Christian Dior’s approach to the modern day. Until Galliano left in February 2011, he, like Mr. Dior, dressed women to make them feel beautiful. Under his leadership, the house of Dior first took up the “porn-chic” that marked the late 1990s. Galliano created a new image that was radically different from the muted salons of haute couture, with Nick Knight’s photographs of half-naked women in lascivious poses. The “Clochard” collection, inspired by the homeless, was one of the designer’s many provocative exploits. This repositioning was combined with an intensive development strategy. By multiplying the number of stores and strengthening business lines such as accessories and menswear with designer Hedi Slimane, the house tripled its turnover in ten years.

John Galliano’s scandalous departure in January 2011 prompted Dior to go back to basics. Raf Simons only spent three years as artistic director. Nevertheless, he boldly reinterpreted the values and codes of the Parisian fashion house with his radical and refined aesthetic. Maria Grazia Chiuri succeeded the Belgian designer in July 2016. For her first collection, Chiuri began her “Dio(r)evolution”, to use one of the season’s slogans. The house bounded into the twenty-first century with its vintage-effect monogrammed bags, activist T-shirts featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We should all be feminists”, allusions to sportswear and references to the house’s heritage. Chiuri supplies her own vision of Dior while remaining attached to its rich heritage.

Leather goods played a central part in Dior’s institutionalisation. The Lady Dior handbag has become an icon of the house. With a new version each season since 1995, it’s as much a point of reference as Hermès’s mythical “Kelly” or Chanel’s “2.55”. Campaigns and commercials by filmmakers like David Lynch and Olivier Dahan have been dedicated to the bag and its icon, Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard. In this way, Dior maintains its association with the glamour of cinema and Parisian elegance.

A both classic and iconoclastic identity

Through the decades, Dior has upheld a certain timelessness. The house’s identity is not limited to haute couture. Dior has many faces, with menswear collections designed by Kris Van Assche, jewellery collections by Victoire de Castellane, Baby Dior, the Dior Home line and Dior perfumes and cosmetics. From Paris to Beijing via Granville or Moscow, the brand organises constant shows and events that help keep the legend alive. Dior has held its own among fierce competition with the biggest international brands, at a time where luxury consumers are looking for meaning, quality, creativity and authenticity.

Now 70, the house of Dior has endured through eras and fashions by cultivating an identity that is at once plural, classic and iconoclastic. From the golds of Versailles for the perfume J’adore to the minimalist Louis XVI grey of which the master was fond, and from the Duchess of Windsor to Rihanna, Dior is not restricted to a single style. Mr. Dior’s successors have reinterpreted his references to art, travel, seduction and botany. Each designer has marked an era and enriched the house’s imagination while remaining faithful to the pioneering, poetic and refined spirit of the founder.

Find out more

Serge Carreira teaches a course on fashion and the luxury industry at the Sciences Po School of Management and Innovation.

“Christian Dior, couturier du rêve”, exhibition until 7 January 2018 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

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