Maria Grazia Chiuri on her inclusive vision for Christian Dior
In an era where the world’s most powerful man is obsessed with building walls; and anti-immigrant political parties throughout Europe are gaining millions of votes, Monday’s Africa-inspired, African-made Christian Dior Cruise 2020 collection staged in Marrakech struck one as a vitally important statement about inclusivity, tolerance and above all cultural curiosity.
Pre-show in Paris, before she jetted down with her team to stage a great fashion moment in Morocco, FashionNetwork.com caught up with Dior’s women’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri for a freewheeling conversation on fashion, fantasy, fabrics and feminism.
Chiuri is very much a southerner herself. Her father comes from Santa Maria di Leuca, he most southern port on the Italian boot, where she vacations most Augusts. In person, Maria Grazia is a voluble Italian, who speaks every language with a strong accent and with great emphasis. She tends to wear acid dyed jeans – another trend she has ignited – and loves lots of statement jewelry. Her hands are covered in rings of skulls and golden heads, memento mori ('remember you die') from Casa Codognato in Venice; her wrists with gold bracelets and a lucky cotton band she was given years ago in Brazil.
Her mood board included photos of Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakech, Lisa Fonssagrives, Talitha Getty, Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn, along with Ebony magazine covers and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. All setting the mood for what would be a bold, dramatic fashion statement in Marrakech, a great personal triumph for Chiuri.
FashionNetwork.com: Why did you choose Marrakech?
Maria Grazia Chiuri: Next year Marrakech will be the capital of culture of Africa. In any case, Marrakech represents a place where so many writers and painters and photographers went for inspiration from light and color. It’s a place between Europe and Africa meet, ideal, as we wanted a very multi-cultural statement. And, at the same time, if you go to Marrakech, you cannot but reflect on fashion.
And, when we did our research, we discovered an agreement with Monsieur Dior and an important store in Morocco, Maison Joste, to produce his sketches for local clients, back in the '50s. Unbelievable. Also we are very proud to show creations from our archive by Monsieur Saint Laurent for Dior, including a white coat literally called The Marrakech. That was the sign of the future! That’s why we made small exhibition of those designs for our audience – for our guests in the welcome dinner. I think it is a nice tribute to Saint Laurent’s relationship while at Dior with Marrakech! The reference is so important I think we cannot 'not' make it!
FNW: What was initial starting point for the collection?
MGC: I was very fascinated with this book Wax & Co, and I asked my team to contact the writer, so we all went to Nice to meet Anne Grosfilley, where she has an enormous collection of wax printing; and the whole history of the material. She is a collector and anthropologist, who studies textile history. This technique moves around the world – it began in Asia, moved to Europe and then went to Africa. A very specific and luxurious way to print cotton in double face! A real haute couture material. To make this sort of print takes about seven steps. When we went with her to Abidjan, she helped us find the original factory with Uniwax and met Pathe’O, a famous designer working in wax. He was so proud that Dior would like to use this print!
It’s a way to demonstrate that it is a luxury and haute couture print. Pathe’O made a shirt for Nelson Mandela, and we asked him to collaborate and he was very happy. Since for him it is very difficult to explain the difference between the original wax printing and fake wax printing to the young generation. Also, it is hard for him to transport his line around the world – because there are stereotypical ideas that if something comes from Africa it cannot be too expensive. This technique is actually really expensive because it relies on the human touch, and not digital printing.
FNW: What sort of prints did you want to develop?
MGC: The idea was not to use original prints, since the idea is that each print has a message. So, we asked Uniwax to realize our icon elements of Dior. So went there and showed our Toile de Jouy which is a very Dior print, and asked for their point of view of Toile de Jouy. They made a tropical Toile de Jouy and also tarot cards, another very Dior code. They printed them in two ways; in indigo and that’s a very Dior blue; and a second element, where they decided their personal color. So, it’s very good conversation between two codes. Uniwax is actually a beautiful factory that recycles water and prints on African cotton, all very green! Their illustrators in Abidjan, working from three Toile de Jouy references and 12 tarot cards we handpicked, did all the prints.
FNW: From your mood board, one senses you took inspiration from the whole artistic fervour of Western artists coming to Marrakech?
MGC: Yes, to me it is a good message for the future of fashion – collaboration on common ground of craftsmanship, embroidery and technique. We even collaborated with a group of women in Fez called Sumano using wool with natural pigment in the set of the show!
FNW: How have you mixed up European and African sensibilities in this collection?
MGC: We really wanted to use their wax printing technique with other materials, like double cashmere. So, with the same patterns Uniwax created we made different things: in African cotton, in Italian cashmere and in Parisian silk de chine. So you see the same pattern changing. Like a silk opera coat, where the material has a completely different attitude.
FNW: Why did you work with several other designers like Grace Wales Bonner, Pathe’O and artist Mickalene Thomas?
MGC: Well, with Mickalene Thomas we started with the Lady Dior heart, our first collaboration with her. But Christian Dior is a couture house, so I thought why don’t we ask artists to give their point of view about the iconic silhouette of the New Look? Why not an iconic interpretation about iconic Dior silhouettes? So, they made the jacket and flared skirt and we left them completely free.
FNW: Does cruise allow you to take more risks?
MGC: Depends what you mean. I don’t feel that I am taking risks. If you do what you really believe there is no risk. I see my job at Dior as using our codes in a very different way, with teamwork to give us new energy. Like a team discovering new ideas about fashion and technique. When I started in fashion there was no real cruise collection or pre-collection.
FNW: Post-cruise, what are your plans?
MGC: We are doing another collaboration with the dance company of Sharon Eyal in Israel next year in Tel Aviv. Doing the first prototype in Tel Aviv in June to test the prototypes. And, now, every one of my team wants to go to Tel Aviv!
FNW: How does your preparation as an accessories designer influence your designs?
MGC: Accessories speak about codes more than fashion, through one small object. When I started in fashion, pret-a-porter was a far more important image. But when it comes to accessories, you see each accessory without a woman; without the exact fit. It is a completely different approach. In accessory design you want to make a shoe that everyone can use and find comfortable and buy. You don’t think of the face that will actually carry the bag. So, it is more pure design.
FNW: Why is so important to you to remain on your feminist path with Christian Dior?
MGC: I believe that when you speak about women you speak about them all around the world. But my grounding comes from Rome and Italy, which can be quite a narrow view. So it’s a conversation you have with other women about the craftsmanship and couture in a different way. Fashion is no longer just about clothes. It is something very different. When I began in fashion it was a pre-historic moment with a very small audience, just two collections a year – one summer, one winter - and we never travelled in other countries. The big trip was Paris or London. Now with new media fashion is global and our conversation and our brand is global. And this changed the way we do collections. Before, winter was a coat, and summer was cotton. Now in all collections you have cotton and cashmere in each collection, as you don’t know where you will be delivering it. You reach such a huge new audience and generation, so the new arguments in fashion today are about gender, cultural appropriation, environment, postcolonialism, and you have to reflect that. So you can speak to your own time.
I really believe in fashion, it is vital for creativity. At the same time, we have to look critically at what we did in the past. When we started we didn’t have enough culture to understand, so we made fashion with our personal references. Fashion was a little bubble, where our conversation was between fashion people. In Italy in school they taught me technical ideas – how to make a jacket, what fabric to use. Now, at Dior, I study many new things.
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