Christian Dior, a perennially fashionable alumnus

Did you know that Christian Dior was once a student at Sciences Po? Pressured into enrolling at the school by his family, Dior promptly fled the diplomatic career mapped out for him and set out instead on the path to his illustrious future in fashion. Take a look back at an alumnus whose avant-garde vision has withstood the test of time and trend – and one who would perhaps have found the Sciences Po of 2018 more to his taste.

Cocteau once said of Dior that, with a contraction of dieu (God) and or (gold) for a name, the designer was destined for greatness from birth. Though his fashion house would not materialise until the age of 42, his fate was indeed to become extraordinary.

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. Through his contact with artists such as Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob and Christian Berard, however, he soon succumbed to the charms of a more bohemian lifestyle. Shunning his diplomatic prospects, Dior began to explore the world of art. Along with Jacques Bonjean, he opened a gallery on rue de la Boétie. But in 1932, the artistic venture came to an abrupt end due to lack of funding. The young Dior was forced 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 became the ticket to a new life. Dior sold his first fashion sketches, styles for couture houses, in 1935, as well as producing illustrations for various magazines. At this time he became 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, joining the following year as house designer. After the armistice of 1940, Christian Dior moved to Provence and survived for a time off income brought in by his fashion sketches, which were published in Le Figaro. On his return to Paris in 1942, he immediately began 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 instead decided that the house would be established under his name. In late 1946, the Maison Dior was set up in a townhouse at 30 avenue Montaigne. At Dior’s side were his muse and astute adviser, Mitzah Bricard, and, in the studio, a young designer by the name of Pierre Cardin. In his first collection, revealed on 12 February 1947, Christian Dior resurrected an older, more spectacular vision of apparel. After the grim war years, France was yearning for carefree frivolity. He met this demand with a new figure-hugging silhouette, reflecting his view that “Women don’t dress to cover up but to please.” Carmel Snow, powerful editor of Harper’s Bazaar, pronounced the collection a whole “new look”, a term that was to stick, becoming Dior’s legacy. The “New Look” emerged as the emblem of Parisian fashion, reclaiming its international status as the height of chic.

The success of the house was dazzling. On the strength of his sudden notoriety and less than a year after his first show, Christian Dior launched the perfume “Miss Dior”, created by perfumer Paul Vacher, in December 1947. “I feel I’m as much a perfumer as a fashion designer”, Dior declared at the time. Having now 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 an adept businessman as well as designer and he understood that couture needed to change faster. “It is boredom that supplants a fashion and encourages a perpetual need for renewal,” he remarked. New silhouettes were proposed every season, keeping his house ever at the cutting edge. The New Look Corolle line gave way to the Zig Zag, Vertical, Tulip, H, A and Y lines. Anen tire international elite, from millionaires to Hollywood stars, flocked to Dior. Marlène Dietrich coaxed Alfred Hitchcock into using his costumes in 1949 with her famous quip, “No Dior, no Dietrich”. 

In October 1957, while cruising  the waters at Montecatini Terme, Italy, Christian Dior died suddenly of a heart attack. Paris Match was headlined “Paris in mourning for Christian Dior”. Such was Dior’s aura that some wondered whether this would sound “the death knell of Parisian haute couture” as well.

An identity at once classic and iconoclastic

Yet throughout the decades since Dior’s death, his house has preserved a certain timelessness. Its identity is not limited to haute couture. Dior has many faces: menswear designed by Kris Van Assche, jewellery collections by Victoire de Castellane, Baby Dior, the Dior Home line, Dior perfumes and cosmetics. From Paris to Beijing via Granville or Moscow, the brand organises an unending reel of  shows and events that help to keep its name alive. Dior has held its own against fierce competition from the biggest international brands, at a time where luxury consumers are looking for quality, creativity and authenticity.

Now 72, the house of Dior has endured the passing of  trend and era  by cultivating an identity that is plural, at once classic and iconoclastic. From the Duchess of Windsor to Rihanna, from the Versailles gold of the J’adore perfume bottle to the minimalist Louis XVI grey, a favourite with Dior’s founder, the brand has steered clear of a single style. Mr. Dior’s many successors have variously 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 its founder.

This article was originally written by Serge Carreira, lecturer at the Sciences Po School of Management and Innovation.

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