When Maria Grazia Chiuri was hired away from Valentino in 2016 to give Christian Dior a shot of relatability, there was much made of her being the first woman to lead the heritage Parisian couture house. It was good for the press release, but five years into her tenure, we're seeing what's become of it.
Of course, Chiuri's plan all along was to sell. And clothing sales, often the lowest-performing category at a luxury house after perfume or makeup or accessories, have soared under her watch, eclipsing fragrance for the first time in 2019. "I'm so obsessed with her suits; I want to live in them," says actress Zoey Deutch (photographed below), echoing the sentiment of her shootmates — all of them true believers in Chiuri's grounded, wearable, accessible Dior. Chiuri had a more ambitious agenda than the bottom line, though. She wanted to turn LVMH's leading brand behemoth into a feminist messaging machine.
She hasn't exactly been stealthy about it. From that first spring 2017 show, led by boyish, buzz-shorn model Ruth Bell, Chiuri leaned into comfort over sex. The iconic Bar jacket lost its corsetry and loosened up. Models walk her runways in flat sandals, stompable boots, and kitten heels.
Chiuri's accessories are usable and sporty as well as things of beauty with design bells and whistles. The Book Tote, a simple square shopper, is one of her favorite pieces, and this season it's entirely embroidered. For those who prefer to simply read in black-and-white, there is the T-shirt. In that initial collection, it was emblazoned with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's mantra, "We Should All Be Feminists" — a manifesto that went immediately viral. To this day, it hasn't stopped circulating. (A recent sighting was on Penélope Cruz in Pedro Almodóvar's latest Oscar bait, Parallel Mothers.)
Chiuri had to fight for that shirt, an unusually direct statement for a high-fashion runway. "Our CEO at the time didn't want to sell it," she says. "He said, 'Dior is not a T-shirt company. We are a couture company!' I said, 'Yes, but a T-shirt is a contemporary piece of the wardrobe. And I use a T-shirt because if you want to send a message, you can't write on top of a jacket — it's not believable.' It was not an easy discussion. I had to convince him to do a small run and give the money to charity. We produced a tiny amount. Most of those T-shirts you see around the world now are fake!"
But they still keep coming down the runway, one for almost every show, highlighting the work of other women Chiuri wants to echo, including 1970s Italian feminist and art critic Carla Lonzi ("I Say I") and author Robin Morgan ("Sisterhood Is Global"). There have been collaborations with art legends like Judy Chicago (2020's spring couture), Claire Fontaine (her neon signs blared anti-patriarchy slogans at the fall 2020 ready-to-wear show), and choreographer Sharon Eyal.
For Cruise 2022, pieces from which are photographed here, Chiuri hired illustrator Christiana Soulou to sketch sporting women into a delicate print. Athletics was a theme of the season, and the overall inspiration was Greece, both ancient and modern, as well as the first whisperings of (what turned out to be temporary) deconfinement. Toga dresses abounded with a nod to the radically reconstructive work of the feminist anthropologist Marija Gimbutas, author of The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe.
If the suits have been disturbed by the faint odor of burning bras, they can't pretend Chiuri didn't warn them. "I said in my first interview for Dior that my idea was a feminist idea," she says. "I think femininity can be a trap. What interests me is community work in fashion." That means not only top-line collaborations but frequently seeking out female-led ateliers all over the world when her collections incorporate different traditions of handicraft. Because if you're going to sell right-on slogans to women willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a T-shirt, supporting less fortunate makers in the process should be part of the deal.
Chiuri was a client from Day 1 of the Chanakya Atelier in Mumbai, whose artisans she most recently hired to hand-stitch, using 150 different embroidery techniques, tapestries based on a drawing by artist Eva Jospin for the fall/winter 2021–2022 haute couture show. In turn, the atelier, in conjunction with its School of Craft, offers training to low-income women looking to rise to master artisan status, normally a man's position.
But there have been stumbles. In choosing diverse references for her collections, Chiuri has been criticized for appropriating different cultures. An ad featuring the very caucasian Jennifer Lawrence in a collection clearly inspired by Mexican design was pilloried on social media. In 2019 Chiuri responded by enlisting her daughter, Rachele Regini, who has degrees from Goldsmiths, University of London in art history and gender studies, to head up a cultural brain trust for Chiuri and her design team. They've done three sessions so far to get more savvy on the expectations of a broader customer base and the importance of sustainability. It doesn't come as second nature, Chiuri admits.
She nixes propositions from her team all the time that don't pass the real-world smell test and has hired slightly more realistic Italian size 40 fit models. "Some young designers still dream on these incredibly skinny models," she says. "It can be very difficult to change the stereotype. I have to say, 'Please, this arm is not believable! It won't fit anybody!' "
Chiuri is intent on building the brand for women with something to say, and those women are responding in kind. "Maria Grazia has reimagined the conversation between femininity and masculinity and how it is explored through fashion," says actress Jurnee Smollett, who, before this shoot, last wore Dior at the Emmy Awards, where she was up for her role in Lovecraft Country. "It was my first time being nominated and the first time wearing Dior Haute Couture. It was a classic design, but in Maria Grazia's hands it became unique and innovative. I was floored by the intricate details and felt like a goddess in it."
Supermodel Natalia Vodianova has been a big supporter since Chiuri's first day at the house, never missing a show. "She was given an incredible platform at Dior, and she owned it as a designer, but she uses it to celebrate in the name of all women around the world," Vodianova says.
This has been the biggest payoff for Chiuri at a 9-to-8 job where weekends are frequently burned on planes visiting factories and far-flung ateliers. "I'm very linked with women in general," she says. "I really think that I have to work in a way that I can give service to the women around the world, so that when they come to us, they can find something to help them feel well. That when they wear our jacket, they feel well. That when they wear our shoes, they walk well. It's beauty too. I don't like that to be beautiful, you have to be uncomfortable. I think it's so ridiculous. This is the secret, very simple: I don't want to wear something that I feel does not empower me."
Critics have not always been kind about Chiuri's vision, though it wouldn't be the first time that fashion's professional opinionators have completely missed a juggernaut. Pragmatism is hard to get rhapsodic about in column inches, even if it's the animating spirit for Chiuri. She believes it was the same for the house's namesake, who favored corsets and petticoats. "If you read The Little Dictionary of Fashion by Mr. Dior, you would see he was very practical," Chiuri says. "You have to choose a bag that's black, you have to choose shoes that are black, that can work for day and evening. Also his color palette. It's gray, black, blue." Not to put too fine a point on it, though: Chiuri's most recent show was an homage to the mod 1960s, with acid-bright colorblocking and miniskirt suits. Even studious nerdy girls like to swing.
Chiuri herself works hard not to take the gig so dead seriously. "When a designer arrives at a house like Dior with this huge history, it can be heavy. But I come from Rome. I arrived here at 52, with a long career and big experience. And so, it's very interesting for me to look at the reference, to transform, to give it a completely new sense. I like fashion; it's a territory where you can play. It's like a game."
Lead Image: Jurnee Smollett. All clothing and accessories, worn throughout, Dior. Photography by Trisha Ward. Styling by Konca Aykan. Hair by Nai'vashsa/The Wall Group. Makeup by Vincent Oquendo/The Wall Group. Production by Octopix.
For more stories like this, pick up the December/January issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Nov. 19th.
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