Atop Dior, Balancing Art and Commerce


Her husband remains in Rome — she joins him on there on weekends — and her children are grown. Rachele, 20, is an art student in London, and Nicolo, 23, is an engineering and computer science student in Rome.

“For me to come back to live alone is like to come back to Florence in 1990,” she said, thinking back to the very beginning of her career. “I feel myself like a student that starts again to live alone.”

Of course, Ms. Chiuri’s digs are hardly student lodgings, though she has barely had time to arrange them to her liking; paintings and photographs are still balanced against the walls, amid piles of books arrayed throughout the rooms. The apartment has the kind of rambling splendor that respect accords to the designers at the center of huge businesses (Christian Dior Couture reported almost 2 billion euros in revenue for the last fiscal year), not to mention French national treasures. (Splendor, Ms. Chiuri noted in the middle of a Paris heat wave, does not guarantee air-conditioning.) And she is hardly a student: She has ascended to the top of one of the world’s great luxury companies, with the spotlight squarely fixed on her.

Ms. Chiuri, 53, is no neophyte, but designing Dior comes with a degree of scrutiny scarcely matched among the Paris couture houses. Christian Dior himself was one of a handful of secular saints in the world of French fashion — Monsieur Dior, as he is always referred to; his protégé, Yves Saint Laurent; and Cristóbal Balenciaga make up a sort of holy trinity — and his label holds a particular pride of place in the city’s heart.

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Chiara Ferragni, a fashion blogger, wearing a Christian Dior T-shirt by Ms. Chiuri.

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Acielle Tanbetova for The New York Times

The brand inspires a sacerdotal devotion in many of its workers (its archives contain the papers of one of the atelier’s premieres, or heads, who served from 1947 to 1990). It is also a cornerstone of the luxury group LVMH, and it is of special interest to Bernard Arnault, LVMH’s billionaire chairman and chief executive.

Ms. Chiuri is only the latest of Dior’s stewards, and she often points out that to close the book on Dior after Monsieur Dior would be to end its history in the 1950s. Dior died in 1957, 10 years after staging his first show, and the label then appointed Mr. Saint Laurent as designer. Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano and Raf Simons all followed, and now Ms. Chiuri. This week, on the occasion of Dior’s 70th anniversary, a retrospective celebrating them all, Ms. Chiuri included, opens at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

“I never imagined in my life that I’d be here,” she said last week, picking her way past construction during the installation of the exhibition. “And not for Dior.”

She now has several collections behind her and a couture collection coming this week. And in some corners, the criticism continues.

Of her first couture collection, Bridget Foley of Women’s Wear Daily called on Ms. Chiuri to steer clear of the romantic, celestially embroidered styles she favored at Valentino and has continued with at Dior: “As Chiuri continues to develop her vision for Dior, she will have to distinguish it more clearly from Valentino.”

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A look from the fall 2017 Dior show during Paris Fashion Week.

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Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

After Ms. Chiuri’s all-navy-blue show in March, Cathy Horyn, the former fashion critic of The New York Times and the current critic-at-large at The Cut at New York magazine, wrote, “I now question whether she’s the right person to lead Dior.” (Ms. Horyn was a champion of Ms. Chiuri’s predecessor, Mr. Simons.) Her designs, Ms. Horyn went on, “did not pull weight” and look “not like French high fashion, but instead very nice Italian sportswear.”

“In short,” she concluded, “Ms. Chiuri’s collections do not surprise at a level you expect of Dior. That may not matter to her, but it should matter to her bosses.”

Such criticism — more plainly and bluntly stated than much of fashion criticism, which is more often than not polite to the point of deferential — does not appear to matter to Ms. Chiuri. She has a generous openness but also a blithe, stubborn confidence in her vision.

“It’s impossible that everybody like what you do,” she said. “You have to accept that someone criticizes you, you have to listen to what could be interesting in what they say. But at the end, the real thing, I believe that you have to do something that is right for yourself. The important thing is that you believe in what you do. And I try to work in this way.”

About the charge that some of her work looks too similar to what she designed at Valentino, she said: “They are different brands, but there is part of you that is the same person. You can’t cancel what you are.”

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Looks from the spring 2017 Dior ready-to-wear collection, shown during Paris Fashion Week.

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Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

Her boss, Sidney Toledano, the president and chief executive of Christian Dior Couture, seems similarly unconcerned.

“I cannot criticize the critics of the press,” Mr. Toledano said. But “the vision of Maria Grazia has been meeting, definitely, the desire of women. This is something I’m convinced of. The rest … come on.” The performance of her early collections has been positive globally, he said, declining to specify figures.

“So far, we’ve had amazing response,” said Tracy Margolies, the chief merchant of Saks Fifth Avenue, which collaborated with Dior to create windows, shop-in-shops and a digital capsule collection. “The customers are coming in, and they’re eager to hear and see the new direction. We’ve definitely seen an increase.”

In some ways, Ms. Chiuri is unlike many of her peers. She is a woman designing for women, in a system that often looks more kindly on the efforts of men. When you are a female designer, she said, “they believe that you are less a designer, more a woman.” Her fashion favors options, not diktats; couture, in her view, is “timeless,” but ready-to-wear is about its own times, and requires options, comfort and confidence. She does not fit the archetype of the tortured-genius designer, the intense intellectual worrying to distraction over the length of a hem.

“I’m really open,” she said. “I really like teamwork. I’m not a designer that stays alone in an office. After 10 minutes, I could kill myself.” She said so standing in her office, a room she says she rarely spends much time in, preferring to walk the corridors. A potted orchid on her desk, drooping from neglect, made the point as well as she could have. (An assistant spotted it and quickly replaced it with a vase of white roses.)

Many designers, and many critics, believe that the designer’s job is to strive relentlessly for the new; Ms. Chiuri, in her practice at Dior, has incorporated and riffed upon the work of her predecessors, bringing in Mr. Galliano’s logo-fied wordplay (his famous “J’Adore Dior” motif became her “J’Adior”) and the bee insignia that Hedi Slimane made a covetable mark of status at Dior Homme.

The Dior oeuvre is vast and omnipresent, all the more so because the company has just completed an enormous, museum-quality archive around the corner from its studio. “I am obsessed with this idea that you have to live with your past, all of your past,” Ms. Chiuri said. “Probably because I’m born in Rome. We have history around us everywhere. I don’t think that you can cancel it. You have to live with your past in a beautiful way.”

Dior represents an entirely new past for Ms. Chiuri to absorb and refract, as well as an entirely new ecosystem in which to do it. As she spun through the atelier flou (where the couture dresses are made) and atelier tailleur (where suits and tailoring are made), Ms. Chiuri, in her black culottes, heavy rings on several fingers, was warmly if warily received by most of the women (and a few men) at work, many of whom had been there far longer than she had.

Ms. Chiuri said she brought only two designers with her from Valentino, and she inherited staffs, studios and ateliers she is still adjusting to, and they to her. The couture ateliers “find me really informal,” she said with a laugh. “But at my age? I can’t change, honestly.”

In one corner of an atelier, she stopped to admire the wooden hat forms of Silvana, a milliner who works with Stephen Jones on Dior’s hats and headpieces. Asked how long she had been with the company, she paused for a moment.

“Eighteen years? Twenty? I can’t remember,” she said.

“Maintained very well, in any case,” Ms. Chiuri replied gallantly. “I hope for the same.”

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