Maria Grazia Chiuri has been shaking up the style rules since she took the helm at Dior two years ago. Sheena Khemaney talks to the designer about haute couture and, yes, casual wear.
It was big news in July 2016 when Italian designer Maria Grazia Chiuri took on the role of artistic director for Dior’s women’s collections. The first woman to head the storied fashion house’s creative department has since won over a new generation of social-media-savvy customers (along with the brand’s existing sophisticated clientele) with timeless designs and her signature masculine-meets-feminine aesthetic.
For her latest show – haute couture autumn/winter 2018 – Chiuri brought us back to the Musée Rodin in Paris. The set, a large box-like space on the grounds, was designed to resemble a haute-couture atelier and featured a floor-to-ceiling display of plain white garments from Dior’s archives adorning the walls. Most luxury brands pull out all the stops to showcase their elaborate couture creations, but Chiuri surprised show-goers with an array of day-to-night ensembles that exuded effortless Parisian elegance. The understated looks and toned- down colour palette (a midnight blue draped silk crêpe cady day dress and a dull gold lamé Bar suit come to mind) drew all the attention to the craftsmanship – and that’s precisely what Chiuri wanted.
Tell us about your latest haute couture collection?
I tried to make a collection that’s plain and in the realest sense of haute couture because sometimes I think the idea of couture is that it’s something expensive so it must be really visible, but I wanted to explain that couture is an intimate and personal luxury. For instance, when you approach and buy couture only you know the value that there is in it. The value is in the travail de atelier (work done in the atelier) and the idea that it is one of a kind and that it is really only made for one person and for one body shape. That’s the story and the inspiration for this collection.
Several of the pieces from this collection look chic but they also look practical to wear all day long. Is this your way of designing clothes for women with busy lifestyles?
Absolutely. I don’t think it’s possible, especially now, to create something that’s not wearable because then, to me, it’s not real. I think that we are supposed to give someone a dream and then make it possible for her to live this dream. My idea is that I want to make a dress really dreamy and desirable but at the same time one that you can simply use in your [everyday] life. I want to dream every day and not just on special occasions.
What is your approach to designing haute couture? Is it the same approach as designing ready-to-wear?
No, absolutely not. In some ways, I think that couture is more timeless. Pret-a-porter is more about what’s happening now. The approach is completely different.
You’ve been at Dior for almost two years now. What do you want customers to associate with the brand?
I want them to associate it with femininity but in a modern way. That’s what I’ve done for two years – promote an idea of women that’s more contemporary but at the same time remains very close to the values of the house.
Where do you think the mood of fashion is going?
That’s an important question. We have a huge responsibility with this brand because it has a big history but at the same time we have to understand that times have changed. I think that we have to try to work in probably two different ways. For couture, we have to maintain our heritage and these kind of values because it is so timeless. With the pret-a-porter collections, we want to play around more because it’s about what’s happening in that particular moment.
With trends like athleisure and street style, is it more about casual wear and comfort?
I think that, nowadays and especially with pret-a-porter, it’s important that you do a collection that one can use for different moments and that can cover different situations because women are really multifaceted. They work but they play sports and then they have formal occasions to go to.
The idea is to propose a formal wardrobe where you can mix it, where you can use the pieces in different ways and where you can personalise your style. We are speaking to a generation that has more information about fashion and has more of their own sense of personal style. I think we shouldn’t impose a particular point of view but instead support them more in a way to realise their own personal style.
Do you create ready-to-wear the same way you would create accessories?
In some ways, yes, because I really like to make the clothes in pret-a- porter iconic pieces. Accessories is a world where iconic is something that’s very important because you want to buy an iconic bag or iconic shoes. In this kind of culture you can also translate it into pret-a- porter because the bar jacket is also an iconic jacket. It’s not a seasonal jacket. It’s a jacket that you can use for more than one season.
In pret-a-porter, I try to mix in elements that probably are more seasonal but some – especially jackets, coats or denim pants – could be iconic pieces that are more timeless.
You’ve created your own signatures at Dior and you’ve also recreated previous house codes and accessories. How important is it to reinvent Dior’s house codes?
I think it’s important to change things every time but still maintain the iconic pieces like the Saddle bag. You have to see that with a new eye because the style of life changes. The initial Saddle bag, for example, was without a strap. We decided to put on a special strap with a big ribbon because now it’s more common to use a bag with straps. We made the construction of the bag different too, because now I think there is another way to use the bag. It’s not only a signature piece but it’s something that lives with you.
Where do you usually find your inspiration?
Sometimes I get inspiration from a book, an exhibition, an article that I’ve read in a magazine or because I spoke with someone. You don’t really know where inspiration will come from but when it does there will be a sign that you believe that it’ll be good for the collection and you will move towards that. You don’t start to think about it, it just happens in your normal life.
How involved are you in the production process?
I’m really involved with that side because I don’t think it’s possible to produce your style if you aren’t involved in it. It’s one thing to think about an idea for a bag or a dress, to make a sketch, and another thing to produce it. For me, it’s very important because I’ll recognise the hand that makes the piece. I’ll recognise if a jacket comes from the tailoring atelier or the floor atelier. Sometimes I’ll also want to switch it. For instance, sometimes I’ll ask the suit atelier to make a dress because I want the hand [finishing] to be a little bit more graphic.
I think it’s very important to know who produces the piece. It’s also about the relationship with the designer and the people who create the pieces. It’s a conversation that isn’t possible to have another way.
It seems that fashion cycles are getting shorter and shorter. As an artistic director for a luxury house, how do you cope with this kind of environment and stay relevant?
The times are very short, that’s true. I was obsessed with that. When I started to work in fashion there were only two collections, one for winter and one for summer. Now we have one each month and it’s very difficult to work in.
It’s necessary to have a good team that speaks the same language and it’s important to work in a team. It’s not possible [as an artistic director] to think that you shouldn’t involve other people immediately because they have to support you and work with you on the ideas that you want to create. The only way that I found to work faster is to work very closely with all the staff. I’ll share all the information with them. We have a big room and we’ll work together on all the categories: shoes, bags, pret-a-porter, print, knitwear and so on. The only thing is to be inclusive.
Imagine you’re having a conversation with Mr Dior himself. What would it be about?
Oh, I’m very curious about him and his obsession with tarot. So I’m sure that I’d start the conversation with, “Please tell me all about tarot embroidery, pleating and tailoring showcased the sartorial skills of the dior atelier cards and why they’ve influenced you.” Also, I would like to know about art because he was a collector and he was so interested in art. I’m very fascinated by his life so I would like to know everything about art and everything about tarot.
What do you hope to achieve for Dior in The future?
I hope to continue this legacy with women. [I hope] that women in the future come to Dior and think that, in some way, they found a house that will take care of them. That’s what I really want.