Today’s fast fashion is to haute couture as a subcompact Kia Rio is to a Rolls-Royce Wraith. Sure they’re both cars, but the ride is going to be very different.
Haute couture was dreamed up in the mid-19th century as a way to offer luxurious handmade fashion to upper-class women, as opposed to the affordable ready-to-wear clothing of the day. An Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth, opened the first haute couture house in Paris in 1958.
Almost a century later in 1947, more than 100 couture houses were operating in Paris, but one in particular made a splash. Christian Dior, who had been an art gallerist and costume designer, roared back from the deprivation and rationing of World War II with a collection dubbed “New Look.” Long, swirling skirts topped with fitted-waist jackets were based on his romantic idea of the “flower woman” and corolla, the arrangement of petals at the center of a flower.
Replacing the mannish suits of the war years with unabashedly feminine style was a brilliant stroke. “Christian Dior was perceived by the world as a hero of the postwar period, a Frenchman of even great renown than General de Gaulle,” according to Florence Müller, fashion scholar and Dior expert who is curating “Dior: From Paris to the World,” an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum running from Nov. 19 to March 3, 2019. The retrospective of Dior’s legendary achievements and career showcases close to 200 garments, accessories, photographs, sketches and other materials that document the history of the iconic fashion house.
Some people railed against Dior for his extravagance materials at a time when so many were still suffering in postwar-Europe. But those who were anxious for a return to the good life embraced the French couturier’s ideas of elegance and beauty.
Seven decades later, Dior’s influence continues and the house he founded remains not only a couture stalwart but a global behemoth among high-end brands producing a range of products. The business is controlled by French billionaire Bernard Arnault, who also heads the world’s largest luxury group, LVMH.
Müller, the Denver Art Museum’s Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art and Fashion, designed the exhibit to focus on the accomplishments of Dior as well as his talented successors, including Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferre, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri.
To say Müller is familiar with Dior is more than an understatement. In 2017, she and Olivier Gabet co-curated “Dior: Designer of Dreams” in Paris, which was the first major exhibit celebrating the house of Dior since 1987. Marking the brand’s 70th year, the show included 300 gowns and covered more than 30,000 square feet in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
In addition to being “rich in various mediums” as was the Paris exhibit, Müller says, the Denver show is getting an ambitious set design by Shohei Shigematsu of OMA in New York. OMA is known for its innovative staging of art exhibits and cultural projects as well as public space designs.
Among Müller’s tasks was getting major museums and such collectors as Hamish Bowles to loan garments as well as works of art that inspired Dior and the designers who followed him. Dior was fond of the Impressionists, while current-day couturiers such as Raf Simons are more likely to collaborate with artists like Sterling Ruby. Photographs from the 1950s to the present also document Dior’s creations and travels all over the world.
In addition to his creativity, Dior was smart at commerce, the curator says. “He started to develop business in the United States and around the world, setting up licensing and all kinds of contracts so that companies could provide a high level of product whether it was scarves, ties or costume jewelry in Canada, Japan and South America. He also knew the importance of putting on events that would attract the rich and powerful in such places such as opera houses where patrons could wear their elegant Dior creations.
Stars of stage and film also took notice of Dior’s work, with actresses and entertainers including Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker wearing his creations. Dior was asked to do costumes for movies all the time but his atelier was so busy producing clothing for its clients he couldn’t do it as much as he would have liked to, according to Müller.
When Dior died of a heart attack at age 55 in 1957, the stunned house turned to Dior’s young protégé Yves Saint Laurent to be artistic director. At only 21 years old, “he was the big sensation,” Müller said, noting his creations “expressed his generation through a spirit of youth.”
It is rare for a couture house to be able to maintain success with a long run of top talent yet Dior has done that, she says. “Very often you have some holes in history, moments when house is disappearing, but that hasn’t been the case.”
The current artistic director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, is the first woman to have the title. “It has a huge meaning,” Muller says. “A woman is able to design for other women in a way that a man can’t. It’s more wearable, plus there’s a huge sense of architecture and the patterns are really wonderful.”
So how does haute couture and its $50,000 dresses fit into today's world with its emphasis on fast fashion and a buy-now-wear-now mentality?
“First of all, there are customers for this,” Muller says. “It’s something the larger public doesn’t know, but there are a lot of women in the world who are ordering couture. It was never intended to be for everybody.”
“Each season when I go to Paris and speak with those in couture salon, they say they have more demand than they can meet. It’s great that they can maintain the activity in the ateliers. I can hardly image the world without these embroiderers and lace makers.”
“Dior: From Paris to the World” is on view from Nov. 19 to March 3, 2019 at the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building, 100 W, 14th Avenue Parkway, Denver, CO
Clothing, shoes and beauty
The Christian Dior ready-to-wear cruise collection, shoes, fragrance and beauty lines will be
at Neiman Marcus Denver for a limited time beginning Nov. 9.
The retailer is a sponsor of the art exhibit and will be making a donation through its Heart of Neiman Marcus Foundation that supports youth arts, according to general manager Britt Jackson.
Neiman Marcus, 3000 E. 1st Ave., Denver, CO 80206, 303-329-2600, neimanmarcus.com
Vintage designer jewelry from Europe has become a hot collectible and Dan Sharp is among those who buy and sell it in Denver. He carries jewelry from Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy as well as Christian Dior in his Cherry Creek boutique, which also features outerwear. Sharp says what he likes about Dior jewelry is that it has the appearance of fine jewelry because of the careful way it was crafted. He has carried pieces from the 1950s through the 1990s and says more recent designers, such as John Galliano for Dior, have been able to create bold pieces that still have “the DNA of the collection.” Among the Galliano designs is a choker with pressed flowers. The designs Dior himself created, Sharp says, “were often more simple and elegant.” Prices start at about $400.
Dan Sharp Luxury Outerwear, 218 Steele St., Denver, CO 80206, 303-333-6666, dansharpluxuryouterwear.com
Christian Dior Boutique
Aspen is home to one of the global brand’s freestanding boutiques that sells women’s ready-to- wear, shoes, handbags, leather goods and accessories.
Christian Dior, 201 S. Galena St., Aspen, CO 81611, 970-544-5222, dior.com
Suzanne S. Brown is the former features and fashion editor of The Denver Post. Early in her career she covered Christian Dior’s ready-to-wear shows in Paris and also attended a few couture shows.
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