#SuzyPFW: Dior’s Modern Muse, Artist Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle was a painter with a spirit more of guns than roses. So, her vivid knock-you-down colours and monumental creations might seem like a tough fit with Dior.
It is to designer Maria Grazia Chiuri’s credit that she made sense of the two opposites in her summer 2018 show.
They are unlikely associates: founder Christian Dior, a romantic designer captivated by the beauty of flowers; and an artist, abused by her father, so angry and anguished that in her own words – referring to tarot card symbols – she “met dragons, witches, magicians” before finding “the angel of temperance”.
Fashion has come a long way in this millennium to grasp demons and to fight them – hence the backstage posters encouraging distressed models to handle their turmoil by seeking professional help. That would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
But, then who would have imagined that you would see a Dior show in which the models wore only flat mesh boots and nothing that would impede striding towards freedom?
“The difference is that I was passive also when I was young, but I think it’s another moment,” the designer said. “When I was a child, my mother wanted for me her own idea of women. But in some way, this is inside us.”
From the moment that she took over at Dior almost one year ago, Maria Grazia has followed the same route of showing clothes that make sense for women’s lives.
So how did this Niki de Saint Phalle collection pan out? Could the tarot cards that so fascinated Christian Dior be merged with the artist’s angry, violent version? Were her violently bright colours splattered over Dior clothes? And did the shattered mirror images of the artist appear in the show?
The latter was true, because patches of reflective glass appeared at intervals down the side of the show tent and on the runway. Arguably, they might have inspired the colourful sparkly evening outfits: dresses where seamstresses had sewn mother-of-pearl and glass beads.
But the art of inspiration is, of course, absorption. Maria Grazia was not turning art directly into fashion, but using it as inspiration.
Looking at the mood board flush with visual inspiration, I understood how much work went into clothes where just thin stripes of yellow, blood-red hearts or symbols on skirts had been worked with intricate embroidery or appliqués.
“This mood board is like my diary about these three months because when we worked at the exhibition (Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, currently at the Paris Musée des Arts Décoratifs), I found this picture with Niki de Saint Phalle on top of a camel, and also a letter that she wrote to Mr Marc Bohan, where she said, ‘Thank you for the outfit that you did for me.’ So, I found that it was very strong, the relationship between Niki de Saint Phalle and Marc Bohan.”
Maria Grazia referred to the designer at Dior from the late 1950s through to 1989, and also to a semi-autobiographical movie Daddy (1973) in which Niki de Saint Phalle narrates an imagined revision of her intense early life.
With so much thought and energy going into the show, where was the exuberant sensuality of the artist, the captivating colours and sheer boldness? Nowhere to be seen. Of course, the designer is tasked with making collections of clothes that express the spirit of Dior and its clients.
But, this is another age and Maria Grazia is speaking now to her daughter’s generation.
I asked Natalia Vodianova, wearing a light feather-decked dress, what brand Dior meant to her.
“Female empowerment,” she said, proving that Maria Grazia’s message resonates with at least some of today’s fashion crowd.