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Where you might see stitches, Maria Grazia Chiuri sees a language. Specifically, “a language of women.” The painstaking work that they have been doing in domestic spaces, without fanfare or recognition, is like an oral history handed down via needle and thread. “In fashion, we were more focused on the volume, the shape, the cut,” she says. Meanwhile, craft “was not so much celebrated. There was an idea that it was only decoration, that it was not language.”
When Chiuri took over as Dior’s first female creative director in 2016, she made it a point to speak in that female language, working with female photographers to reverse the long-standing tradition of the male gaze that has dominated fashion imagery. “They don’t do pictures where the woman is an object, but a subject,” she says. Chiuri has collaborated with artists such as Mickalene Thomas and Judy Chicago, designer Grace Wales Bonner, and feminist poet and author Robin Morgan—women, she says, who’ve “helped me to reflect upon the relationship between the body and the clothes.” And she has highlighted the work, and the worth, of regional women artisans—who may not be boldface names but who have always had a bold, if little-acknowledged, impact on fashion and beyond. Their craftsmanship is “in conversation not only with fashion, but also with art,” she says. Her fall 2022 couture outing featured delicate embroidery inspired by the work of Ukrainian artist Olesia Trofymenko, while the cruise 2020 show in Marrakech included a partnership with Côte d’Ivoire textile company Uniwax. Part of Chiuri’s legacy has been to confer the credit that fashion owes craftspeople, and to spotlight their contributions alongside those of the famous artists she works with. “It’s very important for them to understand that they can use their skill not only to create clothes and beautiful evening dresses,” she says, “but to create a piece of art.”
It’s also been a way for her to shift the focus away from the male-driven auteur theory of design, in which a genius with a pencil is the only one who gets the credit. “To be a creative director means to work with a big community. And I want this community to be visible,” she says two weeks before the fall 2023 show, perched in her Paris office in front of bookshelves so extensive the setting could be mistaken for a research library. “The narrative very often is only about the sketch; the creative director alone with the sketch. But this is not real. The sketch”—and by extension, the designer—“is only the starting point.”
For her fall 2023 collection, Chiuri made the journey to India—one she’s taken many times since her first voyage, when she fell in love with the region. On that trip, she found herself musing about the similarities between the country and her homeland of Italy: Both valorized craft and boasted recognizable, region-specific artisanal techniques. Chiuri soon began what would become a three-decade-long relationship with Chanakya in Mumbai, its director Nehal Shah, and its managing director and creative director Karishma Swali (who is Shah’s sister). Chanakya Atelier has provided textiles for houses including Dior, Fendi, and Valentino, while the Chanakya School of Craft has a mission of empowering women through craft skills—to date, more than 800 pupils have passed through its doors.
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The house of Dior, fittingly enough, also has a long-standing history with India: Christian Dior himself showed an Indian-inspired ensemble as part of his first show in 1947. Marc Bohan, the house’s artistic director from the 1960s through the ’80s, held presentations in Mumbai and New Delhi in the early ’60s. That said, “I think our trip today is different,” Chiuri says. The goal is to “celebrate the cultural aspect and also the [design] heritage that they have,” she says. “Now, when we are speaking a lot about cultural appropriation, I think it is very important to show how these elements connect all the different countries and how much we have in common.”
Therefore, it was crucial to her to collaborate with and credit Indian artisans every step of the way, not to simply use the country as a backdrop. She sees this season as an exchange between herself and Chanakya—she calls Swali “my co-director for this show.” Three women who themselves had cross-cultural ties helped inspire Chiuri: textile collector and scholar Krishna Riboud; the Maharani of Indore; and Indian member of parliament Gayatri Devi. The trio were all “pioneers in some way,” she says, “because they immediately understood the value of [Indian] craft, and they tried to promote it around the world.” The designs, too, reflect a cross-cultural exchange, with techniques such as Zardozi mirror-style embroidery; silhouettes like sari-inspired skirts; and a toile de Jouy that depicts Indian landscapes. A sequence of colorful silks was intended as a tribute to Bohan.
The show location was an imposing one: the Gateway of India in Mumbai, a towering landmark facing the Arabian Sea. Models emerged through the Gateway onto a runway before an audience of more than 800 guests, among them actresses Freida Pinto and Simone Ashley.
Despite the imposing setting, Chiuri wanted her guests to feel very much at home. Since she believes that a dress is, as she says at one point, “like a house for your body,” she made sure the set had a domestic aspect to it. A toran, or traditional Indian drape placed over a door, is a way of saying, “Welcome to my house,” Chiuri says, and is typically made by women and personalized with emblems like Ganesha, the god of beginnings. For the show, artisans from the school and atelier collaborated on a giant version draped over the Gateway, the product of 35,000 hours of handwork employing 25 distinct craft techniques. “My dream was to make one on the front of the port of India...to say, ‘Welcome,’” Chiuri explains. “Because I felt that every time I went to India, they were saying to me, ‘Welcome.’ And so I would like to give the same mood to the guests who are coming to the show: Welcome to this beautiful country.”
Hair by Niki Martin and Soniya Modi and makeup by Shivika Tiwari and Monika Dey, both at the Daniel Bauer Academy for Dior Beauty; models: Noor Elliott at Select and Carla Pereira and Licett Morillo, both at IMG; produced by Imran Khatri Production; photographed on location at Peace Haven in Bandra, Mumbai.
This story appears in the June/July 2023 issue of ELLE.
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