If fashion houses were run by committee, the latest iteration of Dior would probably never have made it to the runway. Imagine the pitch: Let’s take one of the world’s largest luxury brands and tweak it so that, where it was once known as the most demurely feminine of houses, it is now the most outspokenly feminist. How about bandolier bags and revolutionary berets? How about making striped marinière shirts that say WHY HAVE THERE BEEN NO GREAT WOMEN ARTISTS? and then handing out the art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay of the same name to guests at a show? Great idea, huh? Many people would have thought not, but according to Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first and only female creative director in Dior’s 71-year history, the transformation was a no-brainer.

“When I arrived, everybody said to me, ‘Oh, Dior—Dior is a feminine brand,’ ” she recalled when we recently met in Paris. “Honestly, I said, ‘Okay, but I think we can find something more than a flower.’ This traditional idea of ‘feminine’ was, for me, just a little bit too old, and so I say, ‘I completely agree with this value, but we have to speak about women today.’ ”

It was this philosophy that led W to pair the Italian feminist artist Libera Mazzoleni with Chiuri for this story. Mazzoleni, who was born in Milan in 1949, has spent decades exploring the female form and female sexuality. “I searched for news on Maria Grazia and read two interviews she gave about the fashion world, the female condition, the contradictions of existing,” Mazzoleni said. “The acuteness of her analysis and her intelligent humanity deeply impressed me.” After a meeting during the haute couture collections, Mazzoleni and Chiuri got together at Paris’s Quartier Général studios. It was sweltering July-in-Paris-with-no-air-conditioning weather, but Chiuri looked thrilled, even wearing a wool sweater, to be in front of Mazzoleni’s lens. ­Mazzoleni then shared the images with the writer Graziella Longoni, who wrote captions for them, uniting reality and myth, image and text.

Dior hired Chiuri in 2016, after several years of personnel turmoil that John Galliano set off with the anti-Semitic drunken rant that led to his firing in 2011. A native of Rome, Chiuri started her career at Fendi, where she was part of the accessories team that designed the legendary Baguette It bag. She spent the following 17 years working quietly and successfully at Valentino, eventually becoming co–creative director with her longtime design partner, Pierpaolo Piccioli. Together, the two turned out hit after hit, including the lucrative Rockstud collection of shoes and bags. Despite her solid resumé, a low-key 52-year-old Roman woman was not the obvious choice for such a historically high-drama maison as Dior. “It’s a strange industry,” Chiuri told me. “The clients are women, a lot of workers are women, but everybody was surprised when I became the creative director of Dior.” A mischievous smile came over her face as she repeated, “It’s just a little bit strange.”

Chiuri, who taught herself English at night in her 40s, knew that she needed to learn the house codes. She went to the archives for her education. There, she found ­confirmation of her intuition that her Dior had to be about female empowerment. “Dior comes out of a desperate moment,” she said. “Sometimes we think Dior—sorry!—made just the New Look, but after World War II, Mr. Dior gave all of Paris the idea that there was a future, and that was political.” She was thinking of our current moment—terrorism, nativism, environmental depredation—as a different kind of wartime.

Models in Dior.

Photograph by Libera Mazzoleni; Caption by Graziella Longoni; Styled by Elin Svahn.

Chiuri said she didn’t encounter much corporate resistance to her plan to inject a social conscience into Dior. (The material actually proved trickier than the message, with Sidney Toledano, Dior’s chief executive until the end of last year, declaring, at one point, “Dior is not a T-shirt brand.”) But even if she had, she would have persisted. “Probably, people want to dream, people want to do something fun, but you have to express what you feel,” she replied when I asked why she had chosen engagement at a time that could seem ripe for escapism. “There is this idea that fashion has to be the dream, but fashion is something very close to the people. It speaks about bodies, about women and men.” She continued, “I don’t think you can think about the audience. I think people understand if you do something that is honest with yourself.”

Fortunately for Dior, Chiuri’s instincts have resonated with the public. Last year, her WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS shirt—a plain black or white tee with the title of the Nigerian ­novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s manifesto—became a sensation after Rihanna, a Dior ambassador, posted a picture of herself wearing it on Instagram. Despite its not-so-egalitarian price of $710, an unspecified portion of which went to charity, the shirt became the sellout item of the season. It has been so knocked off that you can now find a $12.95 version on Amazon, a phenomenon with which Chiuri professes to be pleased. The success of the shirt, which one can safely posit a male designer never would have made, proves a meta point. It is a perfect example of why diversity is good business; of why we all—even the bean counters at multinational conglomerates—should be feminists.

In late February, Chiuri showed her most overtly political collection yet. At the Rodin Museum, in Paris, a gallery had been ­transformed into the world’s largest bulletin board, with old newspaper articles, placards, and graffiti plastered in a 360-degree collage. I AM WOMAN, the runway read. The slogan WOMEN'S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS appeared on several walls. The youthquake theme was perhaps a little heavy-handed, the references too obvious. But when the lights went down and the first model emerged wearing tinted glasses and a black hat that might as well have been a balaclava, it became clear that no one would be able to accuse Dior’s feminism of being humorless: C'EST NON NON NON ET NON! read her intarsia sweater in dark green and cream. At the end of the show, Chiuri, wearing lug-soled boots and baggy jeans, hobbled out to take a bow. (A few weeks earlier, she had broken her femur in a fall.) You couldn’t help but feel you were witnessing the cracking of fashion’s highest, hardest ceiling. Even if some of the clothes struck you as hokey—the patchwork duster coats, the peace-sign logos—you had to applaud Chiuri’s ability to read the signs of the times, to foresee where things were going. Just two weeks earlier, New York State prosecutors had announced that they were filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein. Dior’s clients probably weren’t at the barricades in May 1968, but this was the spring of 2018, and they weren’t missing out on the #MeToo movement. Call it the New Thought.

Divorce, if you can believe it, wasn’t legal in Italy until 1970. The law that enabled it was so controversial that, four years later, it was put to a referendum, which upheld its legality. Chiuri was 10 years old at the time. Four years after that, in 1978, Italians voted to make abortion legal. “I think that the patriarchy is something that is very close to me,” she said. “We try not to feel this reference, but we were born with this reference.”

Chiuri’s father was in the military; her mother was a dressmaker. They weren’t especially political, but they were progressive. She describes them as part of a generation that wanted to throw off the strictures of family and Church. “My mother and father were a young couple who believed that it was important to give people the opportunity to choose for themselves,” she recalled, adding, “My father was so supportive. He never asked me, ‘When are you going to find a man? When are you going to get married?’ ”

Models in Dior.

Photograph by Libera Mazzoleni; Caption by Graziella Longoni; Styled by Elin Svahn.

Chiuri knew early on that she wanted to do something in fashion. Her first retail job was at a toy shop, during the Christmas holidays. She remembers selling little pianos by performing demos for shoppers. When she was 15, her brother was born. Around the same time, she participated in her first protest: lobbying the administrators of her Catholic school to loosen the dress code. “I didn’t want to wear the uniform,” she recalled. “But, at the same time, sometimes it’s good to have something you want to protest against. If life is too easy, it isn’t good.”

Her parents pushed her to go to university, but she left without graduating. Soon, she had a job working for an accessories manufacturer, where she sketched brogues and sandals for a couple of years before joining Fendi. “Honestly, I was so lucky,” she said of the firm. “Five sisters, five women.” She met her husband, Paolo Regini, a shirtmaker, when they were both on vacation in Sardinia. When they decided to get married, Chiuri wore a lace shirt and white skirt, a beige coat, and “my hair very short, like a man.” She recalled, “My mother found the look completely not enough taste!” For their honeymoon, they road-tripped across America. They soon had a son, Niccolò, and a daughter, Rachele.

We were talking in a gilded room at Paris’s Hôtel de Ville, the seat of the city government, where we had come to see an exhibition of photographs by Gilles Caron, one of the chroniclers of the Paris riots of May 1968. (Monaco’s Prince Albert, of all people, was exiting as we arrived.) Chiuri wore her hair in a platinum bob, parted far on the side and slicked back so precisely you could see the comb marks. Her clothes were unfrilly, almost butch, but her jewelry—African beaded bracelets, Dior cuffs, a tangle of pendants, a gray-pearl cocktail ring that you could practically play Ping-Pong with—was over-the-top. She had shown up on the late side—“Italian time,” one of her French minders explained—but she was less a grand presence than a very polite one. She listened attentively as a representative of the mayor gave us a tour. “This floor is made from four different woods,” the guide said, as Chiuri nodded along.

At the exhibition, Chiuri initially remained impassive. A retrospective of Caron’s celebrity portraits and war photographs made little palpable impression, but when we got to the pictures of May 1968, she came alive, zeroing in on a series of young female faces, as though she were willing them to tell her something.

“Look at her, with the pearls. She’s so bourgeoise, no?” she said.

“This is double cashmere, because inside, you have one color, and on the outside, another,” she said of a student protester that Caron had captured. “She’s super chic, that girl.”

She stopped in front of a picture of a group of well-coiffed women—they could have been Dior customers—waiting for a ride during a transport strike.

“That, in some way, reminds me also that the old women, very old women, went in the street,” she said. “You never stop, when you are old, fighting for your idea.”

The risk of bringing politics into fashion is that people are going to ask you about yours. If you answer honestly, you’re inevitably going to alienate some people; if you don’t, you’re hawking radical chic at its hollowest. At times, it was difficult to get a concrete sense of where Chiuri stands, amid the feel-good slogans. When I asked her what she thought of seeing Melania Trump in Dior—in a scarlet Bar jacket and skirt in Paris; in a white pantsuit at the State of the Union Address—she was more or less diplomatic. “She go in the store and she buy it,” she said. “We are living in this kind of world where you do what you want.”

What did Chiuri make of the issues that animated today’s feminist discourse? What policies did she want to see put in place?

“When you took the job at Dior, did you inquire about equal pay?” I asked. “Did you say, ‘Will I be paid equally to the male designers that have gone before me?’ ”

“No, I never think about that because, in my mind, I want to be paid the right price for this job,” she replied. “And not in reference to other people, but in reference to the job that you have to do.”

It wasn’t until I asked about when she had felt the power of the patriarchy that I understood the source, and the strength, of her ­convictions, how her feminism comes from an emotional as much as an intellectual place. “When Rachele became 16 years old,” she replied, “I realized that nothing has changed.” These days, Chiuri’s most fruitful creative dialogue is with her daughter. “I think she’s trying to understand what young girls want to wear, and not to impose something on them, and to give them a certain freedom outside of stereotype, in a way,” Rachele told me.

Models in Dior.

Photograph by Libera Mazzoleni; Caption by Graziella Longoni; Styled by Elin Svahn. Hair by Tina Outen at Streeters; Makeup by Jen Myles for Dior at Streeters; Manicure by Magali Buisson at Majeure Prod; Set Design by Pierre-Olivier Boulzaguet at Agence Saint Germain; Casting by Edward Kim at The Talent Group; Models: Kaila Wyatt at Elite, Lucan Gillespie and Hunter Schafer at Oui, Anyelina Rosa at The Society; Produced by Cream; Digital Technician: Talos Buccellati; Photography Assistant: Arturo Astorino; Fashion Assistant: Kristina Koelle.

Rachele, who is now 22, has just finished a degree in art history at Goldsmiths, in London. In the fall, she will begin a master’s in communications, race, and gender. It was she who turned her mother on to the art historian Linda Nochlin, after being assigned her essay about women artists for a class; it was she who schooled her mother on cultural appropriation, and who had urged upon her the French psychoanalyst Marie-France Hirigoyen’s treatise on emotional abuse, which Chiuri, the day we met, was carrying around.

Watching them on set, Mazzoleni likened them to the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone; in Greek mythology, ­Demeter literally moves heaven and earth to retrieve Persephone from the underworld. Even without the flowing robes, they make an unusually close pair. Every summer, the two go to a bookshop near their house in Puglia and binge-buy selections for what amounts to a never-ending mother-daughter book club. “We spend a lot of time together,” Rachele said, simply. “So that creates a conversation.”