Christian Dior: Concealed Couture

Haute couture as a private pleasure – not something to trumpet to the wider world. That was the message at the Christian Dior Haute Couture show, where where toiles replaced the previous seasons’ in-your-face feminism of pro-women posters plastered over the walls. Those airy fabrics cut by the “petites mains” in the handwork studios are symbolic of the new mood this Paris season. Let’s call it “concealed couture”.

The idea of decorating the Dior tent with the basic, first stage of the ateliers was inspired by the massive and historic Dior exhibition held last year at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris – a sold-out display that will be moving to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum next year. The exposure to the brand’s history and experience of how it works on different levels had Maria Grazia adopting a fresh couture approach.

“The idea is that it is a personal pleasure; something for yourself that is very close to you,” the designer explained. “Couture dresses are one of a kind and I think it is important to educate the new generation to know what I mean when I say ‘couture’. If you don’t explain, they will know it only as something their mother or grandmother had. And if you don’t explain what real couture is, you risk losing it and all the traditions that go with it.”

Maria Grazia explained this to me not in the glamorous backstage area, where Katie Holmes was valiantly trying to keep her dress from slithering down her chest and milliner Stephen Jones joined the models in wearing a cheeky beret, but in the building on Avenue Montaigne that Monsieur Dior chose as his maison.

Not only did I have a chance to gasp at the workmanship that held together an ethereal dress, both in it weight and delicate stitching, but I was also invited up to couture’s holy of holies: the ateliers, where nimble hands were stretching out silken materials that looked as thin as spiders’ webs.

I have to admit to feeling a tinge of disappointment when I saw this exquisite workmanship on stage. Under the glare of the lights, the pale dresses seemed so will-o’-the-wisp and fragile that they blended against the body, with a few exceptions in a deep green or fiery red. The rest of these delicate clothes needed someone to get right up and personal to understand how such delicate loveliness was put together.

“Concealed couture,” I kept muttering to myself, whether it was bodices so light that the woven cloth revealed the bosoms, or a tailored coat just seemed to flow from shoulders to ankles.

Remembering those crazy days of John Galliano at the helm of Dior in couture, or how other houses operated in a period of flash, dash and a great deal of clash, I wondered on the change in the world – in society and therefore in fashion. Snappy T-shirts, beaming out a message from a music star is the new in-your-face glamour. Having streetwise Virgil Abloh as designer at Louis Vuitton menswear shows the way of the fashion world.

Maria Grazia is smart to turn the other way. To survive, couture has to be relevant to its customers. She has moved away from flash – as Christian Dior himself might have done. Yet, at the same time, there was something missing from the collection: an element of emotional excitement. A show, however elegant and thoughtful, needs a burning element of desire, perchance to dream.