Don't forget to see Christian Dior Couturier du Rêve

This summer and autumn, the most important fashion exhibition anywhere is without doubt Christian Dior Couturier du Rêve, a retrospective which celebrates the 70th anniversary of this mythical French maison.
 
The Gruau dress of 1949 in satin by Monsieur Dior

Featuring some 300 Dior creations, the show includes looks by 10 different designers, including the founder, created for Dior. Though the unquestioned stars of the exhibition are Dior and John Galliano, successor number four. The exhibition opened this month in the Musée des Art décoratifs, a wing of the Louvre, before 2,000 guests in the evening after Dior’s fall 2017 haute couture collection, designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri.
 
Given its importance, FashionNetwork.com caught up with the show’s curator and the museum’s director Olivier Gabet for a quiet personal tour of this important exhibition.
 
“We wanted to consider Dior from an artistic point of view. Not make some corporate exercise in brand building,” cautions Gabet, greeting me before the original Bar suit – actually, an ivory nipped at the waist, five-button shantung jacket and flared crêpe de laine skirt that ladies would wear to a cocktail bar, hence the name - from the legendary New Look collection of Feb. 12, 1947.
 
This exposition opens with a detailed display of Dior’s upbringing; from his halcyon youth in the beautiful Les Rhumbs, the family’s Belle Époque Normandy villa and garden perched on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic; to his years managing his own gallery just off the Champs Elysees in the Années Folles, or Roaring Twenties. Dior’s family were so bourgeois his father only financed the gallery on condition it not bear the name Dior family name. Ironic when one thinks how much money has been made from the Dior logo since.

“Apart from a few knowledgeable insiders, most people don’t really know who Dior is. Which is why we wanted to emphasize his early days,” adds Gabet, who curated this show with Florence Müller.
 
Turns out Dior had a great eye for talent. One giant black and white photo of a famed exhibition in his tiny gallery shows work by Giacometti or Picasso. “From that Surrealist show of 1933 we have three original works. Dali; the pharmacy of Marcel Duchamp; and the very first example of the metronome eye by Man Ray,” smiles Gabet.
 
After the Depression wiped out the art market, Dior gradually drifted into fashion, creating ball gowns for grand soirées before learning his métier at couturier Lucien Lelong. These days, designers stage their first collection in graduation shows. Dior had to wait until he was 42.
 
Though his grand ball inspiration is captured in a stunning photo by Cecil Beaton of Princess Margaret in a ravishing ball gown. “Remarkable at the time that an English princess would commission a French couturier,” notes the curator.
 
Dior, though, never lost his roots in fine arts. Seen in the sculptural flourish of a 1947 blood orange micro-plissé cocktail that lightly brushes the torso or little black dress of 1948 sprouting faille plumage like a religious figurine. Or in a love of travel: Dior visited Moscow in the 30s even before the Cold War, opened a store early on in London, and staged shows in Caracas. A tradition maintained by his successors, as seen in Galliano’s memorable tribal dresses – where African beading met Dior’s illustrious atelier.
 
“Galliano emerges as the most faithful of all the successors,” argues Gabet. Galliano ultimately crashed out of Dior in 2011 after a video of him drunk and bigoted went viral. But this show is something of a rehabilitation for the British designer – whose bravura and beauty is evident throughout.
 
Bustier dress of 2004 by John Galliano

The exhibition’s second half opens with a giant wall of outfits showing how much Dior influenced every designer since - from Yohji to Dries to Rei to Alber to Helmut. Each piece by these creators owned by the museum.
 
Though Gabet cautions: “Dior has remarkably sophisticated archives. That’s why it is essential that one works with the brand. And, I must say, they had the professional courtesy to give us carte blanche."
 
The multiple facets of Dior’s DNA shine through in pretty much every piece. His appreciation of nature clearly referenced in the work of Raf Simons, albeit the Impressionist florals of Normandy morphed into the dry bitter cacti of Puglia in the Belgian designer’s hands. While his artistic tradition is obvious in a silk print dress Simons based on a canvas by Sterling Ruby.
 
Dior’s principal successors are each given a room, with videos of famous fashion shoots of their Dior designs and smart explanations of their radically different methods of working: Chiuri’s giant mood boards – which are substantial and revealing; Yves Saint Laurent’s urban sophistication with his couture trapeze; the massive books of inspiration Galliano made for each show; Marc Bohan’s careful draping and Gianfranco Ferré’s meticulous collection of ancient statuary and objects paired with the dresses they influenced.


2012 Sterling Ruby print dress by Raf Simons; 2017 Jardin Fleuri gown by Maria Grazia Chiuri

 
The retrospective climaxes in the museum’s nave, decorated for a ball, featuring gowns worn by Princess Grace, Lady Diana, Charlize Theron and Jennifer Lawrence. And a series of giant video screens showing clips of screen goddesses – Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich or Sophia Loren - wearing Dior in classic films.
 
“Anna Wintour told me she thought this section was very commercial. Can you imagine? I think she was just a little jealous. Funny that from her, no?” sniffed Gabet.
 
However, the most charming space is a towering room containing just the original white toiles made for each look. Testament to the true backbone of this storied house, les petits mains, or tiny hands, which continue to devotedly realize the dreams of every creator at this monument to French taste and style since Monsieur Dior’s sudden death in an Italian spa in 1957.
 
 
Christian Dior, couturier du rêve, in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs ends on January 7, 2018.
 
 

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