Signature looks from the house (l-r): Christian Diors New Look (1947); a Dior look by Yves Saint Laurent (1958-59); Dior couture by Galliano S&M with models hands bound together (A/W 00); Dior couture minimalist bar jacket 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 just to find my office. This place is not just a building, it is a village. (I can confirm this. Whats more, the miles of corridor and acres of stuccoed salon are done out entirely in the same pale grey and warm white, making orientation possible only by memorising the position of specific Avedon photographs.) One of the first times she left her office, she recalls with a throaty laugh, she had to call her assistant 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 distant from the outside, and quite formal; instead I found 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 weather, the light, the food. I realise how Italian I am about food, since I moved here but finds 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, embroidered 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 a thousand style books. Chiuri alighted instead on multicultural Paris and the citys alternative life, citing as influences Harmony Korines countercultural film-making and Walter Benjamins urban sociology. A city like Paris is not just French. Paris is a very specific 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 lightly. 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 job, he would say, this dress would be perfect for this woman. He wasnt making the dresses 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 50s. 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 show, eating lunch with her mum. I listen to her because she is the new generation, and because she doesnt say anything to 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 angles on Dior is the way she collages images from throughout the brands history, rather than worshipping at the New Look as if one collection could unlock all secrets, like fashions 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 sees 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 disbelief at every stage from the unicorns who stood guard along the candlelit path (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 lit as sumptuously as a Caravaggio still life. (Kendall Jenner channelling Audrey Hepburn in black shades, and Bella Hadid in a see-through dress on the dancefloor with A$AP Rocky that part really happened.) It seemed to stand for a new era 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 workforce 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 film LInnocente and was charmed by the beautiful images of fencing. I thought to myself, this could be in some way a new bar jacket. And if I put it with pants, it could be a modern Dior uniform, she says. The first look in her first collection became a white fencing jacket modelled by the crop-haired Brit Ruth Bell. First I just loved the image, but after I saw the film, 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 way I think. 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