Maria Grazia Chiuri, artistic director of Dior, watches me from the sand-gray sofa where she is perched calmly in a giant and airy studio in Paris. She is dressed in jeans, a white blouse and sandals, platinum hair pulled back; around her, everyone is moving. Stylists in face masks consult with each other when studying photos on moodboards. Fit models walk on a makeshift catwalk. I try, but fail, to get a glimpse of what exactly they are wearing. Chiuri just released her fall 2020 couture collection in short film form, with models frolicking in ethereal dresses across a lush landscape – online only, as the collections are due to be showcased during a global pandemic. While interlocking was conducive to designing unique and finely crafted pieces, clothing making was tricky. “It is difficult to travel in Europe. It’s hard to see things. It’s also hard to find role models, ”says Chiuri. “It is impossible to go fast.”
So she took it slowly. Chiuri collaborated on Zoom with her suppliers and with artisans in India for her 2021 cruise collection, then broadcast the show live at the end of July from a place in Puglia, in southern Italy. Like the rest of us, Chiuri took a long time adjusting to quarantine; it had two different phases. During the first one, she was depressed. At the start of the pandemic, Italy had one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world. “I was in Rome and it was scary to be in the center of the crisis,” she recalls. She was constantly following the news and finally decided to just listen to it at night. During the second phase, she returned to work. “In Rome to see the city empty, Venice empty,” was heartbreaking, says Chiuri. “Our economy is tourism and fashion. So for me it was obvious that we had to start creating something, because we are a big brand and have a lot of workers. She eventually returned to Dior’s headquarters in Paris to oversee the next collections. Chiuri’s emphasis on crafts and women’s craftsmanship is not accidental. Like many women of her generation – she is now 56 – Chiuri has developed a deeper awareness of feminism over time. She was born in Rome to liberal and egalitarian parents at a time in Italy when women were entrusted to traditional roles, and issues like divorce and abortion were controversial. Her father worked for the army and her mother was a seamstress who ran a workshop. It was through this openness and material necessity that the women of his family, including his grandmother during World War II, worked and provided for themselves. “I grew up in a family where it was normal to find a job and think about yourself and your future. They pushed me to study a lot, because they never had this opportunity; for them, studying meant being free, ”she recalls. “I never felt like I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.”
Still, Chiuri rebelled against her parents, who tried to dress her in more feminine clothes, by going to flea markets to buy military jackets that she regularly wore with jeans. “The most exciting thing in my generation was to have denim pants and military jackets,” she laughs, “to show that you are independent from your family.” When she decided to go into fashion, her parents weren’t sure about her choice – design wasn’t considered a serious professional career, and they wanted her to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or whatever. something more conventional and more certain. Chiuri went to a public university for two years, because her parents refused to help pay for a private fashion school unless she continued to attend university. (She left the latter after the first two years to concentrate entirely on her fashion studies.) “Everyone thought that fashion was a household job,” she says. “They did not recognize it as a cultural and artistic work.”
After finishing fashion school, Chiuri started working for a small shoe company. (Her parents “were surprised I got a job,” she says. “They said, ‘Ooh, did someone pay you for your sketches?” Yes, I found someone! She spent most of the next three decades at two Italian fashion houses: first Fendi, where she and her creative partner, Pierpaolo Piccioli, helped create the popular Baguette bag; then Valentino, where she and Piccioli were first accessories designers, then creative co-directors. Chiuri also made a living in Rome with her husband, Paolo, who has a shirt-making workshop, and her two children, both graduate students in their early twenties. She had the privilege of traveling the world without thinking too much about her gender; at Fendi, her first big job, she worked for five sisters in a company that “taught me everything,” she says. So when Chiuri signed to Dior and the press started hailing her as the brand’s first female creative director, it was strange to think of herself as a symbol of feminism. But she also understood how clothes made more sense than mere aesthetics: “It can’t be political, something that has to do with our bodies.
Chiuri’s first collection for Dior was inspired by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose TEDx Talk on Feminism had a profound influence. When Chiuri heard Adichie talk about how adhering to traditional gender roles holds women back, it felt more true to her than anything she had heard about the female experience – when Chiuri was young, she thought that being a feminist meant you didn’t. I want to wear lipstick or high heels. In homage to Adichie’s ideas, Chiuri sent models to the Spring 2017 catwalk in t-shirts printed with the title of her speech – “We should all be feminists” – a well-meaning gesture some critics saw as representative. of a “light girlboss”. “Feminism. (It should be noted, however, that part of the proceeds from the sale of the Dior shirts went to Rihanna’s humanitarian association, the Clara Lionel Foundation.)
A few years later, critics questioned whether Chiuri’s use of West African wax prints in the Marrakech Cruise 2020 show would actually benefit West African designers. In fact, Chiuri had worked with Uniwax, a workshop in Ivory Coast, to produce the collection, and said she wanted to show how tailoring can include hand-made wax prints as well. For this same collection, she called on two Black designers, designer Grace Wales Bonner and artist Mickalene Thomas, to reinvent the house’s iconic New Look silhouette. Chiuri has also worked with Indian embroiderers from Chanakya International, a clothing house in Mumbai, since she was with Fendi, and she traveled to Nigeria late last year with Adichie to support the “Wear Nigerian ”by the author and talk with local designers on business and crafts.
Chiuri is outraged when she thinks of how female artists – all kinds of creative women, in fact – have often been ignored or neglected in her home country: “The genius is a man. I never hear of great women. Part of the reason she wanted her daughter, Rachele, to study in London, not Italy, was to have the chance to take classes in areas like Gender Studies. Chiuri herself has read books on the genre that she never met as a student. “She surrounds herself with young women and listens to them,” explains her friend Robin Morgan, the American author and feminist activist. “She says things like, ‘They didn’t teach us about patriarchy in school in Italy. How the hell was I supposed to know? “
Chiuri said she considered Rachele to be her muse. Now a cultural advisor to Dior, Rachele strives to integrate feminist theory and the work of women artists into the collections – through collaborations with Judy Chicago and Bianca Pucciarelli Menna, among others. And she became a sounding board for Chiuri, encouraging her mother – already a supporter of diverse casting – to broaden her step-by-step approach by “supporting local producers and sharing with them the knowledge needed to improve their own factories, for example,” she says. me. The two women speak often, with conversation topics ranging from art to movies like Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Lady bird. “I think I’m a lot more radical than she is, but she teaches me to be more nuanced,” says Rachele.
Chiuri also wants to explore the feminine gaze, especially that of her favorite artists, like Thomas (whose original portrait of Chiuri is seen here) or Mexican documentary photographer Graciela Iturbide. Her first stint at Dior was to hire female photographers, because, she says, “fashion campaigns are mostly done by male photographers – and I think it’s completely different, the way women look at them. other women. If Dior talks about femininity, I want to hire women to look at femininity. It is also very important for me to work with women who have different origins and aesthetic references. A few years ago, she worked with Iturbide to shoot her Georgia O’Keeffe-inspired cruise collection in Oaxaca for ELLE. “To shoot with her was really dreamy; it was one of the happiest moments of my life in fashion, ”says Chiuri. “I want to share this platform with other women so that people can also listen to their voice.”
This article appears in the October 2020 issue of ELLE.
GET THE LATEST ISSUE OF HER