The two strapless gowns stand side by side. One is scarlet, its tightly sculpted bodice descending to a full skirt that flares from the hip. The other has a brightly coloured beaded bodice topped with a full African-style bead collar and a skirt of stiff fabric petals shooting out from the waist in a riotous burst of red, orange and yellow.
The first was designed by Belgian Raf Simons, the second by UK designer John Galliano. The two could not be more different and yet they share a heritage and a fashion language: both were designed for the French fashion house Dior.
Both gowns are featured in the National Gallery of Victoria’s The House of Dior: 70 Years of Haute Couture, which opened in Melbourne last weekend.
The magnificent exhibition celebrates 70 years of fashion since designer Christian Dior presented his first couture collection in Paris. There have been six designers since then, who have each reinterpreted Dior’s aesthetic, as well as his ideas about women, fashion and society, and this exhibition charts the creative twists and turns as the label evolved into one of the world’s leading brands.
The NGV exhibition is distinct from the 70th anniversary exhibition that opened at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in July – and it’s a coup for the gallery. Often Australian galleries get the tail end of these exhibitions when they crisscross the globe; this time, it was the NGV that got in first.
Speaking at the media launch, Dior Homme president, Serge Brunschwig, said the gallery approached the house about four years ago, prompting the Dior team to start thinking about their own plans to mark the anniversary.
“If ever there was a moment to pitch the idea to do something like this for audiences, where there is the capacity to reflect back on a substantial number of decades and to say something hopefully intelligent out of all of that, the time is now,” said exhibition curator Katie Somerville.
- Designer Raf Simons’s very different take on a red scarlet gown (front) from his predecessor John Galliano’s (back), as displayed in the NGV’s The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture.
The exhibition also bears the hallmarks of NGV director Tony Ellwood, who was the driving force behind the popular Valentino retrospective in 2010 when he was director at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art. It was also on his watch that the NGV mounted the highly successful Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition in 2015. With visitors in their hundreds of thousands, Ellwood and his teams know that fashion sells tickets.
The gallery has been collecting fashion items since the 40s, with curatorial teams arriving in the 60s. Its first Dior item, a hat, was purchased in 1972; there are now about 40 Dior items in the NGV collection, 20 of which are in this exhibition.
The exhibition brings together more than 140 Dior items, borrowed from the house archives and from institutions including New York’s Metropolitan Museum, London’s V&A, the Kyoto Costume Institute and Paris’s Musee des Artes Decoratifs. Private collectors have contributed, including American Vogue journalist Hamish Bowles and Sydney barrister and legendary couture collector Louise McBride – and at the very last minute, Australian model Miranda Kerr agreed to loan her wedding dress.
- Christian Dior’s early gowns, in the NGV’s House of Dior exhibition.
Visitors enter through a slim avenue lined with tall mirrored window panels. At the far end is an enormous black and white photograph of Dior’s Paris headquarters at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris. Set in front of the house is a faceless mannequin dressed in a white satin jacket with a nipped-in waist over a voluminous black pleated skirt. This is the house’s defining look, debuted by the young designer in his first couture collection in Paris in 1947, and christened by fashion editor Carmel Snow as “the New Look”.
With its emphasis on femininity, the New Look shook up the fashion world and was swiftly copied. It established the brand, but the attention also revitalised the postwar Paris fashion industry and made Dior a national hero.
After the avenue, the first exhibition room is dedicated to the founder of the label, and stepping into the plushly carpeted room with its grey panelled walls is like stepping into the house on Avenue Montaigne. Here are more of the dresses with their tiny waists that made Dior famous but, says Somerville, the New Look was not limited to evening gowns.
“It’s not necessarily all about gratuitous meterage of tulle and beading and silks and satins. A lot of those pieces are about incredible tailoring, beautiful checked wools and velvets, and a much more structured approach to design. All the clues are there early on in terms of the things that were important, and underpinned how he then moved forward as a designer.”
The next space is divided into the four codes of the house; the signature elements that each designer draws on to make a Dior outfit Dior. The line, flowers, the 18th century and of course, the New Look have all been reinterpreted countless times by each of the designers in their own way.
- More John Galliano for Dior gowns, including Nicole Kidman’s 1997 Oscar dress, in the NGV’s House of Dior exhibition.
The cleverly designed space has been split with a mezzanine level. At the centre is a dramatic staircase, modelled after the same in Dior’s head office, where famous clients such as Marlene Dietrich would perch to watch the couture collections each season. At the exhibition it’s not just for dramatic effect; it allows visitors to reach the mezzanine level, and to see each of the 32 gowns from every angle.
From this room, visitors enter the atelier, a space dedicated to the craftsmanship of couture. On one side is a bright red belted coat flanked by mannequins wearing white toiles, the first cut of a couture pattern. On the other side, two Dior artisans sit at a bench, demonstrating the painstaking detailing that makes up each couture outfit. These are the highly skilled yet often unrecognised and mostly female seamstresses who, each day, don their white coats and bring the designer’s most fanciful couture creations to life.
The Dior Reinvented room showcases the six designers who took on the behemoth brand and made it their own. Yves Saint Laurent was only 21 when he was thrust into the spotlight as designer following Dior’s sudden death, and here are some of the distinct gowns he created to great acclaim as he ushered in a new era at Dior.
Saint Laurent only lasted for six couture collections, before Marc Bohan took over. Although a lesser-known figure in the Dior pantheon, Bohan steered the house for the longest stretch from 1960 to 1989. “He presented a very classical silhouette, very wearable couture which found a great deal of support within the community,” says Somerville.
The flamboyant Italian designer Gianfranco Ferré took over in 1989, creating “some of the most theatrical and spectacular gowns in the history of the house”, before the arrival of the inimitable John Galliano in 1996.
- Six different interpretations of the House of Dior: couture gowns (from top, left to right) by Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferre, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri.
The British designer was the creator of some of the most recognisable Dior gowns, including Nicole Kidman’s 1997 lime-green Oriental Oscar gown. “[Galliano] was very much a man who loved the history of fashion and the storytelling capacity of using fashion to tell rich stories,” says Somerville. “He also loved the tradition of couture and reflected that in the way he constructed his garments and the incredible technical detail of these pieces.”
After Galliano was dismissed in disgrace in 2011, Belgian designer Raf Simons held the top job for seven couture collections. He had a very different approach to his predecessors.
“His approach is much more simplistic and modern,” says Somerville. “It still is very much about paying homage to the original heritage of the house, key lines and silhouettes, but reducing them to the most pure and simple form.”
And then in 2016 the first female creative director, Italian Maria Grazia Chiuri, stepped into the top job. Chiuri wants to reinvent the house and redraw its concept of femininity. “It’s about women finding themselves within what they see rather than the imposed idea of femininity.”
Although it is well compensated, the role of the creative director is not easy. The designer has been charged with balancing heritage with contemporary culture, honouring those identifiable codes within modern and relevant garments. Oh, and they’ve got to sell the frocks.
It is a tall order, beset with challenges – which perhaps explains some of the departures.
- Raf Simons coat and toiles for Dior, in the NGV’s House of Dior exhibition.
After the profusion of gowns comes all those things that complete an outfit – and the Top to Toe room is dedicated to the shoes, the fragrances and the hats of Dior. UK milliner Stephen Jones, who was in attendance at the opening, has worked with the latest three Dior designers. He says each brought their distinct design approach to the hats for their couture collections.
“With John [Galliano] each hat had to tell a story … while Raf [Simons] was “an essay in modernity,” he says. Chiuri likes to try on the hats herself, so “it’s very much about the reality but she loves the fantasy as well.”
When asked about his favourite Dior hat, Jones points to the grey suede hat from Dior’s autumn winter 2007 couture collection, styled as a paint palette and seemingly pinned to the head with a long paintbrush. The palette look is completed by deceptively simple “paint” daubs, actually deluxe paillette embroidery by craftsman Cécile Henri.
“The little paint splodges in sequins were maybe the most expensive thing in the collection. They cost about €2,000 each one, and I got into such trouble for that,” says Jones with a laugh. “But anyway, what price beauty?”
- Milliner Stephen Jones’s favourite hat from the Dior autumn-winter 2007-2008 couture show held in Versailles.
The room is also a subtle tribute to the business side of the brand, and for all the glamour, this is unquestionably big business. Dior is part of the mighty French luxury company LVMH, and last year the Christian Dior group reported revenue of €39bn , with profit at €7.3bn. Couture itself posted revenues of €1,936m, but the engines of the business are the accessories, jewellery, perfume and beauty lines. Last year the fashion and leather goods posted a revenue of €12,775m, while perfumes and cosmetics posted €4,953m.
Somerville says the importance of running a successful business came straight from Dior himself. His father was a wealthy fertiliser manufacturer and although the young Dior had no intention of joining the family business, being surrounded by businessmen clearly had an influence.
“Being in a family home with uncles, a father and key figures in the household for whom business was a way of life, and discussion in the house [about business strategy], I feel, must have in some way informed the way he thought about his opportunity when it came along,” said Somerville. “[Thinking about] how to sustain and remain relevant and how to find your clientele, and keep them.”
The next room showcases the brand’s Australian connection – and it is a significant one. A year after his landmark 1947 showing, the designer sent his first collection abroad, to David Jones in Sydney. The fashion house repeated the exercise in 1957, this time sending a contingent of house models to showcase the collections.
Reportedly there was much excitement in Sydney and Melbourne at the time, as the glamorous women arrived to present the dresses to Australian society.
- The final room filled with gowns in the NGV’s House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture exhibition.
Svetlana Lloyd was one of that select group of models. Now in her 80s and based in London, she remembers the trip as great fun. Speaking at the media event, she said: “Being the only model who spoke English, I was privileged in that I was entertained a lot, and therefore feted – and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
The final room is the most spectacular. In the centre, three levels of gowns are set on a circular platform, revolving slowly to showcase the storied history. The centrepiece is an instantly recognisable crystal-encrusted midnight-blue gown. Around the room, the oldest gowns sit alongside those straight from the 2017 presentation. In one corner is a short black velvet gown with lace detail designed by Monsieur Dior in 1957, while directly opposite is Miranda Kerr’s white satin wedding dress, designed by Chiuri and worn only a few months ago.
- Designer Maria Gracia Chiuri has an entirely different approach to designing for Dior.
Seen together with their peers, it’s clear the early designs are still as elegant and covetable as those created this year.
On Saturday night, there was a fundraising gala at the gallery to celebrate the opening of the exhibition. The well-heeled, including Nicole Kidman, Elizabeth Olsen, Rachel Griffiths, Tina Arena, Kate Cebrano and Kimbra, turned out in full force. Models, bloggers, fashion editors, designers and the fashion-intrigued mingled, admiring and critiquing their fellow partygoers’ outfits over the rims of their champagne glasses. There were short, tight frocks, frothy creations of tulle and lace, towering heels and occasionally treacherous satin trains, offset by men in black tie. A blogger in tiny sequinned shorts stood back to back with an older man in top hat and tails.
Yet for all the star power in the room, it was the gowns on display that commanded the most attention. Throughout the night, the guests drifted away from the party and wandered through the exhibition just one more time, standing to gaze at the real stars of the night as they silently held court.
• The House of Dior: 70 Years of Haute Couture is on at the NGV International now until 7 November
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