Photography by GILLES-MARIE ZIMMERMANN
(represented by Angela de Bona)
Styling by SAMANTHA HUGHES
Photographed at the Hotel Plaza Athénéé Paris
On a frigid February morning in 1947, a shy, portly French couturier named Christian Dior launched a collection that forever changed the shape of fashion.
The war was finally over and the American press and buyers had returned to Paris, hoping to find something new. Dior, a former assistant to couturier Lucien Lelong, had just opened his Avenue Montaigne couture house across the street from the Plaza Athénéé, a hotel he called his “second home.” As the presentation began, models in dresses with rounded busts, padded hips, tiny waists and midcalf hemlines sashayed through the dove-gray salon with skirts so full that some knocked ashtrays off tables. They were exquisite: feminine, romantic, luxurious and as fresh and untouchable as flowers in full bloom.
AFTER THE SHOW, Carmel Snow, the legendary editor of Harper’s Bazaar, rushed back to the cabine and declared that what Dior had just presented would change everything. “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian,” Snow is reported to have said. “Your dresses have such a new look.”
After so many years of wartime doldrums, Dior was giving fashion a new identity. The reviewers raved. French Elle called it “the collection that knocked out the entire world.” The New York Herald Tribune deemed it “the sensation of the season.” The sweeping folds of fabric and the overtly feminine, nipped-in waists arrived precisely when women craved luxury and femininity the most. They had endured the deep sadness of the war, strict fabric rations and the mannish square shoulders of wartime fashion. Now they wanted some relief and Dior understood perfectly their cravings for something more feminine and opulent.
Born in Granville on the northwestern coast of France, Dior was the second of five children born to a fertilizer manufacturer from one of western France’s richest families. Young Christian cultivated an aesthetic early on, drawing women’s legs in high heels in his school textbooks. He wanted to study architecture, but his family urged him to become a diplomat. After flunking out of Paris’ prestigious Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques, Dior opened an art gallery near the Faubourg Saint-Honoré in 1928.
But the Great Depression wiped out his family’s fortune and Dior was forced to close the gallery. He began to dabble in fashion and in 1941 he got a job assisting Lelong. Several years later, a childhood friend arranged an introduction to textile manufacturer Marcel Boussac, who offered Dior the job of head designer at a small couture house he owned. Dior suggested instead that Boussac invest in a couture house with Dior’s name above the door. Boussac, recognizing a talent big enough to reinvigorate the flagging French textile business, agreed.
AND SO DIOR’S NEW LOOK was born and the couturier became famous overnight. Taxi drivers stopped women on the street to ask them if they were wearing the New Look. Dior became fashion’s ultimate agent provocateur, playing on the universal appetite for newness and for French savoir-faire. He also tapped into the public’s craving for celebrity, dressing famous women including Grace Kelly, Josephine Baker and Elizabeth Taylor. Seventh Avenue-the heart of the American garment industry-went into overdrive to replicate the New Look.
Dior became so in demand that the company negotiated licensing deals for additional product categories-ties, fragrances, nylon stockings, jewelry, gloves and shoes. He put his name on furs, hats, corsets, menswear, swimwear and handbags. By the mid-1950s, Dior had been rechristened “the General Motors of fashion.”
But in October 1957 Dior died suddenly and was succeeded by his young assistant, Yves Saint Laurent. In the tradition of Dior the agent provocateur, Saint Laurent introduced a new style with his first collection-replacing the hourglass silhouette of the New Look with the trapeze line. The collection made headlines around the world, and Saint Laurent was hailed as a national hero. But his subsequent collections tapped into street style for inspiration, and many of Dior’s devoted clients were not ready for such a radical shift. So when Saint Laurent was drafted into military service in 1960, another Dior protégé, Marc Bohan, was called on to replace him.
With his popular Slim Line, Bohan demonstrated that he could relax Dior’s code of ultrafemininity without losing the label’s elegance. Bohan lasted for nearly 30 years at the helm of Dior, dressing actresses and society mavens such as Isabelle Adjani and Nancy Reagan. His clothes captured the moment, yet they were wearable.
IT WASN’T UNTIL 1984, when the Christian Dior label was sold to a group of investors led by Bernard Arnault, that Dior would begin to recapture the iconic status it had achieved in the late 1940s and 1950s. Arnault recognized the need to rekindle the excitement and provocation that Dior himself had generated, and hired Italian designer Gianfranco Ferré, known for his grand gestures and geometric tailoring. Ferré's sharp pantsuits, voluminous blouses and romantic evening gowns echoed the code of Christian Dior. But Ferré presided over the brand at a tenuous time for haute couture; in America a major recession was brewing, and Arnault recognized that couture could no longer cater solely to a handful of rich clients.
Christian Dior had built his brand by name recognition, using his powerful and provocative fashions to drive sales of lipstick, nylon stockings and hats. Arnault realized that he could go back to Dior's original plan and use couture collections to drive sales of other Dior products. To do this he needed a contemporary agent provocateur, someone who could match Dior in his taste for romance and headlines. Like Dior, John Galliano was a romantic dreamer who created characters through fashion. His runway shows had become headliners on the Paris ready-to-wear schedule as much for their fashion as for their theatrics. His cut was innovative and masterful.
In 1997, Galliano presented his first couture collection for Dior, re-creating the drama and romance that were synonymous with the couture brand. Models including Carla Bruni and Naomi Campbell sauntered down the runway in updated versions of Dior’s famous Bar Jacket. With each subsequent season, Galliano’s collections became increasingly theatrical. He took over Paris’ Opéra Garnier and sent models in billowing ballgowns dashing up the grand staircase. Another season featured models dressed as “Princess Pocahontas” roaring into the Gare d’Austerlitz aboard a real steam engine.
The fall 2012 collection marks another passing of the Dior baton, this time to Dutch designer Raf Simons. Much like the great couturiers who preceded him, Simons possesses a sharp technique and an appreciation for the romance and emotion of fashion. In his first couture collection for Dior, presented July 2 in a Parisian hotel, Simons tapped into the brand’s romantic spirit by covering the walls of each salon in fresh flowers. The first look out, a slim black tuxedo, signaled that Simons’ tenure will reflect his personal penchant for minimalism.
Time will tell how he will interpret the house’s codes: the rigorous cut of the famous Bar Jacket and the grand gesture of the romantic ballgown. Perhaps the greatest legacy of Christian Dior for any designer who inherits his mantle is the ability to create something that is at once shockingly new and completely desirable.
See Cote's haute look.