In 2016, when Maria Grazia Chiuri, the newly appointed creative director at Dior, sent a model down the runway in a long skirt and a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “We Should All Be Feminists”—the title of the 2014 manifesto by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—it was a brazen statement in support of a cause still considered controversial. Most people in fashion had publicly endorsed feminism in specific instances, like during Hillary Clinton’s run for president, but steered clear of persistent questions about how the clothes women wear help—or hinder—them in their efforts to lead a full life. I had two thoughts at the time: One, how does a designer follow through on that kind of proclamation? (A recent book, Her Dior: Maria Grazia Chiuri’s New Voice, tracks her progress.) And two, who is this woman?
I knew who she was. Or rather, I knew where she was born (Rome) and what she’d done previously (helped to develop the famous Baguette bag at Fendi; overseen the house of Valentino with Pierpaolo Piccioli). Those achievements would have been success enough for many designers. But Chiuri now regards everything that came before Dior as preparation for this opportunity. “It was important for me to speak with my own voice,” she says, “and to reflect about what’s missing in women’s fashion. What I really want is to have a dialogue with other women, to use my knowledge, to understand more what fashion means to real people.”
If ever there were a moment for fashion to take real people into account, this would be it. One year into the global pandemic and counting, we’re all reconsidering our relationship to the things in our lives, our appearance and the lengths we go to in order to maintain it, and our money and what we spend it on. Is this the end of fashion as we knew it? Chiuri doesn’t think so. Even if we’re all locked down at home, she says, the idea of a future in which we’re all wearing the same uniform holds no appeal.
Among the remarkable women she’s engaging in a dialogue about these and other subjects—six of whom she enlisted for this story—is her daughter, Rachele Regini. On a Zoom call, the two of them—Chiuri, in her late 50s, with dramatic black eye kohl, her platinum hair slicked back; and Regini, less than half her mother’s age, wearing her long hair loose and minimal makeup—fit their faces into the frame with an ease so second nature, it implies that they sit this close all the time. They interrupt each other and finish each other’s sentences. Chiuri occasionally rests her head on Regini’s shoulder.
It was Regini who came to a thorough understanding of the iniquities women have faced, and prompted Chiuri to consider how they relate to fashion. Raised in Rome, Regini lived with her mother; her father, a shirtmaker; and her brother, now an engineer, until she was 17. “And then my mom kicked me out and told me that I had to move to London to finish high school,” she says. They laugh now about how Chiuri cried the day Regini started her classes at Goldsmiths, University of London, a research college specializing in the arts, design, humanities, and social sciences, where she ultimately completed a bachelor’s degree in art history and a master’s in gender, media, and culture. “My mother gave me an opportunity she would have liked to have received from her own parents,” Regini says.
With her focus on gender studies, Regini increasingly found herself at odds with Chiuri’s choice of career. “There is a lot of criticism in my field towards the fashion industry,” Regini says. “So my mom and I were not having a great relationship. For two years, it was a lot of discussion.”
“I think this is normal,” Chiuri says, “because young people are really radical. But to be on the outside and only criticize is not efficient, in my point of view.” Chiuri suggested that Regini come to Paris and work with her—an invitation Regini refused. Eventually, however, their ongoing conversation helped develop each woman’s perspective, and their positions came to be less adversarial. Again, Chiuri asked Regini to collaborate with her. “I said, ‘Help me to raise awareness inside the system, to improve it and move forward, not only outside the fashion system but inside as well, because there are excellent professionals who didn’t receive the same education that you received.’ ”
This time Regini agreed: “What moved me towards adulthood was realizing that at some point, you have to get out of your bubble and understand that living in the world means having to compromise. Things aren’t always black or white, bad or good. We think ‘compromise’ is a bad word, but it’s not necessarily.”
In the end, Chiuri created what is surely the first office of gender studies in a fashion house (Regini’s official title is cultural advisor). And Regini came to the conclusion that “academia tends to be a niche all its own,” resistant to contamination by outsiders, whereas fashion is in many respects more open, more conducive to “getting something done.” This, she says, is partly because fashion is a field comprising other fields—not only design and manufacturing, but also photography, filmmaking, art, and journalism.
“ ‘I work in an industry that’s not perfect,’ ” Chiuri remembers telling Regini. “ ‘But we can do something. Maybe it will be only a small step. But let’s try.’ ”
In retrospect, it seems clear that Chiuri’s mother, a dressmaker in Rome, served as a role model for a daughter who would go on to preside over two prestigious couture houses. But their relations were no less combative than Chiuri and Regini’s, and their tug-of-war played out in the clothes Chiuri wore. “I think my interest in fashion initially was because it was for me a way to be free,” she says. Her mother was enamored of Tyrolean style, which Chiuri detested. Her mother wanted her to wear pretty dresses. “She was much more conventional.”
“You were the same with me,” Regini reminds her.
“But you are completely different,” Chiuri protests.
“Yeah,” Regini agrees, in a tone that says she doesn’t. “When I was a child, you gave me only pink dresses. Maybe it’s some disease you get when you give birth to a daughter.”
As a teenager, Chiuri frequented the flea market, where she would find jackets, pants, and patchwork bags made from different textiles, “because I wanted to express my personality,” she explains. In Rome, she studied fashion and the history of art, a glorious cavalcade that began with the Egyptians, ended with modernism, and included not a single woman artist. It never occurred to her to question who had written the textbooks. At 20, she left home and started to travel, driven by her curiosity about other cultures and her quest for independence. She eventually moved to Florence to find a job.
That Chiuri should now be leading an explicitly feminist crusade at Dior is nothing if not ironic. In the long-running standoff between fashion and feminism, in which some feminists allege that fashion was created by a cabal of male designers coercing women into corsets, stiletto heels, and other instruments of torture to satisfy their fantasies, Christian Dior occupies a special place for having memorialized his childhood recollections of his mother in the voluptuous style that came to be called the New Look. His suits, nipped at the waist, and his confectionary ballgowns, with their hourglass silhouettes and skirts like oversize tutus, have gone down in history as manifestations of the mood in Paris after its liberation from the Nazis and the end of World War II. “This moment was very specific,” Chiuri says. In her efforts to understand Dior’s work, she has tried “to dream with his mind,” to relive his efforts to celebrate women and give them hope for the future. If you look at the clothes from that period in the archive, she says, they’re incredibly small—not because women were conscious of their figures, but because they’d had so little to eat during the war.
The collections she has designed pay her profound respects to Dior, taking as points of departure what she calls the “house codes”: Dior’s love of checks, his penchant for blue. It was important for her to get to know Dior, “to understand him as a person,” she says, not only as a designer. As part of her research, she visited La Colle Noire, his house in the foothills of the French Alps, 25 miles outside Cannes, which he bought at the height of his success, in 1951, with the intent of retiring there—a day that never came. He died at age 52, only six years later. It was at La Colle Noire, rather than at the Avenue Montaigne couture house, that Chiuri came face-to-face with Dior’s private side and with the pleasure he’d found in his garden. “I think in some ways, he was a simple man,” she says. “He called his autobiography Christian Dior and I—as if the image and the I were two different things. This dialogue between the ideas that people have about the brand and who he really was is very close to what I sometimes feel when I speak with people who have an image of me based on where I am and what I do.”
Chiuri loves black, as did Dior, who called it “the most popular and the most convenient and the most elegant of all colours.” He could write a book about it, he claimed. So could Chiuri, you realize, as she rhapsodizes about its attributes. “Color can give an attitude, but black is the essence—pure cut, pure construction,” she says. Rigorous, severe, it makes no allowances for anything “tricky.” Black was, she claims, “very important for my generation,” with a resonance dating back to late-1970s London punk rock. But for her, it also calls to mind the women on her father’s side of the family, in Puglia, in southern Italy. “I don’t remember my grandmother dressed in any color except black.”
It’s only now that Chiuri appreciates the example that her parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents set, with women’s—and men’s—roles that were pragmatic and flexible. She attributes this to the fact that the region’s economy is agricultural, that daily life is matriarchal, and that everyone shared the objective of helping the family get ahead. “The rules,” she recalls, “were not so defined.” The first to arrive home in the evening put the water on to boil.
Last summer, Dior staged a show in Puglia, presenting a collection that incorporated embroidery and craftsmanship by local seamstresses and artisans. “All these were things that were part of my childhood,” -Chiuri says, “things that were made within the family, at home, at night.” The result was, for her, deeply moving, infusing the exalted tradition of the Paris couture with her own background and experience.
One year after that first T-shirt and its slogan put the fashion world on notice, Chiuri sent out another one, a navy and white–striped French sailor’s sweater bearing the title of a different feminist classic: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” This was the standard rebuttal that men offered women of Chiuri’s generation when the conversation turned to creative equality. If women were so smart, if they were as gifted as men, how come there had been no female Michelangelo or Rembrandt? Clearly, they concluded, women had not been endowed with the same talents as men. Case closed—until, in her 1971 essay, Linda Nochlin, an American art historian and critic, methodically dismantled this argument, exposing the extent to which circumstances had historically worked against any woman with artistic aspirations.
“When I read that, I cried,” Chiuri says. “I wish I had had that book when I was 14 years old. I think all girls around the world need to read it, because it opens your mind.” History, written by men about men, saw to it that the handful of women artists who did manage to overcome the odds were quickly forgotten. “Now,” Chiuri says, “everybody talks about Artemisia Gentileschi,” a baroque painter of the 17th century. “But before, nobody mentioned her. My generation had no idea.”
Skeptics might wonder how one woman and her team, working in a field as supposedly trivial as fashion, can address such entrenched injustice, although downplaying fashion’s significance—by which I mean not the hot new bag or shoe, but the role of clothes in our lives—is yet another example of the ways in which women’s interests have historically been devalued. Can a woman designer do a better job of imagining a wardrobe for women that is consistent with the way they see themselves? Chiuri tackles the issue both practically and intellectually. I’ve read my share of fashion press releases over the years, but those describing Chiuri’s collections are the first I’ve seen containing references to the patriarchy, consent, and the clitoridean orgasm. They also offer an international roll call of feminist heroines, artists, and writers, past and present: Freya Stark, Judy Chicago, Isabel Allende, Cindy Sherman, Agnès Varda, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Lee Miller, Dora Maar. No surprises here, and worthy role models all. Farther afield for inspiration, Chiuri has looked to athletics—specifically, fencing—and dance, in collaboration with the choreographer Sharon Eyal, celebrating the skills and wisdom that reside in women’s bodies.
Women designing clothes for women tend to rally around two issues: comfort and fantasy. When Chiuri reimagined Christian Dior’s iconic Bar suit from his New Look collection, she did away with the corset that gave the close-cut jacket its shape, swapped out the skirt for pants, and rendered the whole thing in knit. As for fantasy, Chiuri has nothing against it in principle. “Fashion is a way to play with your personality,” she says. “One day you dress sexy, another day like a queen. The important thing is that it’s your choice.” Fantasy has traditionally been relegated to clothes for evening, when women can pretend to be someone other than the person they’re required to be during the day—a dichotomy that grew more pronounced when women entered the workforce in droves. “This I don’t understand,” Chiuri says. “I like to dress up in the morning, when I go to the office—I want to play with friends and see our looks. I want to wear my dream and live my dream, not save it for a special occasion.”
Usually, insider fashion conversations revolve around either theatrical clothes that set the pace and drive the trends, or which label’s profits are up. But maybe we need a new metric, something besides reviews and sales, to gauge Chiuri’s success at Dior. She has initiated a conversation and recruited women she admires from all over the world to participate in it. The dividends of that exchange will pay off in myriad ways. “We are a sisterhood,” Chiuri says, “of not only women, but also men, working together to make change.”