The name of Marrakech’s most beautiful ruin, the El Badi palace, means “the incomparable”. Built in the Moroccan city by the 16th century sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, the majestic ramparts long ago crumbled to a dusty pink pie crust around a 90-metre stretch of glass-still water bisecting the vast courtyard. Paths are traced over sunken gardens, so that the oranges grow level with your feet as you walk.
“The incomparable” is an appropriate name, too, for Common Ground, the fashion show held there on Monday by Christian Dior. Taking place at dusk, lit by candles floating in the water, stone benches plumped with cushions especially embroidered by a local collective of female weavers, it was a jawdroppingly ambitious event, even by the standards of the ever-showboating luxury industry. As well as being bombastically showbiz – the aftershow entertainment was Diana Ross – this was also, as Dior’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri put it the day before, “an intellectual reflection on fashion”, which addressed the industry’s red-button issue of cultural appropriation.
Most designers have at their right hand a muse or a stylist. Chiuri’s lead adviser for Common Ground was the anthropologist Anne Grosfilley, an expert on African textiles, whom she approached after reading Grosfilley’s book about the history of wax fabric in the continent. It is worth taking a moment to acknowledge how unusual this is. The brainy, progressive tone taken at Dior is quite unlike that which any fashion house has adopted before. This new era of Dior is part of a shift in the cultural space occupied by fashion – a shift much bigger than Dior, but which Chiuri has identified and made it her mission to engage with. And what Dior does matters, because the brand occupies more bandwidth in fashion than ever before. Feminist slogan T-shirts have reinvigorated a house whose pressed-flower prettiness was beginning to fade. All-important accessory sales are up. At the V&A, the Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams show has been extended by seven weeks after the initial tickets for this summer’s exhibition sold out in 19 days.
The choice of Marrakech shows how sharply Dior has changed direction. Dior has long been defined by the New Look, but Marrakech does not do a wasp waist. On the candlelit El Badi catwalk, the silhouette was loose, long and fluid. Chiuri isn’t thinking about the hourglass silhouette these days; she is thinking about fabric. “Fabric is what gives fashion its attitude,” she said at a preview the day before the show, looking like a pirate, with heavily kohl-rimmed eyes accentuated by a black bandana tied over her hair. She has got a point about fabric – think of trousers versus leather trousers. Wax fabrics, which originate in the Indonesian batik tradition but became popular across Africa, were the pulse of this collection. Chiuri and Grosfilley travelled together to the Uniwax studio and factory in Abidjan in Ivory Coast, taking Dior toile de Jouy and tarot card prints to be remade in wax with local skill and creative input. Having made pop-feminism as much a part of Dior as the C-D logo – starting with “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirts, the first garment that went down a Dior catwalk under her name in 2017 – Chiuri is now taking a global outlook.
Dior goes to Africa, puts wax fabric on the catwalk with its logo stamped on top? The alarm bells are deafening. Cultural appropriation is a touchpaper issue in fashion – two years ago, a dreadlocked Gigi Hadid caused a firestorm walking in Marc Jacobs’s New York fashion week show – and was always going to be problematic with this collection. Grosfilley was careful to point out to journalists that wax fabric does not have sacred or traditional meaning, but that has not prevented its use being met with accusations of sacrilege in the past. Even Beyoncé, just a year after being widely praised for her meticulous celebration of Afro-diasporic spirituality in her visual album Lemonade, came under criticism for her “Africa-themed” baby shower in 2017, which incorporated wax fabrics into the decor. Some fans in South Africa pointed to a discrepancy between her celebration of African culture and a scarcity of live performances in their country.
On every seat at Dior’s show was a quote from the Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun’s book Racism Explained to My Daughter: “Culture teaches us to live together, teaches us that we’re not alone in the world, that other people have different traditions and ways of living that are just as valid as our own.” Chiuri and Grosfilley take the position that a thoughtful, respectful, non-exploitative model of cultural exchange is a more positive approach than keeping all references narrow so as to avoid any possible blame. “Dior is a global brand,” Chiuri said before the show. “As we move into the future, we need to represent many different points of view, not just mine.”
The fabric for this collection will be produced by Uniwax. “This collection is not about an idea of an ‘African look’,” said Grosfilley, “it’s a celebration of African savoir-faire, and it will be a part of a real African economy.” She hoped the collection will reinvigorate the prestige of artisan-produced wax fabric, which is threatened by digitised modern versions. “There is a lazy tendency to think that an African fabric is a cheap fabric, but in fact wax fabric has a history of being very high status. We want to honour it as a prestigious part of fashion history.”
In an effort to bring other voices into the conversation, the Ivorian tailor Pathé Ouédraogo, the maker of Nelson Mandela’s famous wax shirts, created a piece for this collection. Grace Wales Bonner, a serious-minded young British, mixed-race designer whose clothes illustrate her own thought processes about identity, was invited to reimagine Dior’s traditional bar jacket. Wales Bonner – who has said that the mix of traditional clothing, sportswear and streetwear she saw all around her while growing up in south London piqued her interest in fashion – added traditional Caribbean embroidery to the cuffs of the jacket “to bring an element of myself into this emblem of European luxury”.
The show represents part of an emerging conversation about whether treating cultural appropriation as “a bad habit to be trained out of us”, as writer Connie Wang recently put it, is the right approach. In an article for the New York Times, Wang wrote that she has “come to see appropriation as a form of communication. Sometimes what people are trying to say is trivial, hurtful and condescending – a bindi to proclaim that they’re “exotic” for instance, or cornrows to say they’re “cool”. But other times, what is being said is difficult and important.”
If the fairytale of a woke fashion giant sounds a little too good to be true, that is probably because it is. The global capitalist system, of which LVMH, the luxury brand that controls Dior, is part, remains as deeply inequitable as ever, even while promoting positive cultural exchange and social conscience on the Dior catwalk. Little of the symposium-style messaging of Dior’s “project” will trickle down to the shop floors where its bags, perfumes and lipsticks are sold. But it would take a stony heart not to warm to Chiuri’s vision of fashion as a celebration of a conversation between women. Wax fabric has a strong storytelling tradition – there is a fabric named “Something Good Has Happened to Me This Year” and another called “Children Are Worth More Than Money”. It has long been used “as a form of messaging between women, that men either don’t see or understand,” says Grosfilley. “Fashion is one of the ways that women speak.”
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