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Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior

After Raf Simons abruptly left his position as creative director at Dior after just three years last October, Dior was left with the task of recruiting, once again, a designer that would be able to continue the legacy and shoulder the burden of designing for one of Paris’ grandest fashion houses.

Maria Grazia Chiuri was announced as Simons’ successor, the first female creative director at Dior and lately of Valentino, where she formed one half of a successful 26-year-long design partnership with Pierpaolo Piccioli that began in the accessories department of Fendi. Her debut was scheduled for the 30th of September, at the end of a season fraught with questions of see-now-buy now, the pace of the system, and street-style spats, that also saw new hands at work at Saint Laurent (Antony Vaccerello) and Lanvin (Bouchra Jarrar).

The opportunity afforded by a single fashion show is well known to the house of Dior. In February 1947, a single presentation saw the popular dress of that decade transformed. Heralded as the most influential fashion event of the century, the collection was worthily dubbed the ‘New Look’ by Harper’s Bazaar’s Carmel Snow, and subsequently took on a mythic quality. The clothes’ exaggeratedly feminine silhouette, marked by tiny waists, generous hips and skirts full of volume were explicitly conceived in marked opposition to post-war, uniform-like austere dress. These new designs were created for ‘flower-like’ women. Dior’s awareness of the power of a single fashion show was re-established with the 2014 documentary film ‘Dior and I’, which captured the weeks running up to and including Raf Simon’s debut. Following in the footsteps of star designers and creative caretakers of this legacy (John Galliano and Yves Saint Laurent amongst them), under the scrutiny of the international press, crucial clients, and with a 1% drop in sales in the first quarter of 2016 having just been reported, Maria Grazia Chiuri faced one of the industry’s greatest challenges.

As guests took their seats in a simple, wooden-floored tent in the grounds of the Musee Rodin, a clue would emerge from the catwalk – laid out in the same format as the vast majority of Chiuri’s previous Valentino presentations. Striding out a soundtrack of Beyonce’s ‘Flawless’, featuring author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk on feminism, a newly pixie-cropped Ruth Bell sported a fencing-inspired ensemble, complete with heart motif on her left breast. Dior’s signature bar jacket, here with the regal peplum slimmed down, was relegated to the 31st look.

Rather than referencing and reworking the house’s famous feminine silhouettes then, Chiuri had opted to explore the house’s feminine principles – a t-shirt bearing the slogan ‘we should all be feminists’ was matched with a long, flowing tulle skirt. Instead of voluminous proportions and nipped in waists, dresses were straight, sheer, revealing the straight up and down proportions of an especially youthful crop of models. Sportswear elements finished off many pieces, underwear was visible, braided hair referenced skaters. Inspiration for the slew of evening gowns’ ethereal embroidery was sought from Christian Dior’s highly superstitious nature, but were altogether too reminiscent of Valentino for many commentators (the top to toe blood red of two looks, the only explicit colour in this offering, is a particular Valentino signature). A regular visitor to clairvoyants, Dior was said to read tarot cards before each of his shows; motifs from these, lucky clovers, hearts and the number 8 were scattered throughout Chiuri’s designs. Dior and Chiuri happen to both be Aquarius. Astrologers would forecast that the age of Aquarius would bring upheaval; Chiuri’s debut was certainly a departure from her predecessors, but will have the impact of the New Look? Or was there simply not enough that was new?

As Tim Blanks noted, Chiuri has not had the ‘time to osmose the extraordinary archives at Dior; it was inevitable that she would fall back on what she was familiar with from her time at Valentino.’ CEO Sidney Toledano stated that Chiuri’s experience creating buzz-generating accessories was an important factor in her appointment in an interview with the Business of Fashion. Aside from explicit ‘J’aDIOR’ branded underpinnings (which, at a more ‘accessible’ price point will surely fly off shelves as logos see a surge in popularity this season) the issue for the consumer and regular deep-pocketed clients though is whether the clothes are evocative enough of a heritage that can arguably be pinned on a specific silhouette, here in dispute, to be worth investing in. Only next year’s financial report will tell.