“The funny thing,” Maria Grazia Chiuri tells me over the phone from one of her two bookstrewn offices overlooking a fountain in the Rue Francois 7er in Paris, “is that I didn’t really discover feminism until I was about 48 (she’s now 53), largely thanks to my daughter Raquele.”
This is not because Chiuri was some kind of surrendered wife. The opposite. “I came of age at a golden time in Italy. I was brought up to think a woman could do anything she wanted. That was pre Berlusconi. It was downhill for Italian women once he came into power. Total objectification. Honestly, I’m so happy my daughter is living in London. I just wish my son wasn’t living in Italy right now”.
Grazia’s late awakening, (courtesy of Raquele and Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie’s short book We Should All be Feminists, a title Chiuri emblazoned onto a collection of sell-out t shirts in her first Dior show) explains why she only took up the metaphorical placards once she’d arrived at Dior, in late 2016. “For all those years I worked at Fendi, it never occurred to me to be vocal. It was such an amazing company - and entirely run by the five Fendi sisters. There didn’t seem any need to shout about feminism. I guess I had got very complacent, like a lot of my generation.”
When she became joint head designers at Valentino in 2008 with Pierpaolo Piccioli, they chose to fight the Berlusconi-fication of women not with fist-pumping declarations but with a dignified, romantic, depiction of womanhood that wouldn’t have looked out of place in paintings of Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.
But times change. Trump’s election, the subsequent women’s marches , the unfolding Weinstein horrors and the concomitant sisterly solidarity of the #metoo campaign called for more explicit engagement in the debate. In September 2017, inspired by the art critic Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, Why Are There No Great Women Artists?, she waded into the conversation again, splattering the accusatory question across more t-shirts. Not everyone was appreciative, not understanding the implicit irony in the title.
“Women are often their own worst enemies in this respect,” gurgles Chiuri, her voice ricocheting from husky to excitable squealing. “We’re so conditioned to think the most important thing is to please others, that we don’t always put ourselves forward. You have to keep challenging your thinking. That’s the only way to change anything.”
A post shared by badgalriri (@badgalriri) on Jan 22, 2017 at 6:31am PST
That fact that feminism has proved such a hot seller for Dior irks some critics. In the fifteen months since her arrival, sales of Dior’s feminist and feminine accessories – Guevara-esque berets, bandolier cross- body bags that look like the kind of thing an upmarket revolutionary would sling across her body and all that luxuriously soft, 70s –in- spirit, eye wateringly expensive denim – have kept Dior at the forefront of luxury shoppers’ minds.
A cavalcade of celebrities wearing her We Should All be Feminist T shirts on Instagram lead to accusations of a crass commercial take over of a nobel cause.
“Honestly, this was not about making money,” says Chiuri. Getting Sydney Toledano (Dior’s CEO) to agree to doing a T shirt wasn’t easy,” she laughs. “‘Dior is not a t-shirt brand’, I was told. All the profits have gone to charity. “ She’s delighted if people buy high street versions.” It shows the message is more important than the label”.
Having found her political voice, does she now feel the need to keep exercising it, especially given the award. Probably. It is quite a responsibility. But it’s not a thing I have to force. The more I read and learn about the world, the more there is to say.”
As for those who contend that fashion should be above politics… "that’s like saying fashion should be above life. Since I’ve been researching Christian Dior, I’ve learned that understanding this house isn’t just about learning how he cut. It’s discovering how he thought. He was a gallerist before he worked in fashion. He had avant-garde tastes and a lot of views that for the times were quite progressive. Plus, I’ve realised that fashion is a very powerful medium.”
It’s also, an industry that needs to clean up its own act, besides promoting awareness about inequalities in the outside world.
“She's reinvented Dior's magic for the 21st Century, shone a light on feminist writers and sorted conversations around the globe about female empowerment,” says Nadja Swarovski, who sponsors the award.
As a mature woman working in a business that seems terrified of ageing, she's concerned about its narrow focus on youth and thinness, although as she explains, there are practical reasons why catwalk models tend to be the same size.
“You need a single prototype or production becomes impossible.”
Dior has signed up to the charter that is trying to safeguard against the use of underage and underweight models. As for all the allegations of sexual misconduct among a growing roster of photographers, she insisted on working mainly with women photographers since she arrived at Dior – although next season’s campaign has been shot by a man. She can’t yet say who. What about gender pay gaps? “At Dior it’s all about talent, not whether you’re a man or women”.
We haven’t talked about her clothes at all, which are both lovely and women friendly – even the transparent ones. Her favourite uniform currently is Dior denim, which she’s wearing today. “But I grew up in a family where nudity was totally OK and natural. I never saw a contradiction between showing your body and being feminist…”
One thing’s certain, Monday’s ceremony is gearing up to be interesting – and not just for students of cutting edge fashion design or red carpet junkies. From Cameron Russell, the whistle blowing, high fashion and Victoria’s Secret model, to Gucci’s ban on fur, this is the year that fashion fully got on board with that fact that it can’t always dodge politics, be they personal or universal.
dior brand timeline
This may create tricky terrain for the British Fashion Council, which organises the glitzy event – one superstar photographer had to be retroactively airbrushed from a list of nominations because of serious allegations of misconduct . But the upshot is that rather than being a hermetically sealed incubus of air kisses and insideriness, the Fashion Awards could end up saying something about the wider world in 2017.