A huge show about the fabled French fashion house Christian Dior which opens Wednesday has had a galaxy of stars making the pilgrimage to Paris.
With Hollywood actresses Jennifer Lawrence, Kirsten Dunst and Kristen Stewart already in town for the label’s haute couture show, Stewart’s “Twilight” co-star Robert Pattinson queued with models Bella Hadid, Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne to get a sneak peak of the retrospective at the city’s decorative arts museum.
While Dior — celebrating its 70th anniversary — has become synonymous with classy highly feminine glamour, fashion was not its founder’s first love.
Christian Dior came to clothes through art after setting up a Paris gallery to “champion the most avant garde of artists”, said the exhibition’s curator Olivier Gabet.
“It was he who gave Salvador Dali and Alberto Giacometti their first shows” in the French capital, he added.
And it was his friendships with artists Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob and Pablo Picasso that helped sustain him through a difficult decade after his gallery closed in the Depression.
Dior, a talented artist, began designing theatre costumes and from there took his first steps into couture.
– Superstitious –
Hugely superstitious, he only made the final leap after a tarot reader told him he would head his own fashion house.
Two years later in 1947 his “New Look” revolutionised fashion, throwing wartime austerity out the window, trailblazing a new femininity.
Tarot and astrological motifs would later become one of Dior’s trademarks.
Historian Florence Muller, who co-curated the show, said the “New Look” became “emblematic”, with the show tracing how the six designers who came after Dior subtly adapted it — and how rival houses still “reference” it to this day.
The spectacular exhibition — which includes more than 300 haute couture gowns and dresses — documents how Dior became the go-to brand for stars from Lauren Bacall to Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren.
It also reveals that Dior named his famous Bar suit after the bar of the Plaza Athenee hotel next to his headquarters on Avenue Montaigne between the Champs Elysee and the River Seine.
Ever the artist, Dior spent much of his time in the country drawing, leaving the nitty gritty to Marguerite Carre, who headed his studio.
“I think of my work as ephemeral architecture dedicated to the beauty of the female body,” he said.
It was, however, to prove far from ephemeral.
When Dior died suddenly at the age of 52 from a heart attack in 1957 his mantle fell on his timid young assistant Yves Saint Laurent, who was only 21 at the time.
Yet in his very first collection Saint Laurent invented the “trapeze dress” which became a runaway success, and he was quickly dubbed the “little prince of fashion”.
However, the leather jackets of his “beatnik” show were just too much for some of the brand’s conservative clientele and he was bundled out the door in 1960.
– ‘Forgotten man’ –
He was replaced by Marc Bohan, who despite running the house for a record 29 years, became the “forgotten man” of Dior, according to Muller.
“The extravagance of his successors Gianfranco Ferre and John Galliano overshadowed a lot of what he did,” said Muller even though his “Slim Look” exemplified by models such as Twiggy was highly successful.
Ferre brought an exuberance back to the label in the 1980s with flowers, feathers and rich embroidery while Gibraltar-born Galliano — then fashion’s punk rebel — brought a strong dose of British eccentricity and theatricality, she added.
“Even so Galliano had a strong connection linking him with Dior in his vision of strong femininity, with tight waists and ample hips,” she told AFP.
The Belgian Raf Simons stepped up to the mark in 2012 after Galliano was sacked following a drunken rant in a Paris cafe.
Muller said the show demonstrates that Simons’ work was less minimalist than his reputation might suggest.
“You can get the impression it’s quite simple but close up you can see the complexity,” she said citing organza cut by laser and a dress make entirely of tiny feathers.
The exhibition ends with the Italian Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s first female artistic director who took the reins last year.
“This exhibition is not just about Dior. It is about women in every era which is fascinating for me,” she said.
“Christian Dior, Maker of Dreams” runs until January 7.