The uniform of a female fencer is the same as that of a male fencer. It strikes a balance between grace and force. Both reasons that prompted Italian fashion designer Maria Grazia Chiuri to draw from it for her debut collection for Dior. Chiuri first showed her collection in the gardens of the Musée Rodin during the Paris Fashion Week last September. It launches worldwide on Sunday, including at the brand’s stores in India, the Taj Mumbai, and Emporio, Delhi.
Chiuri, 53, who comes to the brand after 17 years at Valentino, is the first woman to head Christian Dior, a 70-year-old fashion house built on the foundation of its feminine designs. It’s a position that makes her the most powerful woman in Parisian fashion, and perhaps the world, since Coco Chanel.
In her official statement, Chiuri says she thought about being a woman, “who for the first time, has this opportunity and who must speak to modern women”. She wanted to create fashion that resembles the women of today, corresponding to their changing needs, breaking away from the silos of masculine/feminine, young/not-so-young, and reason/emotion, among others.
Her muse was her 20-year-old daughter Rachele, whose girl-power style inspired her. Courtesying to tradition, she also borrowed iconic elements of the fashion house—Christian Dior’s 1954 Moulin Rouge dress, John Galliano’s sassy T-shirts—and married them to the idea of historical fencing uniforms. Her idea of the Dior woman is Olympian, with a side of mascara.
It is only right then that her guiding spirit is the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who cheekily calls herself “A Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men”. Adichie is also the face of the Boots No7 make-up campaign, with a voice-over that says: “Our culture teaches us that if a woman wants to be taken seriously, she’s not supposed to care too much about her appearance. So for a while I stopped wearing make-up and hid my high heels.”
In December 2012, Adichie delivered a talk titled “We Should All Be Feminists” at TEDxEuston, a yearly conference focused on Africa. Chiuri sampled this rallying cry for her collection. And Adichie even attended the Paris show as a surprise.
Adichie’s lead argument is that whereas physical strength was the most important attribute for survival in the past, hence making for better leaders, today we live in a vastly different world where the person most qualified to lead is not the physically stronger person. It is the more intelligent, the more knowledgeable, the more creative, the more innovative person. There are no hormones for those attributes. We have evolved but our ideas of gender have not.
She recalls first being called a feminist accusatorily at the age of 14. She did not know what the word meant then.
Prescriptive linguists would say that if you don’t have the word, you don’t have the feeling (if you didn’t know the word tingle, could you still feel a tingle?). Adichie is all about reclaiming the word feminist. Her definition is a man or a woman who says, “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.”
Acknowledging the fact that gender as it functions today is a grave injustice makes her angry. Since anger has a long history of bringing positive change, she insists that we should all be angry, recounting incidents of parking attendants thanking her male companions for tips given by her. This happens to me in restaurants all the time. The waiter will see me pull out my credit card from my wallet and hand it over to him and he will hold out the card machine to my male companion for entering the PIN.
So, yes, we should all be angry. We should all wear Dior’s statement on our sleeves, if not emblazoned on our chests. Chiuri is all for the warrior woman. “You have to fight for what you really want in life,” she told Hamish Bowles in a Vogue interview last September. But she also raises Adichie by a few chips.
Because in Olympic fencing, you don’t kill the other person—you touch the heart.