Maria Grazia Chiuri on manner, feminism and Dior:’ You must fight for your notions’

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Diors new creative director the first female in its 70 -year history to hold the post is fascinated by modern women and how she can reflect their lives in the clothes she makes

It is Christian Dior who gazes down gravely from the portrait in petroleums, whose dress are in the silver-framed photographs that sit at an elegant slant beneath the white orchids, and whose name is stamped in distinctive sharp-serifed font on the reception desk at Dior HQ on Rue de Marignan. But the living, inhaling creative force of todays Christian Dior, who darts in shaking the rain out of her tousled bob, is a woman. Whats more, Maria Grazia Chiuri is nothing like the full-skirted, doe-eyed figure whose image is conjured up by the name Dior. She wears a black sheepskin coat, flat buckled black shoes and black trousers with a Mod-sharp crease.

Maria Grazia Chiuri is here to reinvent Christian Dior. A home that has been selling feminine charm since 1947 has a woman in charge for the first time. We walk the curving staircase to the first floor, into a salon with three tall white-shuttered windows, where oval-backed Louis XVI chairs are grouped gracefully around a generous expanse of freshly beeswaxed parquet.

On the staircase we passed Willy Maywalds famous photo of 40s Dior house model Renee, her feet posed in a balletic fourth on a cobbled Parisian street in a full black skirt and a white bar coat. But we are not here to talk about full skirts or the New Look. After 70 years of white-gloved grandeur and dove-grey refinement, the house of Dior now stands for something else: feminism. For her Dior debut in the Muse Rodin in September last year, Maria Grazia Chiuri sent on to the catwalk a T-shirt with the slogan We Should All Be Feminists, the title of a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Ted talk. So once Maria Grazia, as her squad call her, has offloaded her D-fence saddlebag, a millennial-bait crossbody with the DIOR name spelt out in knuckleduster gold, on to the grey velvet upholstery, I ask her why she wished to set feminism on the Paris catwalk.

Dior is feminine, she says. Thats what I maintained hearing when I told people I was coming here. But as a woman, feminine means something different to me than it means to a human, perhaps. Feminine is about being a woman , no? I thought to myself: if Dior is about femininity, then it is about females. And not about what it was to be a woman 50 years ago, but to be a woman today.

Maria Grazia herself is very much a woman of today. Her naturally dark hair is bleached a platinum blond, offset by sooty black eye; the effect, teamed with her all-black outfit( I am part of the generation that wears black, she shrugs ), is equal portions Debbie Harry and Donatella. The pussy bow of her sheer black blouse is tied in a rakish slim knot which is Mick Jagger rather than Nancy Reagan. Her hands, barnacled with rings, have an aesthetic that is more Hells Angel than chauffeur-driven: an eagle spreads across three fingers, an enormous pearl balances on another, a jagged flash of green on the other hand.

We Should All Be Feminists … making a statement at Paris fashion week in September 2016. Photograph: SIPA/ Rex/ Shutterstock

In the days running up to that first Dior show, Chiuris debut was trailed by a series of mini cinemas on the Dior social media accounts under the title The Women Behind My Dress. Women in the modern Dior ateliers, from seamstress to calligraphers, talked about their role models. The names ranged from Princess Diana to US Senator Elizabeth Warren. As Rihanna, Jennifer Lawrence, Bianca Jagger, Carla Bruni and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie took their seats in the front row, Dior released a pre-show statement that championed Adichies work examining the question of racism and the place of women in society. In previews, Chiuri had talked to editors not about her preoccupation with tulle or embroidery but about the influence of Women Who Run With The Wolves, Clarissa Ests book about the Wild Woman archetype and the patriarchys attempts to suppress her force in society.

When you are a woman building clothes for women, then fashion is not just about how you look. It is about how “youre feeling” and how you think, she says. I ask her what feminism means to her, but she bats the issues to away with a wave of those rings. I am not interested in the old stereotypes, of what a feminist looks like or doesnt look like. I dont think there is one style to be a feminist.

This inclusive agenda is as radical in the arena of Parisian high fashion as the presence of a political slogan on the catwalk. The higher echelons of French fashion are a world in which an image of swan-like unrufflement is maintained at all times and the Dior empire, which dominates prime real estate along Avenue Montaigne and Rue de Marignan, has an atmosphere as rarefied as a Disney castle. It is run by an immaculate female army whose faultless manners never falter. When I opt a seat for the interview, one of the Dior team moves a glass tank of white rises to the adjacent side table, so that you have a nicer view.

If the creative director of Dior is a kind of unofficial art director for femininity, then the appointment of a woman to the job after decades of mansplaining is a feminist moment that goes beyond T-shirts. Chiuri has already had a very successful career, alongside bringing up two children who are now both in their early 20 s. At 53, she discovers herself in a position to confiscate a new possibility in a new country, living alone in Paris from Monday to Friday and returning home to her husband in Rome most weekends. Feminism for me is about equal opportunities. If I am going to stand for something, I would like to stand for this idea: that if you are a woman you can have these opportunities in life.

Chiuri was born in Rome, examined way and expended three decades working in the city, first at Fendi, then for 17 years at Valentino. Her reputation was built on a Midas touch with accessories she was part of the team that created the Baguette at Fendi, and is credited with the Rockstud shoes and containers that played a huge role in raising both profile and profits at Valentino( the brand reached revenue of$ 1bn in 2015, two years ahead of forecast ). For the last eight years of her Valentino tenure, she and her design partner, Pierpaolo Piccioli, is in charge of ready-to-wear, too. During that time, they blended Romes Renaissance past with a punky modern sensibility to create Valentinos modern bohemian mash-up of hippy-length hemlines, slender feminine sleeves, tightly braided hair and hardware-studded accessories. Chiuris husband, Paolo Regini, is a shirtmaker; their son Nicolo , now analyzing engineering in Rome, and daughter Rachele, a visual arts student at Goldsmiths in London, were born during her Fendi years. For any woman who works and has a family, its not easy. You get home from run and then you need more energy for your family. You require a lot of energy. But I was lucky to have had a spouse who always supported me, and that I could afford to pay a babysitter.

The Dior job was not a decision she took gently. We are a traditional Italian household. We feed together every night. So this was a very unusual notion, for us. But when I got the bellow I believed at this moment in my life, I could do this. In the past, maybe it wouldnt have been possible and in the future, well, who knows. Right now, I have the energy to do this. She left behind in Rome not only their own families but Piccioli, with whom she had built a creative partnership. She plays down the significance of working as a solo decorator after a career were used in a duo( All the time, the reality is that there is a team) but in scrutiny words, the combination of the Dior scale, the exposure of flying solo and the novelty of her being female have glistened a spotlight on Chiuri more glaring than anything she knew in Rome.

Signature seems from the house( l-r ): Christian Diors New Look( 1947 ); a Dior look by Yves Saint Laurent( 1958 -5 9 ); Dior couture by Galliano S& M with models hands bound together( A/ W 00 ); Dior couture minimalist bar coat by Raf Simons( A/ W 12 ); We should all be feminists( S/ S 17 ). Composite: Getty/ Rex

Her first real challenge at Dior was more prosaic. The hardest thing was merely to find my office. This place is not just a build, it is a village.( I can confirm this. Whats more, the miles of passageway and acres of stuccoed salon are done out solely in the same pale gray and warm white, attaining orientation possible merely by memorising the position of specific Avedon photographs .) One of the first times she left her office, she recalls with a throaty giggle, she had to call her deputy from the street for directions back. But though the dimensions were bigger than Id realised, the atmosphere was the opposite. This is a house that looks quite remote from the outside, and quite formal; instead I find a very relaxed, familiar atmosphere.

She is tickled by the novelty of independent living in her new apartment near the Jardin du Luxembourg. Its like a second life! I feel like maybe I am a student at university in a foreign city! She smiles. She misses Rome The climate, the sunlight, the food. I realise how Italian I am about food, since I moved here but detects herself charmed by Paris. After the feminist splash of her ready-to-wear debut, the second Dior collection by Chiuri was a pre-fall line-up that took as its starting point Chiuris newly adopted city.

But the Chiuri take on Paris, as expressed in an eclectic line-up of slogan T-shirts, houndstooth capes, embellished denim and tiered lace, is an instructively unconventional one. Not for her the Francophile cliches of caf crmes and bourgeois charm, or the familiar tropes of soignee French Girl dressing which have sold hundreds of thousands of style books. Chiuri alighted instead on multicultural Paris and the citys alternative life, quoting as influences Harmony Korines countercultural film-making and Walter Benjamins urban sociology. A city like Paris is not just French. Paris is a very concrete space where many different people live. Chiuri interprets the ideas and values that this Paris represents to her in clothes. It is a very meta mindset, but she wears it gently. There is not just one Paris. I live in Paris now, but in a way I still imagine Paris, do you know what I mean?

The two people to whom Chiuri most frequently refers are Christian Dior and her daughter Rachele. The two seem to be in conversation in her head: the man who wrote the boilerplate copy for femininity, and the living, breathing incarnation of the modern female. When she had accepted the job, but before she moved to Paris, she read Christian Dior et Moi, the couturiers autobiography. When he spoke about his task, he would say, this dress would be perfect for this woman. He wasnt constructing the dress to please himself, he was making them for the women he dressed.

This idea, of helping women to express themselves, is how Chiuri hopes to channel the founder. Because it is not possible to have a reference that is a dress from the 50 s. It is just too long ago. But the ideas are still modern. Meanwhile, Rachele regularly takes the Eurostar to Paris, and could be spotted backstage on the day of the first depict, eating lunch with her mum. I listen to her because she is the new generation, and because she doesnt said a word about please me. I need her real, honest opinion. It is impossible to work in fashion now if you dont try to understand the new world.

One of Chiuris most radical slants on Dior is the way she collages images from throughout the brands history, rather than venerating at the New Look as if one collection could unlock all secrets, like ways Rosetta Stone. The Dior history cant be just about something that happened 70 years ago, she says. For many women now, when they think of Dior, they think of[ Sarah Jessica Parker wearing a Dior T-shirt in] Sex And The City. Mr Dior was only here for 10 years, so this company is also about all the designers after him Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, Raf Simons. And Hedi Slimane[ at Dior Homme] influenced this brand a lot, so it is not possible to talk about Dior and not talk about Hedi. She ensure herself as a curator of the idea of Dior.

The evening after her haute couture show in January, Chiuri had the venue reconfigured to host a blockbuster masked ball, an immersive extravaganza which invited suspension of skepticism at every stage from the unicorns who stood guard along the candlelit track( horses with gold horns and masked riders, but still) to the suspiciously handsome tarot card readers. On the banquet table, gold-painted lobsters, and tortoises carved from marble, tangled with swags of ripe grapes and quivering meringue gateaux, all illuminate as sumptuously as a Caravaggio still life.( Kendall Jenner channelling Audrey Hepburn in black tints, and Bella Hadid in a see-through dress on the dancefloor with A$ AP Rocky that portion really happened .) It seemed to stand for a new epoch of informality and unpredictability at Dior.

The day after the party I went back to the Dior showroom on Avenue Montaigne. I was there for a closer look at the Dior pre-fall collection in all its crazy glory leopard-print tailoring, blanket coats with logo-stamped hems, polka-dotted sheer knee-high boots but was struck, traversing those labyrinthine grey corridors, by something else about the Dior look. The female labour force seemed to be mostly wearing black trousersuits, with not a full skirt to be seen. Chiuri herself is, she says, obsessed with uniforms. Because a uniform is something that helps you live your life. When she was dreaming up her first Dior collection, she watched Viscontis 1976 cinema LInnocente and was charmed by the beautiful images of fencing. I thought to myself, this could be in some way a new bar coat. And if I set it with pants, it could be a modern Dior uniform, she says. The first look in her first collecting became a white fencing coat modelled by the crop-haired Brit Ruth Bell. First I only loved the image, but after I saw the cinema, I started to read about fencing. I love the idea that you go into a duel, but you dont kill. I think in some ways this is very close to the style I guess. I dont like violence at all. But I truly believe that you must fight for your ideas.

This article appears in the spring/ summer 2017 edition of The Fashion , the Guardian and the Observers biannual fashion supplement

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