This article titled “Christian Dior’s invisible runway at the Louvre is a hit at Paris fashion week” was written by Jess Cartner-Morley in Paris, for The Guardian on Friday 26th September 2014 18.32 UTC
For a lesson in how to balance reverence with iconoclasm you need look no further than the catwalk shows of Raf Simons at Christian Dior.
And this balancing act is not just a clever trick; the bottom line depends on it. For the veneration felt by luxury backers LVMH for the illustrious past of Dior is matched only by their determination that Dior should dominate the future. It wouldn’t be a true Christian Dior collection without a nod to a Bar jacket, or a New Look suit, or a houndstooth check; but it must never feel old-fashioned, or it won’t sell.
For his fifth major womenswear show at Dior, Simons moved into the Cour Carree, the oldest courtyard of the Louvre. Part of the symbolism of this lies not in the ancient stones, but in fashion’s recent history: Simons has moved into the site where Louis Vuitton shows were always held under Marc Jacobs.
Nicolas Ghesquiere’s second Vuitton show, at the close of Paris fashion week on Wednesday, will be held at the Foundation Louis Vuitton, an LVMH sponsored gallery designed by Frank Gehry, which opens to the public on Monday.
So, both the history of the Louvre as a political and cultural hub of Paris, and the history of Jacobs’ Vuitton as the crown jewel of LVMH, make this a significant change of venue for Simons.
For his first piece of reverence-meets-iconoclasm, Simons put his catwalk in the Louvre, and then made it disappear.
The venue was housed in a mirrored silver box, placed in the centre of the courtyard so that the inner walls were reflected onto it, playing with the symmetry of the architecture to make the venue itself almost invisible.
Walking under the arches, the audience for a moment could see nothing but what appeared to be the opposite wall of the courtyard.
In the second instance, inside, the room was divided into four “salons”, demarcated by spindly black chairs arranged around circles of light beamed up from the floor. Seating and invitations suggested a traditional salon show, but the runway resembled the landing lights of a spaceship.
First on to the catwalk was a white sleeveless cotton vest – the ribbed, underwear kind – which buttoned at the hip onto a pair of beautifully cut narrow white trousers, entirely modern but for the hint of riding breeches in the way the waistband peaked at each side. A back view revealed a row of covered buttons down the back of the vest, linking the ribbed white cotton to undergarments of three centuries ago. The dress codes of the 18th century, both male and female – a slim sleeve becoming fluted and elaborate below the elbow, hips made theatrically wide with “panniers” beneath skirts – were mixed with clean, modern tailoring, the references sprinkled light enough to blur the lines between historical and contemporary.
The “panniers” were, of course, a Dior in-joke, this season’s reference to the Bar jacket, with its exaggerated hips, which Simons has made his go-to house reference, above the more well-known New Look.
The dramatic lines of 18th century dress give great catwalk – Alexander McQueen returned time and again to the frock coat for good reason – but some of the strongest parts of this collection were the sections which did not dwell too long on the past.
Quilted silk skater-style shorts and neat, jacquard blazers stood out, for all their utter normalness, amongst the panniers and embroidery.
There is much to admire in Simons’ conscientious theoretical exploration of how the house of Dior can be broken down into what he calls “form language” and rebuilt, stitch by stitch, into modern clothes. But now and again, when Simons’ pure minimalism of old appears on the catwalk, the audience is moved to miss it.
The figures back up Simons’ calculations as to how to “prepare for the future through a dynamic sampling and remixing of history”, as he puts it.
The most recent figures show that sales at Christian Dior Couture – which includes jewellery and leather goods, along with ready to wear – rose 13.4% in the first six months of this year. Sales in the US have risen strongly since Simons’ arrival, with US customers reacting particularly well to the colour and modernity injected into the brand.
However, the American names who have dominated the front row at Paris fashion week – Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and their baby North – were nowhere to be seen. Instead, pride of place went to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who currently holds a £1.6m contract as the face of Bulgari, the Italian jewellery brand which is part of LVMH. With a political comeback on the cards, the ex-First Lady is back in the spotlight.
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