Last year, I wrote a piece for FashionUnited entitled “Fashion Says No Women on Top” in response to seeing the same male designers’ names posited for the two just-vacated thrones of Paris fashion, Lanvin and Dior. The “old boys club” nature of the industry was wearing thin. Where was our next Phoebe Philo to come from if only men need apply for the top jobs? Then, out of left field, they hired Bouchra Jarrar for Lanvin. Could an anomaly become a norm? We waited and watched.
The world at large descended into tumult. Dramatic changes have been foisted upon us in politics, the climate, international security, not to mention the tornado rolling through the fashion system tearing up the ground. All of this is reflected in Dior’s announcement last week that, after an eight month search, it has hired its first ever female creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri.
The New “New Look”
Just as Christian Dior’s 1947 “New Look” celebrated an end to rationing and wartime austerity, unveiling a silhouette with bustier style bodice and wasp waist, padded hips and flared skirt, this current move by the executives at Dior signals that things are shaping up to be a lot more curvaceous in the face of bleakness. Fashion at its best must reflect the times in which we live. In a July 12th piece in The Washington Post, entitled, “Here’s why Theresa May will become Britain’s first female leader since Thatcher,” written by Karen Beckwith and Diana Z. O'Brien, an interesting point caught my eye: “Male candidates are often senior and well-networked, and usually favored for leader. They are significantly more likely to first select female leaders, in contrast, when they are out of power and losing seats. Being qualified usually isn’t enough for women to become leaders. Crisis provides the opportunity... It’s no accident that a woman came to the fore now...women generally get the opportunity to lead during times of loss, decline and crisis.”
Teresa May has, of course, since stepped into the role vacated by David Cameron and must clean up his mess from which he walked away singing his now viral little ditty. A commentator on NPR summed it up along the lines of Judy Dench’s M swooping in to negotiate Bond out of a mess.
The fashion industry’s crises are numerous––sustainability, supply chains, an unworkable fashion calendar, among others. But the luxury industry which, for some time, had seemed infallible to the doldrums effecting other sectors of the marketplace has now been hit. For more than a decade, Burberry was one of its shining examples of canny rebranding under the respective business and creative leadership of Angela Ahrendts and Christopher Bailey. Its innovative digital platform and solid expansion into China were just two ways it became the leader others imitated. Now, with travel to Europe down and shoppers spooked by terrorism, Brexit uncertainty, and demand in China dropping off, it is just one of many luxury houses whose stock is plummeting and growth has stalled, leading to its recent reshuffles in management. Maybe they should get Ahrendts on the phone; she left the company for Apple in 2014.
Stand aside, men
A corps of women are being drafted in to fix problems or formulate strategies. French luxury giant Kering, owner of Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent among others, recruited Sarah Crook just over a year ago as chief executive of growing label Christopher Kane; Hélène Poulit-Duquesne was hired for Boucheron; and Grita Loebsack for Kering’s couture and leather goods emerging brands division.
Women are reportedly responsible for 85 percent of luxury sales so it’s not surprising that they should figure in the creation of product as well as its consumption. What is surprising is that it has taken brands like Dior so long to realize this. An assessment of corporate demographics carried out by digital platform Ethics & Boards found that only four companies of thirty-three studied boasted above 40 percent female directors: Michael Kors, Estée Lauder, Kate Spade and Hermès.
A rethinking of gender stereotypes is also happening throughout popular culture. This BBC.com review of the current Ghostbusters remake nails the significance of the new “New Look”: “It’s exhilarating to see four grown women striding into combat in practical grey boiler suits, as opposed to the skimpy leotards favoured by most big-screen superheroines. And it’s inspiring to see them use their scientific brilliance to defeat a crowd of supernatural villains...contentious (as) it was when Sony announced that its new Ghostbusters would be female, it’s not until you see the climactic battle that you appreciate just how genuinely radical the casting was. There has simply never been a scene like it in a Hollywood blockbuster before.”
It’s time for a different approach
In her previous role at Valentino, Maria Grazia Chiuri, along with creative partner Pierpaolo Piccioli, favoured a highnecked, gentle sensuality in their collections that stood out as modern in a time when aggressive figure-hugging sexiness has become almost mandatory. While many designers only travelled back to the 1980s and 90s in recent seasons, Chiuri and Piccioli set their sights a century further beyond, to Renaissance poets and Pre-Raphaelite princesses. The lyrical romanticism of the clothes had buyers clamouring, and magazine editors enraptured, as well as earning them the approval of the now-retired founder of the house, Valentino Garavani. As Sarah Burton has done at McQueen, Chiuri at Dior is no doubt destined to take the dna of this much loved house that was founded and managed by men, and inject an intimacy and charm instinctively associated with her gender. Men can certainly do womenswear but women can do women. Or as Sydney Toledano, president and CEO of Dior put it when elaborating on the company’s new hire, “She has this approach of a woman. The eyes of a woman for Dior, for the woman's side, is important."
As we watch over the next few months to see if we will crown our first female president, Trump will do all in his power to invalidate Clinton’s “woman’s card.” While the White House is the ultimate prize in politics, there possibly isn’t a more desirable house for a designer working in luxury fashion than Dior. Congratulations Maria Grazia Chiuri.