Cruise Control: Dior's Common Ground

As the megabrand fashion house released its Resort 2020 collection, Grazia went front row (and backstage) with Dior

Maria Grazia Chiuri must be one of the most fearless designers working in fashion today. Since her ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ debut in 2016, her collections have radiated female empowerment – a move that has not only reinvigorated sales, but also repositioned the house of Dior in a broader cultural space that resonates with fashion’s new age of awareness. Her latest mission – the 2020 Dior Cruise show, titled ‘Common Ground’ and held at Marrakech’s most spectacular ruin, the El Badi Palace – tackled one of the red-hot, danger-zone topics of our time: cultural appropriation.

It was a brave move, given the social media drubbing Maria Grazia and Pierpaolo Piccioli received for their Spring/Summer 2016 ‘Out Of Africa’ collection, when the pair co-designed Valentino. Their cast of mostly white women – their hair in cornrows, adorned with Maasai beading and ceramic-teeth necklaces – is just one recent example of how fashion ‘influences’ can provoke social media outrage. The days of John Galliano’s Dior, when marginalised cultures were deemed ripe for the picking (he issued collections that referenced anything from the homeless in Paris to the story of Princess Pocahontas, which featured Native American attire and Japanese tribal pieces), are long gone.

But Maria Grazia is only too aware of fashion’s politically correct age. So this was no mere interpretation of African culture, it was a genuine exchange of ideas and collaboration rarely seen, even in the luxury, budget-no-object world that a megabrand like Dior occupies. Maria Grazia hadn’t just referenced African textiles – the cornerstone of the collection – she’d travelled to the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan, to a studio called Uniwax, to have her authentic batik fabrics made there.

She had also employed a lead advisor, the anthropologist Anne Grosfilley, an expert on African textiles who explained that wax prints, which are under threat from digitally produced versions, require 20 stages to manufacture, like genuine couture fabrics. More scrupulous still was the fact that Maria Grazia had invited others to collaborate on the collection: a Moroccan women’s textile and ceramics association called Sumano created woven pieces. The African American artist Mickalene Thomas and the Jamaican-British designer Grace Wales Bonner each provided their interpretation of the New Look Bar suit; a master tailor from the Ivory Coast, Pathé Ouédraogo, who once made suits for Nelson Mandela, designed a look featuring the late ANC leader’s face on the back, and Martine Henry, a Ghanaian-British milliner, was also drafted in to work with Stephen Jones on the head wraps and turbans. Even the cushions that the audience perched on at the show had been woven by a local collective.

This wasn’t just cross-cultural collaboration on another level, or finding ‘common ground’, it was Maria Grazia’s embracement and championing of others’ talents that was equally remarkable – again, rarely seen in fashion at this level. “But why not?” she said in a preview before the show, kohl-rimmed eyes peering out from beneath a pirate bandana. “A designer working alone, it’s just not believable. I couldn’t do any of this without the Dior atelier, so why not just be open about it? It’s about having a conversation. I want to see Dior through others’ eyes. That’s how to keep the codes of the house modern.”

It’s one heck of a backstory to tell about a collection of absolutely magical clothes that paraded around an Olympic-sized pond, dotted with floating candles and bonfires, inside the vast courtyard of a 16th-century palace late one night in Marrakech. The city was chosen for the 2020 Cruise show because of its connection to Dior, via Yves Saint Laurent, who succeeded Christian Dior and famously set up house in the Moroccan glamour spot that regularly inspired him. But this collection was a million miles away from the Dior/Saint Laurent archive – even if Maria Grazia paid homage to YSL’s 1960s coat, titled ‘Marrakech’, in sweeping cream silk. This was luxury fashion at its most clever, authentic and special – with more than a knowing nod to the notion of buying less and buying better. Why have a cheap digital imitation of a batik print when you can have the real deal? Why not invest in clothes made with respect, care and love? And all of it under the umbrella of ultra-inclusiveness.

Talking of umbrellas, what is it with Maria Grazia and thunderstorms of biblical proportions? Right on cue, the heavens opened, as they often do at her Cruise shows, no matter where in the world they are. Someone in the audience quipped that it was the Louis Vuitton shaman who had cast a spell (fact: Dior’s arch competitor hires a shaman to hold back the rain clouds when the house shows outdoors). But, as ever, it only added to the drama of these majestic clothes. And not even an electrical storm could dampen the spirits of the legend that is Diana Ross – the after-show entertainment – who came out all guns blazing in silver sequins.

Photos: Supplied and Romuald Meigneux/SIPA/Shutterstock