In the world of fashion, haute couture is a markedly double-edged concept. Supposed to represent everything that is eternal and exclusive about Parisian glamour, it must, at the same time, run a ceaseless race to be the first to define new standards in fashion. That delicate balance cannot be fully explained by what is seen on the runways of the Carrousel du Louvre. Sometimes, the serious business of fashion must be conducted in sombre—if perfectly cut—jackets and accessories not designed to draw attention.
Orientation: Brunschwig has been busy in Asia, strengthening supply chains in Singapore, establishing an address in South Korea and renewing Dior’s India connection.
Serge Brunschwig, chief operating officer of Christian Dior Couture, is one of those men who means serious business. The Dior watch on his wrist doesn’t so much as glint—not even discreetly. His haircut is regulation. Brunschwig, who joined Dior in 2009, would be perfectly at home in any suitably elegant boardroom of the world. Imagining him against the backdrop of, say, the gorgeous hothouse designs of Dior’s Fall 2010 collection, is like imagining Jose Mourinho—another one for smart jackets—posing before whatever diamond-pierced, protein-pumped, multi-billion-dollar team he’s currently running.
There ends Brunschwig’s resemblance to volatile football managers, though. The universal air of the boardroom is what remains. It’s a little bit of what Brunschwig calls “world-ization”. “In French, we say mondialisation? In which everything comes together.” That’s one way of looking at globalization.
Brunschwig, 50, is a globetrotter. His über-French upbringing and education at Paris’ École Polytechnique and École Normale Supérieure des Télécommunications have taken him across the world, initially as a business consultant, and then as an executive with some of the world’s biggest fashion brands, including Louis Vuitton Malletier, Celine and Sephora. He is something of an Asia hand; his last foreign assignment was a five-year stint in Hong Kong as president for Louis Vuitton Asia-Pacific. “I have not been to India in four or five years. When we opened the Dior store at The Oberoi in Delhi a few years ago, we had decided it was high time to come here and speak directly to the people and to Indian culture. But now I have come to this new Christian Dior boutique in Mumbai, which we just opened (in mid-October).” He smiles brightly. “We have done tremendously well.”
Store space in the old shopping arcade of Mumbai’s The Taj Mahal Palace does not open up for just anyone. India’s most “world-ized” hotel is the cultural equivalent of a diplomatic-immunity zone. But in the country’s newest Dior boutique, that is not enough. You must not feel internationalist when you enter. You must be in a little slice of Paris.
“Clearly, we speak our own language, since nobody will understand us if we speak anything else. But it is this fantastic thought, that if we invent something strong anywhere in the world, then through magazines, TV and the Internet, a lot of people will see it and become interested. That is a benefit for us.”
French fashion has a long history of international influence, especially with regards to India. “In the 17th century, probably Louis XIV was among the most interested, buying things from the Venetian merchants who brought cotonnade (cotton fabric) and other things to Europe.” This period was, he points out, a direct influence on “Mr Dior”—the eponymous Christian—himself. “If you look at Dior’s history, almost every great designer, from Mr Dior to Mr Marc Bohan (Dior’s director in the 1960s), to Mr Ferré (Gianfranco, Bohan’s successor) to John Galliano (Ferré’s successor and Dior’s current in-house genius), has had their India Year.”
Fashion is coming to India for more reasons than aesthetic inspiration these days. One slice of Paris in Mumbai may be precious, but it is tiny compared with what’s on offer further East,. “You know, the difference today between you and China is that China is maybe 10 years before you, and those 10 years have been used in building places in which to shop. It’s an extraordinary development; the country itself, and its consumption of luxury.”
Brunschwig has been busy in the neighbourhood too, he tells me, when I ask for a bigger picture. There are networks to renovate in Singapore, where posh Orchard Street and the Marina Bay Sands both offer Dior addresses. “There is a big market in South Korea also, but so far it has been developed only in department stores, not ideal for us to bring the full flavour.” So? “So we bought a piece of land in Seoul. It will take a bit of time, but it will be a way to establish the real universe of Dior in South Korea.”
Couture diplomacy is clearly expensive business. Brunschwig laughs. “The ambition is key. We have to be able to communicate the value of our products, our history. The dream that comes with it. Sure, land in South Korea is not cheap, but it gives us the ability to communicate in the European way.”
The European way goes like this: In 1947, Christian Dior’s flowing skirts, soft shoulders and cinched waists became Europe’s “New Look” after the makeshift minimalism of the War years. To Brunschwig, fashion is still buoyed by the same ideas in the midst of another makeshift decade for the West. “People have been tightening their belts. Some, not all,” he says, when I ask him about the scene back home. “There have been a couple of seasons where you could see the fashions were being toned down, there was a bit less celebration. But then suddenly, boom, it comes back.”
Even for a business that has outwardly been more circuses than bread, he says Dior has had unprecedented growth this year. “You know, human nature, you can’t do that for a long time. It’s like there’s a plateau, a small decline, but boom, the excitement returns.” The consultant in him draws line graphs with his hands to emphasize his point. “There’s a natural, logical growth of our consumption of luxury goods and you cannot stop it.”
The prêt line he inspects as he walks around his newest Dior boutique is in line with the European ideal: Here is exquisite winterwear in greys and beiges, delicately constructed off-white tunics, bags in a muted plum shade that is a far cry from traditional Indian notions about what purple should be. It doesn’t stop Brunschwig from making a splash with the India connection later that night, at the Dior soirée held in his honour. Mumbai’s invite-only crowd wanders through the ballroom, smiling familiarly at the archival couture that has accompanied Brunschwig from 30 Avenue Montaigne, where the House of Dior has resided since its beginnings in 1947.
“A year special to India also,” Brunschwig remarks. The pièce de résistance is a woven Banarasi sari created by Dior back in those days for a princess of Belgium. “A nice coincidence.”