It is the day after Dior’s haute couture show and I am scheduled to meet Maria Grazia Chiuri, the House’s Artistic Director, at the Dior headquarters on Rue de Marignan in Paris. But as the interview is running late, I decide to dash across the road to the Dior showroom, situated next to the iconic Avenue Montaigne shop, to browse through Chiuri’s pre-fall collection. Walking up the dove grey padded marble staircase, my path is marked with showcases of Chiuri’s couture looks from yesterday. A cream Bar jacket with a black sunray pleated skirt stands in one glass case. It looks almost vintage, except for the pointy kitten heels with satin ribbons secured at the ankle. Those shoes, along with the wonderful masks and headpieces by Stephen Jones, mark out the contemporary spirit of Chiuri’s first couture collection for Dior.
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When I am introduced to Chiuri in the grey and white interiors of the Dior headquarters, she is sans makeup. None of the kohl-rimmed eyes she always sports at public engagements. She is dressed in the same pair of jeans from the day before, and a navy sweater on top. Several grand cocktail rings dress each of her fingers, not unlike the ones worn by fellow Italian, Alessandro Michele of Gucci. Her hair is peroxide blonde and she looks a little weary, but pretty good for a woman who’s helming an enormous French house. Tasked with producing six collections a year, and countless accessories, bags, shoes and trinkets, it’s certainly a massive task.
I’m going to take you back to your first collection for Dior. You talked about the ability to show the next generation that they have the same opportunities today, regardless of sex or gender. You also referenced Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay, We Should All Be Feminists. What was the idea behind the collection?
When I first entered Dior, everyone said Dior is a feminine brand. I thought, what does it mean to be feminine now? Everything is changing, women are changing… With fashion, I have to propose different iconic pieces that you can mix with your own personal style, because people today are not referencing gender so much as their sense of style and attitude. That is the main difference, and only from there, can we speak about fashion.
What do you think is the attitude of the modern woman?
That she is one-of-a-kind. She wants to be unique, like a piece of art. She also wants to be part of a community, but with a very unique personal style. I think this idea is very strong now. But honestly, it’s not just women; it’s men too.
When you talk about personal style, I just browsed through your pre-fall collection, which has very distinct pieces.
I think fashion today is all about pieces that you style in your own way. Fashion is no longer a uniform. If you decide on a uniform, it’s because you chose that uniform for yourself. In the past, designers dictated the silhouette and look of the season. That doesn’t exist anymore. Today, customers can choose different looks for different occasions. You can mix different designers together. It’s not about a total look. It’s more about style and the new generation is obsessed with that. They want to express themselves through their style and their dress. They use their clothes to speak to other people, to say something about themselves. It’s a language.
What do you think this language is today? Do women today have more power?
Honestly, I don’t think women are powerful. I don’t want to talk about power, I want to talk about opportunity. I think there are very few places in the world where there is a powerful woman. You will never find a female president in Italy. The most influential newspapers, doctors, hospitals or universities are all run by men, not women. I think that Italian people must have the same opportunities, and it’s not dictated by gender but it’s about equality. But at the same time, perhaps it’s harder for women because they want to have a family and this balance is not easy.
How do you help a woman find her style?
When women ask for my opinion and advice, I have to consider if the look I propose suits their body or face. You can tell from their eyes. Confidence is key because even if you look great in a suit, it might not be your look. Fashion is not only about your appearance but it’s a feeling about yourself.
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What do you think is your role as an artistic director? You curate, organise and present ideas all the time to the audience.
I don’t use the same process; I change the process every time because each collection is different. In the runway show for ready-to-wear, you have to give a message that is current and very specific, because it speaks about the now. It’s a very seasonal collection, so you have to speak about the moment. Couture is more timeless, because the clients who buy couture expect the clothes to last a lifetime. The pre-collection is a big collection because it has to be in store for a long time. So I think it’s more interesting to have a wardrobe that you can mix, maybe 10 pieces that you can put together in different ways over the season.
Let’s go back to the incredible design partnership you had with Pierpaolo Piccioli for 25 years. Why did you decide this was the right time for you to leave Valentino?
I am 52 now, and I decided this is the right time since I have enough energy to start a new life in a new city, to take some risks and also to prove to myself that I can do it. I went to Peru with my husband two years ago. It was a very hard trip because the weather was challenging and I said to him, “Oh my god, thank goodness we [are doing] this now!” We both love to travel and to see other places, and because we have the energy, we just do it. So when the Dior job came, I knew I had to do it.
What do you want to bring to the House of Dior?
I really want to try to give my point of view in this company. I want to improve my understanding of French culture, because I never forgot that Dior is a French, pardon me, a Parisian company. I am Italian, and I understand Italian culture. I want to learn about French culture. I want to understand the French and give my point of view as I form my new vision for Dior.
Is it intimidating to work for an incredible fashion powerhouse such as Dior?
No, I don’t think about that. I live my life my way. I don’t think about it. I just do my job, that’s it.
It’s still a job for you?
It is a passion, but it’s also a job. You have to concentrate, because this is a massive international brand. You have to be very disciplined with yourself, you have to study, to work with the atelier. I think you have to be creative but with solid discipline in order to maintain the incredible quality of the collections and the products.
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When you talk about Dior being a Parisian brand as opposed to a French brand, what do you mean?
France has Paris, just like how Britain has London and America has New York. It’s a very specific place, with a specific culture, with a specific vision. In the past, Paris was the city where all the artists lived because they wanted to feel free.
What does Paris represent to you now?
Discovery. I want to explore the city because I spent a lot of time in Paris in the past but I never had much time to discover and understand this city. When I was at Valentino, Paris was a place where I visited for one week for a show; it was my job. Now it’s become my home and so, it’s completely different.
With six collections to produce alone, where does your energy come from?
It’s important to go around the world, to see exhibitions and to have time for yourself. If you want to have time for yourself to improve your culture and your mind, you have to be disciplined; there’s no other way.
Discipline is even more important with the rise of social media. What are your thoughts on social media, influencers and bloggers, and their impact on fashion?
You have to speak your own language. I think social media is important but at the same time, I want to do things that are closer to me. I’m not from the digital generation like my daughter and son. But I understand it, and you have to do what you think is good for your brand. Don’t just think about the social media sphere because not all of their references are of the right quality.
At the same time, we are all exposed to luxury, so much more than before. What is luxury to you?
Luxury is the possibility of choice, what you really want. It’s difficult to describe this word. I think luxury today is something very personal. It’s not the same thing to everybody. For someone, it could be a beautiful haute couture coat because it’s timeless. For others, it could be a fantastic t-shirt. Luxury is not about price; denim could also be luxury.
Do you think “see-now, buy-now” is something that also prescribes to that idea of luxury?
No, I think it’s a way to improve business. There is no other reason. I don’t understand why people can’t wait and have to be the first. I don’t think fashion is something you have to consume immediately. I love fashion because it is like a dream, a fantasy; not only because I can buy it. There are many things in fashion that I love which I don’t think are right for me. You don’t have to buy it just because you love it.
So, you think time and the idea of waiting are important?
I can wait. If I love something, it isn’t just for one minute. If I can wait and buy something after six months, I would probably love it more, because I waited and so I really want it.
You went through formal training in fashion. There are a lot of designers who produce collections who are also singers, dancers and TV stars. Do you think it’s important to have formal training?
For me, yes, but I’m of another generation. I’m classic; my vision is a traditional vision. I studied fashion and I have only worked in fashion. It depends if you have the talent. I believe that for those who want to work in fashion, you must have the talent to sketch, to understand the fit and the cut.
You created a labyrinth for yesterday’s couture show. Can you tell me more about the idea behind it?
Couture is very close to the Dior atelier, and when I started to work with them, I felt like it was a labyrinth in a way. While I know couture, I was a little worried to go inside. I was at a crossroads. I also liked the idea of a model at a magic ball in a labyrinth in a beautiful garden. So for my first couture show, I wanted to translate this idea in a modern way.
So is this your statement about your sense as an artistic director in the House of Dior?
Yes, I think Dior has a beautiful heritage and couture has incredible craftsmanship. But we have to think beyond that. We have to dream because fashion needs a dream, couture needs lightness and playfulness. It’s not just about consumption. Fashion is not just about business.
Do you feel that with couture, you are allowed to dream a little bit more?
Yes, I do, but at the same time, I also want to make couture wearable. It’s not about costume. I did the Bar jacket and suit, and it’s real couture. Just like the evening dresses, which are comfortable, dreamy and perfectly made for you. They don’t look and feel too heavy.
What do you want to say about your time at Dior, if anything?
I’m very happy about the t-shirt, honestly. It’s a sign of the times and it’s a sign of today. Because I think in this moment the sign is not only to create an unbelievable couture dress but to truly understand the environment you are in.
Photographed by Simon Upton
Styled by Windy Aulia
Model: Lee Hye Seung/Nomad Management
Hair and makeup: Emma Haddock/Indigo Artisans using Dior and Kevin.Murphy
Producer: Ashly Mileski/The Artist Group
Production: Alicia Tan
Production assistant: Kui
Digital technician: Troy
Photography assistants: Answer, Arslan Yang
Styling assistant: Halu