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Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first female creative director of Dior. Image Credit: For The Washington Post

Dior was part of the patriarchy. Then she changed everything.

She did not mince words or play coy. She did not deflect the compliments and acknowledgments.

From the moment in 2016 when Dior named Maria Grazia Chiuri the company’s new creative director, the designer knew it was a big deal. She has been acutely aware and supremely proud that she’s the first woman to hold such an elevated position at the French fashion house.

Since its founding in 1946, a host of prominent men preceded Chiuri. Yves Saint Laurent succeeded the house’s namesake after his death in 1957. Saint Laurent was followed by Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferr, John Galliano and finally Raf Simons. During their time in the public eye, they were at turns domineering, combustible and tortured. All of them brought an exacting eye to their designs; each worked in concert with a fashion industry that was built on social rules, gender dictates and the notion that attire was fundamentally a kind of feminine plumage.

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Designer Maria Grazia Chiuri poses ahead of the 2021 Cruise collection presentation for fashion house Dior in Paris, France, July 16, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

To use the language of feminism, Dior, throughout its history, has been firmly aligned with the patriarchy.

Chiuri arrived intent on changing that dynamic. “For me, it was a mission,” says the Italian-born designer.

She’s a rarity in fashion’s universe of billion-dollar brands: a self-proclaimed feminist. And her tenure has brought an element of calm to the house’s aesthetic. Her clothes are approachable and oftentimes even pragmatic. She doesn’t doll her models up in fantastical makeup. She has an affinity for accessorising her ensembles with sturdy, comfortable shoes: loafers, work boots, block heels and sneakers. Collections have included anoraks and tweed blazers, fitted coats and swishy skirts, coveralls and slogan T-shirts, as well as embroidered evening gowns as delicate and colorful as a butterfly’s wing.

She hasn’t spawned a new aesthetic vocabulary like some of her colleagues at Gucci and Balenciaga. Still, her work has been well-received by customers who have kept the brand growing by double-digits and propelled it to nearly $7 billion in sales in 2021. And unlike its competitor Chanel, Dior has not made dramatic hikes in prices.

Chiuri has broken one of fashion’s glass ceilings with intention, finding inspiration in the work of female painters, writers and choreographers. She has studied the manifestos of progressive thinkers, often turning her runways into seminars on gender dynamics, cultural erasure and the divine feminine. Women’s studies undergirds her work.

But the relationship between feminism and the fashion industry can be full of complications and tensions. Fashion has a habit of trying to prescribe the correct appearance for a woman, and those prescriptions are typically quite limiting. And yet, fashion delights the senses. It can be beautiful.

Shattering stereotypes

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Models present creations by designer Maria Grazia Chiuri as part of her Fall-Winter 2022/2023 Women’s ready-to-wear collection show for fashion house Dior during Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France, March 1, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

At Dior, amid the pretty frocks, a host of fashion’s nagging depictions, exclusions and stereotypes endure. A virtual presentation in 2020 was cast with almost all White models. Chiuri attributed the decision to the show being inspired by Botticelli and Greek mythology. But that also reflects a stubborn momentum. Somehow Chiuri couldn’t see a way to broaden familiar fictional stories so they reflected the 21st century.

The models at Dior are still mostly young and skinny. “The models don’t represent women,” Chiuri explains. “When you see a model, it’s not that you want to dream about being a model. You have to see yourself in the dress. The model is only a girl that passes in front of you.”

“We have to change a mentality,” Chiuri says. In other words, we have to stop imbuing models with so much power, which seems like a worthy task. But in the meantime, why not simply share the power they already possess with a more diverse assemblage?

The female body continues to be objectified. The evening gowns are see-through. The nudity is titillating. And yet at Dior, a woman is at long last doing the creating, the objectifying and the teasing. Chiuri says she’s constantly expanding her own limited education, explaining that as a young fashion student, she was taught to consider the technical aspects of clothes, but not the cultural ones. Perhaps recognising one’s own lapses is enough to signify change.

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Feminism undergirds Maria Grazia Chiuri’s collections for Dior. Image Credit: Photo for The Washington Post by Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo

What does an intellectual reckoning look like in one’s closet? Perhaps it’s just a matter of being publicly, boldly delighted by fashion.

In 1997, the literary critic Elaine Showalter, then teaching at Princeton University, wrote an essay for Vogue magazine titled ‘The Professor Wore Prada’: “During the years that I was an aspiring feminist intellectual, I constantly struggled against the Joy of Shopping. On my first trip to Paris as a graduate student and bride, I tramped glumly through museums and churches by my husband’s side ... my first really feminist epiphany of our marriage probably came when I wandered off to the grand magasins alone,” referring to the city’s famed department stores. Almost 20 years later, the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explained that her decision to be a beauty ambassador was in part to remind society that women can have a multiplicity of interests. Fashion doesn’t diminish one’s social justice concerns.

In 2022, perhaps Dior is feminist fashion because Chiuri is striving for it to be.

Rise up the ranks

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Designer Maria Grazia Chiuri appears at the end of her Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2022 collection show for fashion house Dior in Paris, France, January 24, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

Chiuri, 58, was born in Rome and spent much of her career working for Italian design houses. She designed accessories at Fendi before moving to Valentino, where she and Pierpaolo Piccioli served as joint creative directors. When she arrived at Dior, she was not an ingenue, an enfant terrible or a wunderkind. She was a woman in full, and by her own description, she was profoundly regular.

“I have two kids. I’m married. There is nothing cool about me,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not skinny. I’m not fat. I have just a normal body.”

“I’m not desperate for fashion,” Chiuri says, which may be one of the key factors in her success. She is committed to the work, but she remains clear-eyed about it. She is a woman who, over the years, has striven to find her voice. It may not be as radical as some would prefer. Or as edgy. But it’s hers and that is an accomplishment.

“With the maturity, you know, you are not scared of the critics. You accept the criticism of other people. I respect also the people that criticise me because I found sometimes the critics are very helpful to understand some aspect of me. That is possible only with maturity,” Chiuri says. “When you are younger, sometime you are fragile. You are more scared to make a mistake. Now I am more, I am confident. If I do make a mistake, I say, ‘OK, I start again.’”

Chiuri’s success has been built, in large measure, by seeking kinship with other women. She found common ground with artists like Chicago and Niki de Saint Phalle, whose outsize sculptures pay tribute to robust female forms. Italian artist Bianca Pucciarelli Menna, who adopted the masculine nom de plume Tomaso Binga, opened one Dior show with a reading. Chiuri has rooted through the writings of American art historian Linda Nochlin, known for her 1971 essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ She has quoted the work of Adichie, who declared that “we should all be feminists.” Virtually every ready-to-wear collection seemed to offer a T-shirt with a phrase encouraging people to hear women’s voices: “Sisterhood is powerful.” “Sisterhood is global.”

Style stakes

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Chiuri appears at the end of her Fall-Winter 2022/2023 Women’s ready-to-wear collection show for fashion house Dior during Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France, March 1, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

Chiuri’s shows challenge the intellect, even if the clothes sometimes fail to make the kind of emotional connection that the most mesmerising fashion can. Her clothes know few extremes. They aren’t austere and minimal, refusing all the frills that define female attire. They aren’t urgently sexy, turning fashion into a way for a woman to publicly declare ownership of her sensuality. The clothes don’t scream power or gravitas. In some ways, they are simply lovely, well-made clothes detached from any great need to represent anything other than the precise way that a woman wants to dress in a given moment.

Like so many women, Chiuri sometimes underestimates herself. She came of age in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. She is older than entrepreneurs such as Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo and younger than baby boomer stalwarts Miuccia Prada and Donatella Versace. She is neither an iconoclastic founder of her own brand or the heir to a family business. She’s faced hurdles presented by an industry that has long looked to men as oracles and to women as mere muses. But other obstacles have been a matter of personal confidence and the ability to ignore cultural judgment.

Models present creations by designer Maria Grazia Chiuri as part of her Autumn/Winter 2018-2019 women’s ready-to-wear collection show for fashion house Dior during Fashion Week in Paris, France, February 27, 2018. Image Credit: Reuters

“I never imagined that [it] could be possible for me to arrive in this position,” Chiuri says. “We are living in a patriarchal world. That is the real feeling for women, for myself. It was not easy to find my way. I think that is really something that you have to work on.”

Fashion has been a process of learning, Chiuri says, about history, culture and herself.

“Each person uses clothes in a very personal way,” Chiuri says. “In the past, the creative director didn’t receive the kind of education to understand very well what there is behind clothes.” Today, there is greater clarity. At Dior, behind the clothes, there is a woman.