A journey with Dior: the Andalusian craftsmanship that seduced Maria Grazia Chiuri
Black vans with tinted windows travelled through the back roads of southern Spain with the goal of finding the perfect artisans with extraordinary savoir-faire willing to be part of a secret, ambitious project. What might sound like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster film with a neo-rural twist is, in fact, the starting point of Dior's love story with Seville. A remarkable initiative that began several months before the LVMH-owned maison's spectacular fashion show in the Plaza de España in Seville last July, and which not only catapulted Andalusia into the luxury tourism and media spotlight, but also promoted the know-how of Spanish workshops and craftsmanship through unique collaborations with the French fashion house.
This incredible story started with Maria Grazia Chiuri, creative director of Dior, and her entire team visiting humble traditional workshops. The artisans had to keep all the details of these visits and their future collaboration under wraps for months, while they secretly worked on the project. The mastermind behind the project knew exactly what she wanted during the scouting process: to bring her Cruise 2023 collection to Spain by staging the first major fashion show by a leading global brand in the country, while drawing inspiration from Spanish culture and establishing a close relationship with its craftsmen in order to highlight the importance and value of tradition.
"Through the Cruise collection, I have had the chance to experience cultures in a much more profound way, which is very stimulating. The most emblematic aspect of Andalusia lies in its theatre and its fiesta scene. This is what impressed me most about Spain, where there are traditions still present in a way that is very much linked to a sense of community," explained the Italian designer, creative director of Dior since 2016, in a documentary about her "deep search for references" for the historic runway show. "The dress is a fundamental element of ritual in Andalusian culture," added the designer regarding the strong and mystical aura that inspired the collection, in which the maison's heritage and Spanish folklore came together.
Beyond their luxurious nature and design, the garments, which were inspired by Almodóvar films, flamenco singing and the flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya (the first woman to wear men's clothing in her profession), have the unique value of having managed to preserve and immortalise ancestral techniques and artisan trades threatened with extinction: from gold work embroidery to the making of Manila shawls, and even saddlery.
To understand how the iconic French luxury house undertook the incredible journey of rescuing and reviving Spanish craftsmanship, FashionNetwork.com retraced Maria Grazia Chiuri's journey along the roads of Andalusia. From her mysterious first meeting with the artisans, who at the time were unaware of the identity of their potential and demanding secret client, to several months after the completion of the project. How have Spanish artisans experienced the "Dior effect"?
Leather from Calleja de las Flores (Cordoba)
Our journey began in the narrow streets of the centre of Cordoba, just a stone's throw away from the city's most famous landmark, the Mosque-Cathedral, which was originally built in 784. In an environment that reflects the fusion of culture and religion, and decorated with flower pots on the walls, a traditional two-storey house has been home since 1958 to a traditional leather workshop that uses artisanal decorative and volume techniques, such as embossing and the ancient leather crafting technique of guadamecil.
We were greeted by leather virtuoso Daniel López-Obrero, who runs the workshop founded by his grandfather, a painter from Cordoba who went into exile in France during the Civil War. "We do everything," he said modestly, adding that he recently decorated the interior of a château in the Pays de la Loire region. Our host took us on a tour of the house that has been transformed into a workshop, showing us the Andalusian-style interior courtyard that Maria Grazia Chiuri was so taken with during her visit and showing us the various cow and lamb skins they work with, which are brought in from Palencia and Catalonia. A trunk and several bags interpreted by the Roman artist Pietro Ruffo were the fruits of the leather workshop's labour for the French maison.
"Collaborating with luxury brands has a great long-term impact and has opened many doors for us," said the artisan, recalling his first collaboration with the Spanish brand Loewe in 2012. "But without a doubt, the biggest exposure we have had, has been thanks to Dior. Their high standards have resulted in a steep learning curve which can only be acquired through difficulty," continued the representative of the third generation of the workshop, who recently received a call from designer Juana Martin, also from Cordoba.
However, the artisan is aware of the limitations of a traditional workshop and prefers to live day by day working at a slow pace with a small team of craftsmen. "We are not a big company and it is very difficult to find workers who know the craft. A workshop like ours cannot grow much, but it is a way of preserving our essence," he claimed, noting how well his ornamental products and small leather goods have been received by the international tourists who visit his shop in Calleja de las Flores.
The gold work embroidery of Ecija (Seville)
Our next stop: Ecija. This municipality with a population of 40,000 located to the east of Seville is known as the frying pan of Andalusia due to the high temperatures it can experience during the summer months. Upon our arrival, a huge shawl in preparation for one of the virgins in the upcoming Semana Santa processions in Seville occupied the central space of the workshop, with several women painstakingly embroidering its details. Their hands, hardened by long hours of work, effortlessly, performed an exquisite choreography of needles and thimbles, resulting in the three-dimensional gold thread embroidery, which can only be mastered with experience and a good pair of embroidery tweezers. Around them, more women laughed while embroidering other unique pieces, masterfully executing the intricate techniques that have made the workshop one of the leading references in Andalusian sacred art.
Fascinated by the iconography of the "Madonne" (Italian for "virgins") and an advocate of women's roles in society, Maria Grazia Chiuri was captivated by the magic of the atelier, which ended up creating the golden embroidery which featured on garments such as a peplum jacket or the iconic "Lady Dior" bag in her collection.
"Maria Grazia came to see us one by one. She wanted to meet us and find out more about the embroidery technique and our work," said several of the 16 women of all ages who work in the atelier, thrilled to see their often-overlooked artisanal work recognised. The collaboration with the French maison, which took 11 months of work and required the workshop to be split in two in order to be able to continue taking on its regular orders, has enabled them to make a leap into haute couture that "they could never have imagined before".
The man responsible for all this is none other than Jesús Rosado, an entrepreneur who started sewing at the age of 14, when he began to learn techniques from the nuns of the Las Filipensas covent, until he finally fulfilled his dream of setting up his own embroidery workshop. "Without being able to speak Spanish, Maria Grazia and I speak the same language and have the same respect for craftsmanship. With this collection we have grown a lot and it has been a financial boost, but it has also helped us in our personal and professional training," said the talented craftsman.
His niece, also a young embroiderer at the workshop, was quickly forced to become a multi-faceted leader in the collaboration: from keeping up with long email chains with the Dior teams, something completely new for the workshop, to managing its social media accounts, which saw its number of followers multiply after the runway show. "We started receiving calls from brands and clients, from the United States to Japan," said the young woman with a smile on her face, unable to hide her surprise.
"This project made us feel like we were part of something very big. It has been a huge recognition of craftsmanship. When you create work for the Vatican, your work is only of interest to Catholics; when you create work for Dior, you have an open, universal and transcendent window," said Jesús Rosado, revealing some of the fashion pieces that the workshop began to create after the collaboration. "Sacred art is at the heart of our work, but Dior has made us believe in our ability to diversify," he said proudly.
Shawls from Villamanrique de la Condesa (Seville)
"The other day, a friend who was travelling sent me a photo showing the Dior collection at the airport - my shawls had arrived in Thailand!" exclaimed María José Espinar in disbelief. The craftswoman is the head of Ángeles Espinar, a workshop that specialises in embroidering Manila shawls.
Located in the marshland of Villamanrique de la Condesa, which has a population of just 4,500, the atelier run by a mother and daughter for over 45 years produces versatile fringed garments that not only dress the wearer but, inevitably, envelop him or her in art. A piece named after the capital of the Philippines, which "encompasses the history of international trade". Originally from China, it passed through Mexico before arriving in Spain. "It is the most Spanish piece of craftsmanship there is and with the greatest international projection," said the artisan.
She represents the third generation of women dedicated to embroidering shawls. "My grandmother founded one of the first embroidery workshops in Seville. In the 1970s, when embroidery was beginning to lose its essence, my mother set out to reinvent and modernise it, which led her to teach and pass on the craft to many other women," recalled María José Espinar. At that time, the embroiderers of the workshop, who often worked from their own homes on a daily basis, numbered around a hundred. Today, there are only five women artisans left. "Without generational succession, embroidery will eventually disappear," deplored the embroiderer.
All the more reason why Maria Grazia Chiuri wanted to save this precious craft from possible extinction. "We are a humble family and we opened the doors of our home to show her everything we do. She was particularly interested in the value of women's work and was impressed by the large artisanal aspect of our business. The only machine we use in the whole process is the iron," she said. The collaboration led to the development of a series of towels embroidered with the maison's designs. Since the fashion show, the workshop has received orders from as far afield as Italy and Dubai.
Saddlery from Castilblanco de los Arroyos (Seville)
Before continuing our journey, we made a stop along the way in the beautiful white village of Castilblanco de los Arroyos along the Silver Route. At lunchtime, we were welcomed by Javier Menacho, the host of our visit to an old barracks house that today is home to potters, painters and pensioners.
Self-taught in the art of saddlery, the craftsman is a true expert in 200-year-old traditional techniques and combines refined luxury elements influenced by brands such as Hermès and Moynat with his passion for the equestrian world in the manufacture of his embossed leather pieces: from bags to decorative items, including belts and boots.
This style can be seen in his workshop, which is decorated with tools, saddles and religious prints, including the patron saint of the municipality, Saint Benedict. "Maria Grazia noticed the specific details of the horse saddles. A cross stitch that she wanted to apply to the iconic Saddle bag. I had never thought that this technique could be applied to a bag," said Menacho, who remembers the commotion in the village, caused by the mysterious visit of the Dior teams.
"In the village they wanted to rip the words out of my mouth, but I didn't say anything," said the artisan about the secret collaboration that lasted for months and that has led him to dream of making it big in the fashion industry. Currently, his luxury creations that have already seduced foreign clients, are available for sale at the Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville, which welcomed numerous guests to the fashion show.
Hats from Salteras (Seville)
When Stephen Jones, head of Dior's millinery for more than two decades, discovered a photograph of the iconic Jacqueline Kennedy next to the Duchess of Alba (the aristocrat who held the highest number of noble titles in Spain) at the April Fair in Seville in 1966, he knew that the next Dior hats should be designed by Fernandez and Roche.
Founded in 1885, the company with a workforce of 60 people based in Salteras prides itself on being the only hat factory in Spain that carries out all hat making operations. The company also sells its hats all over the world. Its wide range of clients include Qatar Airways for its uniform hats, bullfighters, the Orthodox Jewish community of New York (which represents 60% of the company's turnover), as well as fashion designers and movie stars for films such as "Indiana Jones" and "V for Vendetta".
Their production capacity, which has become industrialised over the years, and their versatility led Dior to entrust them with the manufacture of the collection's wide-brimmed Andalusian hats and its panamas topped with ribbons, featuring the names of both firms on their labels as a form of co-branding. "These are still typical Sevillian hats," said the company's president, Enrique Fernández, great-grandson of José Fernández, who founded the company together with Antonio Roche.
"The fashion show was our biggest marketing investment to date and it marked an important milestone for the company. Dior saw it more as a joint collaboration than a commission. Our employees are very proud of this huge recognition and you can see it in their sparkling eyes," said the entrepreneur at the helm of the company, which by the end of the current fiscal year expects to double its sales.
The goldsmiths of La Rinconada (Sevilla)
Night falls and our journey comes to an end in an industrial area in La Rinconada, on the left bank of the Guadalquivir. Although, for the five craftsmen still in the workshop of the goldsmith Pedro Ramos Espinosa, the day is not yet over. Working at full speed, they were chiselling, melting and finalising the details of silver-plated sacred pieces of art, such as candlesticks and other major items for the Semana Santa processions.
Specialising in religious objects, the goldsmith's workshop first applied its expertise to the creation of delicate costume jewellery pieces for the French firm. "Dior opened up a new creative world for us. It was a breath of fresh air and it launched our work into another dimension," said Pedro Ramos Espinosa, who has taken on the responsibility of running his family workshop, which was founded by his father in 1977.
"In the end, what Dior was looking for was something very similar to the ornamentation of flowers in sacred art. Our workshop is different from others because of our designs. The fact that Maria Grazia took notice of our work means that we were touched by a magic wand," he said with a huge smile, noting that the alliance has helped "consolidate a long history of work" and to expand his catalogue to include jewellery, tiaras and museum replicas.
The entrepreneur, who claims to be "better known for having collaborated with Dior than for his work over the decades", is very proud to have been able to buy the premises in which he works today after spending years in a rented workshop. This is an important step for his company, spurred on by a fashion show that seems to have changed the lives of many.
The end of the Dior effect?
But less than a year after the monumental show held in front of 900 guests in the Sevillian space designed by architect Aníbal González in 1929, fashion continues its frenetic pace and Dior has already set sail for India, where it will hold a new fashion show on Thursday, March 30. This change of scenery marks the beginning of a new phase that the maison renews every year.
Has the Spanish idyll already been put to rest? Everything seems to indicate otherwise, that this is only the beginning. And all the people interviewed for this article agree that there is a "before and after Dior phase" in their careers. It was hard and demanding work that earned them recognition that so often seems far removed from the seasoned hands of artisans.
"Working with Dior has been the best experience of my life. I no longer feel lost. I have learned to value myself and it has given me the courage and the desire to continue working in fashion. If the phone rang again, I wouldn't hesitate for a second to embark on this adventure again," said Jesus Rosado, his eyes brimming with tears as he showed off the pieces of the last jacket his atelier made for the French fashion house.
When the lights went out in the workshops, our journey came to an end and the fashion world had already set its sights on another capital. Neither Seville nor the artisans who once worked for the Dior maison have forgotten the magic that seemed to come straight out of a movie.
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