The genius of Christian Dior


5 October 2011

Last Friday Christian Dior showed its spring/summer 2012 collection at Paris Fashion Week, but John Galliano's successor has still not been announced. Disegno takes this opportunity to look at the company's legacy in fashion history and explains why it doesn't matter who's next at the helm of the Parisian power house.

2011 has been a tumultuous year for Christian Dior. The established French label has been ubiquitous in the news since the scandalous videophone recording of creative director John Galliano claiming his love for Hitler went viral on the internet in February. Galliano was swiftly removed from the company, after 15 years of service, and was recently charged with racist assault in a Parisian court. The surrounding media frenzy is befitting the company that is built on the understanding that "any publicity is good publicity".

"Modern fashion can conveniently be said to start with the New Look, introduced in his first collection by Christian Dior," says fashion historian Colin McDowell in the book Fashion Today. Not only did Dior announce the postwar new look on 12 February 1947, he also introduced a new strategy for bringing fashion to a wider public -- the publicist, licensing agreements and the feverish pace of biannually changing fashion trends. Backed by multi-billionaire industrialist Marcel Boussac, Christian Dior meant business from the word go. His first collection was a careful study in how to capitalise on postwar society.

The New Look silhouette was defined by tiny, corseted waists, billowing skirts and softly rounded shoulders, recalling the Belle Epoque and times of abundance. It was a reactionary move that could be seen as a symbol of old luxuries, class and gender systems. Systems that many thought the Second World War had eradicated. However, as a media stunt it was genius. Through the careful orchestration of Harrison Elliot, Dior's PR (a first in fashion), the collection caused debate, even protest. The sheer amount of fabric (up to 50 yards) needed for each skirt went against any rule of rationing or the prevailing 'make-do' aesthetic. The style also communicated to women that their place in the world was as symbols of femininity rather than working women, which in equal measures thrilled and horrified. By filling the fashion vacuum that had appeared following the Second World War, Dior firmly put his mark on fashion for the next decade.

Dior in fact grew up with dreams of becoming an architect, but his father wouldn't let him, having hopes to get his son into the diplomatic corps. With neither wish fulfilled Dior instead went down the path of running a contemporary art gallery and when that failed started selling sketches to fashion houses, before getting a job with couturier Lucien Lelong where he stayed throughout the war.

Following the success of his initial show, Dior continued to produce seasonal collections that blended the traditional with the modern, but always adding new desirable details. In fact, Dior even had a formulaic approach to each collection, splitting the clothes produced into three categories -- avant-garde creations, modifications of earlier pieces and proven classics -- thereby allowing himself the security of the familiar while using a third of his fashion shows to push new trends and more publicity. Parfums Christian Dior was set up already in 1947, to capitalise on the media frenzy that the first collection caused and in 1949 the United States saw the arrival of Dior stockings -- fashion history's first licensing agreement. Dior and his business partner understood that the real money in fashion isn't made from couture itself, but all the goods that can be pedaled next to it.

The perceived prestige of Dior attracted several talented assistants, most notably Pierre Cardin in the 1940s and Yves Saint Laurent from 1955, but neither lasted very long. Cardin was there for barely two years while Saint Laurent stayed for five -- only to start his own house that "aimed to rival Dior's at every level". It was the 21-year old Saint Laurent that took the helm of the fashion house when Dior died of a sudden heart attack in 1957, at only 52 years of age. According to an American newspaper "Christian Dior was as well known as Sir Winston Churchill or the Pope" and his elaborate funeral was attended by over 2,500 people. Despite the death of its founder, the Dior brand was not in danger, because it was not Dior's clothes that were revolutionary it was the company's business model that was the real ground-breaker.

The fashion system of biannual collections, licensing deals and franchises that Dior created and the publicity machinery that fuelled it all has been a hotly debated topic over the last year. Is the pace of fashion too fast and is its aggressive commercial growth damaging to the people working within it? London-based fashion designer Alexander McQueen's much-publicised suicide in 2010 was explained partly by the unrealistic pace of creation and demand for innovation, Galliano's substance abuse and racist ramblings blamed as a side-effect of the same. The most worrying aspect of all this is that Dior proved that scandal often went hand in hand with success and his brand's longevity and enduring popularity is a testament to that. Despite the recent year's upheavals the brand value remains intact, share prices are growing steadily and the much-anticipated half-yearly financial report showed a growth on last year's sales.

And that was Christian Dior's most shrewd move. The financial success of Dior is not dependent on its creative director. Dior himself was only serving as such for ten years, five years less than Galliano eventually did. So one thing is certain, Galliano's successor is not going to make or break the company, the next creative director is simply going to be fronting the well-oiled machinery that is Christian Dior - the brand.