Picture it: Paris, France 2018. It’s summer and the Houses are showing their Couture collections for Fall. Karl Lagerfeld is, yet again, building giant sets in the Grand Palais, John Galliano is full steam ahead at Maison Margiela, Valentino is exploding with silhouette and color.
At the House of Givenchy, models stalk the gardens of Archives Nationales, a mirrored runway laid at their feet, the sound of a piano floats through the air as if the garden produces the music itself. Looking on, the clothing is elegant, almost set in the past. Like looking at a photo of a childhood friend, conjuring a half formed memory of the past in your mind, the familiar beauty of each look leaves a melancholy feeling behind. Unsolicited emotion radiates from the mirrored runway: we are confronted by a reflection of the past. The last gown glides behind the double doors and the members of the Givenchy atelier pour out of the building. The 24 men and women carrying on the traditions of the storied House, those whose hands remember each of Hubert de Givenchy’s seams, each of his pleats, stand in waiting. Clare Waight Keller follows, a gatekeeper of the past, a leader into the future.
At Dior, we see a different reflection. The beige tone of the walls has a calming effect as models walk to up-beat music. The large space is lined floor-to-ceiling with white toil versions of the garments walking the runway. The ceiling is mirrored. We see two reflections of the present. Maria Grazia Chiuri emerges in a black suit, an echo of the simplicity of her silhouettes.
Two female designers, two storied Houses, and two very different reflections.
And yet, their stories are not so different. The French brands may not have similar styles of dress, but their histories, consumers, and weight in the fashion industry are quite similar. Now, with two female designers (a first for both brands) heading the Houses, one brand is flying while the other is flailing.
When designers take over storied brands, they inherit a narrative that, in some cases, was well on its way before that designer could pick up a needle. This is where Maria Grazia Chiuri is failing at Dior - and Clare Waight Keller succeeding at Givenchy: reference to the past. When we look at Givenchy this season, we might be reminded of something we can’t put our finger on, or it might be strikingly clear what references Keller was making. Either way, this reflection on the past allowed the collection to spark emotion, no matter how familiar you are with fashion or Givenchy. At Dior, we also got a reflection, but only of the present. These two reflections are representations of the design and branding styles of these two designers. To understand these references (or lackthereof) and why they’re so important, we need to look back at two overwhelmingly influential legacies.
In 1946 Christian Dior started his namesake label in Paris, France. His childhood mansion, complete with flower gardens and pink facades, inspired his debut collection and was a theme carried throughout the brand’s history. Most famously, Monsieur Dior pioneered the “New Look” with his Bar suit: a jacket cinched at the waist, exaggerated by voluminous hips and and a full, a-line skirt to the mid-calf. The iconic silhouette defined his brand, his style of dress, and his clientele. Public figures from Grace Kelly to Jackie O sported the New Look and solidified its influence in fashion history. In the post-war era, Dior is accredited with bringing couture back in vogue and Paris back on the map as the global leader in fashion.
Meanwhile across town, Hubert de Givenchy began his namesake in 1952 in almost direct contrast to his contemporary at the House of Dior. Where Dior was conservative, Givenchy took a pin out of Cristobal Balenciaga’s cushion, interpreting couture as an avant garde space to play with volume and silhouette in even more exaggerated ways. Where Dior had the “New Look,” Givenchy had his baby-doll dresses and balloon coats. Huge reviews were followed by even bigger faces.
Audrey Hepburn, hot off of her international debut in Roman Holiday, met Givenchy while filming Sabrina. The duo would later team up for her role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, together solidifying Hepburn’s stardom and making Givenchy a household name. That little black dress would go on to define the House of Givenchy for decades to come. However, much like the House of Dior, the designer was no one-trick pony.
Christian Dior’s reign as the top of Parisian Couturier was short-lived. The designer died unexpectedly of a heart attacked in 1957, leaving an unsure future for the House less than a decade after its founding. As luck would have it, 21-year-old Yves Saint Laurent was a part of Monsieur Dior’s team and was quickly promoted in his absence. After blinding success and a fall from grace, Saint Laurent was called away to the French military and Marc Bohan was ushered into the brand. Bohan was adored by starlets and founded Dior Homme, a label still revered in menswear to this day. Ferre succeeded Bohan, bringing Dior into the 1990’s with a fresh take on a cornerstone Parisian name. John Galliano followed, taking a leaf out of Saint Laurent’s book and revolutionizing the label.
Galliano was a huge hit, bring sexuality to Dior as pioneered by Gucci and Tom Ford. Galliano’s avant garde collections, shows, and campaigns changed Dior’s brand image and kept it from receding into the past. Galliano fell spectacularly far in 2011, having been propped up on his own namesake and Dior. His anti-semitic comments left him ostracized from the fashion community at large, but his time at Dior was never forgotten. Still a benchmark for many, Galliano’s over-the-top creations embodied a different kind of Dior, but he still gave us Dior.
Raf Simons continued the legacy with his own manifestations of Dior, bringing his personal minimalism to the brand. In stark contrast to Galliano, Simons’ fresh take was exactly what Dior needed. A new chapter unfolded in Dior’s womenswear.
Maria Grazia Chiuri replaced Raf Simons at Dior in 2016, showing her first collection for Spring/Summer 2017 RTW. These designers only had a small amount of references to pull from the original designer, a true testament to Monsieur Dior’s talent and influence. So strong was his vision that each designer after was able to draw from his references and continue the Dior legacy.
The House of Givenchy enjoyed a much longer tenure of its founder. Monsieur Givenchy sat at the helm of the House until the 90’s, allowing the designer to fully realize his image of the brand. This also allowed Givenchy to grow its iconic repertoire. From black dresses and capes to balloon dresses and asymmetrical skirts, the House’s reputation swelled. John Galliano succeeded the namesake designer but was soon ushered into Dior. Alexander McQueen also spent a short time at the brand, his extreme designs failed to resonate with consumers and critics.
Not until Riccardo Tisci did Givenchy retain a long term Director. Tisci’s time at Givenchy is now infamous, reigning from 2005 until 2017. The talented designer reworked Givenchy and brought the brand into a new age, often leaving behind Givenchy’s classic silhouettes. Monsieur Givenchy’s aesthetic was still referenced throughout Tisci’s time at the House, particularly in Couture, but the Ready to Wear largely reflected Tisci’s tastes and the trend of the time.
All the while, Monsieur Givenchy looked on from retirement, a living relic of couturiers past; a representation of a bygone age when creatives like Cristobal Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Gabrielle Chanel, and Christian Dior showed for Parisian socialites.
In February 2018, Hubert de Givenchy passed at the age of 91. A month later, Tisci departed to a vacant spot at Burberry and Clare Waight Keller left Chloe to take the reins at Givenchy. This most recent Couture collection, Fall/Winter 2018/2019 is the first since Givenchy himself passed. The show was steeped in emotion and was a clear homage to the deceased namesake. Through a collection that hearkens back to Givenchy’s many icons, Keller is showing us that she is committed to the brand, knowledgeable in her design skills, and versatile as a designer. She can clearly take a look at the archives and adapt those past ideas into something new. There is vision, design knowledge, and an appreciation and understanding of couture from Keller.
Meanwhile at Dior Couture this season, Madame Chiuri is continuing to struggle with her role at Dior, and that is clear with this most recent collection. In Chiuri’s previous role at Valentino, she co-directed with Pierpaolo Piccioli. Valentino is known for volume, silhouette, and subtlety and, at the time of her debut, Chiuri seemed like the perfect fit at Dior, coming off of this role. She had experience working in ateliers, the demanding number of seasons and looks per show should be something she is more than familiar with. However, after a year of shows we have seen a lack of versatility, and more importantly, the Dior legacy has assumed a supporting role in her shows. This could be due to a misunderstanding the Dior legacy, or a desire to move on to something new and different. Since her debut, the narrative at Dior has been new movement forward. While this is an obvious choice for the first female director at Dior, her personal narrative shouldn’t overshadow the Dior label.
In the past we have seen countless designer inherit a brand and combine their own narratives with the brand’s story; Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, and Jeremy Scott at Moschino to name a few. Chiuri’s narrative is important and relevant in 2018, yes, but it shouldn’t fight with the Dior narrative - it doesn’t have to.
Keller showed her true potential and commitment to the House of Givenchy in this Couture Collection. She showed us that she took the time to embody Givenchy’s ideas and combined them with her own, her own take on classic cuts. She employed all of Givenchy’s past to tell her own story. How better to remember a designer than honoring the legacy they left behind? The dedication she showed gave us what fashion is truly capable of: sparking our emotions.
Whether Chiuri is honoring the House of Dior in a way that it deserves in her own eyes, it is not coming across in the show. She isn’t showing us what she’s capable of within Dior, she’s only giving us her own talent. We want Dior by Maria Grazia Chiuri, not Maria Grazia Chiuri by Maria Grazia Chiuri. For those who understand and love Dior, it comes across as almost disrespectful, defiant even. From the beginning of her tenure, Chiuri has given us mere shadows of Dior, as if the legacy was an afterthought. We expect so much from this brand, and taking Dior out of Dior is not leaving us satisfied.
I just want to remind everyone that she sent t-shirts down the runway for her first collection.
In other words, my suggestion for Maria Grazia Chiuri is to reflect on the past a bit. She seems to be merely reflecting on her present, her here, her now - and that’s why her collections are walking themselves into the ground. All we can do now is watch and wait, hoping that Chiuri follows in Keller’s footsteps. Scratch that, let’s hope she follows in the footsteps of Monsieur Dior himself.