Dior and Saint Laurent: Twilight of the Gods?

PARIS – Far from analyzing a designer’s mental state, it seemed to me that both Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri and Saint Laurent’s Anthony Vaccarello were responding to a darkening world in their latest collections. Consider them as coping strategies. It certainly added a different weight to the work.

Chiuri focused on 1950s Paris, not on Audrey Hepburn’s Technicolor popping into a boho jazz club on the Left Bank in “Funny Face” as he would have us see Hollywood, but on a black and white post-war city of existentialists (or neo-realists in Italy Chiuri). When she rummaged through the Dior archives, she saw how New Look’s initial burst of optimism contrasted with dark, edgy monochromes, almost like punk back then. She found human collaborators in beatnik singer Juliette Greco (Dior client) and Edith Piaf, the iconic “Little Sparrow” whose fearlessness and unpredictability made her the French equivalent of Judy Garland. Rounding out Chiuri’s trio of influencers was Christian Dior’s sister, Catherine, a French Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor who found support in her post-war success as a florist.

These resilient women fought, suffered, and persevered—or not—as millions of women do now—and Chiuri has showcased a massive collection of clothing that reflects all of that. It was too much, but maybe that was the point. As the glances passed in an uninterrupted procession, their sombre beauty became a strange balm to the soul, and the details began to reveal themselves: the way the back of the jacket flowed away from the body, the cut of the coat, the oddly alluring embroidered leather harness, the shrunken diamond mohair sweater and skirt chine a la branche (a fuzzy, shimmering floral effect that was once the domain of silk weavers in 18th-century Lyon), wreaths of gilded straw and dried flowers worn by the models in the finale… and most of all, crinkled cuts and flared garments woven with metallic thread, thanks to which the pieces retained their kind memory. They looked exhausted but elegant, like old favorites cherished in hard times. And since this is Dior after all, the fabrics were great moiré alterations, duchesse satin, pied de poule, which were Christian’s original merchandise in the trade.

Chiuri felt it was the most French the collection she has created since she started working at Dior seven years ago, but also the most Italian in its precise construction. She also said that this time her artist, Joanna Vasconcelos from Portugal, got closer to her own process than anyone else with her collaborators, and that her studio was like a fashion atelier. The show took place in a huge visceral cocoon, a kind of magical garden created by Vasconcelos with floral fabrics from the Dior archives. It was her tribute to Catherine Dior whom flowers saved from hell. It was also further proof of the generous scenarios that Bernard Arnault’s bottomless pockets are able to secure, curse the hard times. Piaf’s quivering tones resounded towards the end of the show. “My, je ne sorryterien.” Actually.

I could say exactly the same about Saint Laurent. The first fashion show I saw in Paris was the YSL fashion show in 1987 in the ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel. (I will always remember that day as the day I met Nan Kempner.) Walking into Saint Laurent’s customary establishment, a pharaoh’s tent built in the Eiffel Tower, on a Tuesday night, I was overcome with déjà vu. The low catwalk, lit by a chain of massive gilded chandeliers, was called the Intercontinental Redux. Saint Laurent’s maestro-in-residence Anthony Vaccarello has insisted he wants something more intimate after last season’s epic fountain whirl, but intimacy is clearly a moving feast as today’s fashion moguls’ billions begin churning out grease.

And indeed, Saint Laurent’s spectacular staging was quite interesting. Saint Laurent is no longer just a name or appearance. It is also a symbol of time and place, such as the Intercontinental Ballroom in 1987. This is history. Maria Grazia Chiuri admitted it when she talked about an old map of Paris she used as a scarf print for a recent Dior ready-to-wear show. She was delighted that Christian Dior’s couture salon on Avenue Montaigne was on the map alongside the museums and monuments that had always defined the city in the eyes of the world.

If the collection Vaccarello presented didn’t go down in history, it was a more tangible confirmation of the moment than the last. As is his habit, he developed one message throughout the show that can be broadly summed up as power dressing. He listed the following components: minimalism, classics, clean, basic clothes, reaction to the monumentalism of the previous season. “No tra-la-la, no styling trick.” The models’ hair was styled uniformly tight, small heads. They all wore aviators, blinding the person. The shoulders of the jacket were stunningly wide and straight (requiring a whole new construction), sometimes in classic masculine fabrics, sometimes in leather, over a simple silk undershirt and tailor’s jupea fitted skirt or leggings. It was a stern look, not acidified by evening wear. Vaccarello thought this might reflect the fact that he was finding it difficult to work on the collection due to time constraints. And perhaps that’s why he made a compensatory effort to inject a complementary fluid softness into the translucency of mousse skirts or blanket-sized shawls that draped torsos or floated like long trains.

If Chiuri adopted Juliette Greco and Edith Piaf in the 1950s as her Parisians, Vaccarello chose Saint Laurent’s bannermen Catherine Deneuve in the 1990s as hers. Her filmography from that decade is food for thought. No specific appearance. Just shadows gathering around time, place.

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