Christian Dior: A Truly Global Genius
A landmark exhibition of outfits and artefacts at the Denver Art Museum (DAM), Colorado, takes viewers on a wonderful, whirlwind trip around the revolutionary French designer’s iconic creations and those of his successors. FLORENCE MÜLLER, Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art & Fashion at the DAM, shares her thoughts with Miriam Dunn on the enduring appeal of the Dior brand, which remains at the top of its game seven decades on and across seven continents
What do you think sets the Dior: From Paris to the World exhibition apart from other shows that have explored the designer and the House?
I have curated 16 exhibitions on the House of Dior, all of the major exhibitions that there have ever been on Dior. For this presentation in Denver, I wanted to have a new vision, specifically built for Denver and the Denver Art Museum. This new vision is in the title of the exhibition, From Paris to the World. I wanted to show how Christian Dior expanded his fashion House and vision to reach the whole world, and also how it truly was the first House that built a global fashion world. The final gallery in the exhibition, also titled From Paris to the World, shows this most spectacularly in a grand finale and wide spectrum of dresses with inspiration from all over the world.
One area of focus in the show was the comparative speed with which Dior established and cemented his brand on the fashion scene. How do you think he was able to achieve this impressive feat?
Christian Dior started a revolution with his very first show in 1947. This is something that almost never happens. This revolution was totally challenging the trends of fashion in the world. Dior was offering a new path, a new way to look at the world after the devastation of World War II. Christian Dior’s fashion House was supported by the richest billionaire in France at the time, Marcel Boussac, which gave him the opportunity to open several branches.
Dior was invited to receive the Neiman Marcus award by Stanley Marcus in Dallas in 1947. Having arrived in the US, he stopped in the major cities. While he was on this tour, I think he had the idea that he could reach all of the US and met many people. I believe it was this tour through the US that enabled Christian Dior to invent his licensing contract process with manufacturers, followed by department store contracts.
The show has a wonderful array of exhibits, that includes dresses, but also artefacts, such as drawings and runway videos, all of which tell their own story. Do you have any personal favourites or highlights and will you share them with us?
The exhibition comprises 16 gallery spaces. It is difficult to pick favourites, but I think that The Total Look gallery is one of mine. There are so many objects in this display. In organising this space, I was inspired to put a huge amount of research into the Christian Dior archive. I looked through thousands of objects and pared it down to the 125 objects that are on display in this room. I went through all 70 years of the history of Dior and picked the most fabulous pieces to display what the title of the space is, The Total Look of Dior. The gallery is a magnificent and colourful fresco of objects. I had a wonderful time working with everyone in the museum to put this particular gallery space together. All of the 125 mounts were made by hand by our amazing teams here at the museum to make the objects appear as if they are floating, all without stressing the delicate objects themselves.
What additional insight into the designer and House do viewers gain from these extra exhibits?
In every Dior exhibition that I’ve done, I have tried to show new pieces, to do research to show new documents and information, especially for Denver. Two-thirds of the exhibits in the Denver presentation were not on view in the previous exhibition, and about half have never been shown before at all. The one-third of the dresses that were already exhibited are mandatory to show in a retrospective, such as the Bar suit jacket and the Chicago suit, because they are so important in the history of the House.
What do you think is behind Dior’s longevity in the world of fashion, given that we know it can sometimes be a fickle place and has produced several casualties?
Dior is especially interesting because throughout their 70+ year history, there have been no gaps; they are constantly very successful, while many other Houses don’t have the same history. I believe this is because they consistently find artistic directors of great interest and talent. They have picked designers who were already seen as very important in the fashion world. For example, Yves Saint Laurent was working inside the House under Dior before Dior himself died. When he took over the House after Dior’s death, he received great support, even though he was only 21 at the time, but he was an incredibly talented designer and was greatly successful. Marc Bohan was designing for Dior London and consequently appreciated before being named artistic director of Dior. When Gianfranco Ferre was appointed director, he was seen as a new hero. John Galliano was already a star in the fashion world with his own company, truly a revolutionary designer. The journalists all loved his work. Raf Simons owned his own company before coming to Dior. Truly all of the designers have each had their own company besides Yves Saint Laurent. And finally, it is not by accident that the House of Dior is now run by Maria Grazia Chiuri. She was chosen as the first female artistic director of Dior. Prior to Dior, she was involved in the invention of the Fendi baguette bags in 1997 and also was one of the two artistic designers of Valentino.
In what way do you think Dior’s successors have put their individual stamp on the brand and have they managed to balance this with maintaining the House’s character?
This is shown in the first room of the exhibition, where you see the Bar suit jacket by Christian Dior, followed by each of his successors paying homage to that first statement of Dior, with the idea of the dress as an architecture of the fabric. This gallery, The New Look gallery in the exhibition, shows how each artistic director kept the link to history and Dior’s New Look, while developing their own sensibility and artistic vision. The House, and each designer, has kept the link with artistic history, while at the same time challenging the contemporary fashion world in their own way.
We have witnessed several great fashion designers in recent years that have left a lasting legacy on the design scene. What do you see as being Dior’s legacy and global influence? And how does it differ from those of his peers?
Dior’s legacy was his famous New Look revolution. He truly revolutionised the fashion world following World War II. Each artistic director following Dior has left a mark on the fashion world in their own way. With YSL, his was a trapeze ‘revolution’ collection. He pioneered the spirit of freedom in the 1960s. Marc Bohan’s ‘slim’ look was his way of translating the demand for a style in the spirit of the time and the young generation. Gianfranco Ferre was an amazing couturier who translated the postmodern sensibility of the 1980s into the haute couture world. John Galliano was totally instrumental in the idea of eccentricity, a major phenomenon in haute couture fashion. Galliano pushed the boundaries of what fashion was, both in the real and unreal sense. Raf Simons brought to the couture world his own vision of conceptual and pure shape designs. He was the one who invented the trend of blurred masculinity/femininity with the pant suit shaped very architecturally by Dior. He experimented with colour blocks and renewed the art of embroidery. Maria Grazia Chiuri is the first female designer of Dior and truly embodies the new age of feminism and a new femininity.
Dior: From Paris to the World is showing at the Denver Art Museum, Colorado, until March 17, 2019