Maria Grazia Chiuri made headlines three months ago with a Christian Dior debut which featured T-shirts proclaiming “We should all be feminists”. Three months later, those prescient T-shirts have been seen on Natalie Portman and Rihanna at the women’s marches this weekend, and their imminent arrival in store was a hot topic of front row conversation at the creative director’s first haute couture collection for the house.
However, Chiuri’s take on the zeitgeist has moved on, so that rather than protest T-shirts, she offered pure escapism. Having negotiated the security checks which are now a familiar feature of Paris catwalk shows, the ultra high-rolling shoppers traversing the gardens of the Musée Rodin where the show was staged were confronted with a full-sized maze constructed from hedges, prettily strewn with out-of-season berries.
Beyond this, they entered a mirrored cube the size of a modest chateau, inside which a catwalk carpeted with thick, fragrant moss wound its way around a wishing tree hung with lightbulbs, crystals, fob watches and gems on strands of silk ribbon. Several hundred green velvet cushions lined the edge of the catwalk for guests to sit on. “It is impossible to use the same language in haute couture as in prêt-à-porter,” Chiuri said backstage after the show. “Prêt-à-porter is about a moment in time, but couture must be timeless.”
The fairytale mood was a tonal shift from her Dior debut but a familiar aesthetic from the designer’s years at Valentino. But while the lean, loose silhouette, the romantic tendrils of hair and the astronomical and magical imagery drew on the aesthetic she created there – best characterised as “Renaissance princess who shops at Net-a-Porter” – there was a newly bold, modern attitude which spoke of a designer on a mission to shake up the house of Dior, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.
In contrast to the restrained, private presence of her predecessor, Raf Simons, Dior’s first female couturier wears her heart on her sleeve. Having made a political statement with her first collection, she made a personal statement with her second, dedicating the show to Franca Sozzani, the editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue who died last month. She also showed a willingness to acknowledge vulnerability unusual in the smoke-and-mirrors pomp of haute couture, where image is guarded at all costs. The labyrinth represented the challenge of working with the Dior ateliers, she said, “which are so huge, and very different from what I knew in Italy. And I don’t speak French. I know I will find a way, but really, it’s a trip”.
Following the customary format of haute couture, the show began with a simple, monochrome tailoring section before building to a crescendo of fantastical eveningwear. In popular culture, the best known Dior silhouette is still the New Look’s full-skirted dress. But Chiuri is foregrounding a different Dior icon, in the bar jacket, with its proud moulded hips. Bar jackets, sometimes with caped shoulders, were prominent in the first section, often worn with what at first glance appeared to be skirts but were in fact wide culottes. “I wanted the clothes to be dreamy, but also modern and wearable,” said Chiuri.
There were flights of untrammelled fancy in the Primavera-style goddess gowns, silk flowers pressed flat between layers of pale tulle. But tiaras made of feathers and black net dragonfly masks struck a sharply surreal note, and there was dramatic eveningwear in bold, architectural shapes which seemed a logical extension of how the new Dior brand might look on the red carpet. A navy velvet dress with a stark, simple V-neck bodice and panels of sunray-pleated black chiffon in the skirt, and an off-white column dress with flounced sleeves were both grander relations of looks which are recognisably part of a modern woman’s real wardrobe.
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