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“The Idea of Freedom in New York is Very Strong”—Maria Grazia Chiuri On Her “Dior New York” Inspirations

The very first time that Maria Grazia Chiuri visited New York City, “people could still smoke in planes,” the Christian Dior designer reminisced with a laugh. She was 18, and remembers wearing a t-shirt with the words “KILLER” printed across the chest. “I was here on holiday, and the idea was to do a tour of the United States,” she said, “but when I arrived I just didn’t want to go anywhere else.”

Maria Grazia Chiuri

Photo: Emma Anderson / Courtesy of Christian Dior

Chiuri is back in the city to present her pre-fall 2024 collection on the runway tonight at the Brooklyn Museum. There’s no longer smoking in the skies, but her bright-eyed excitement about New York has remained unshaken.

“I have big emotions, it’s my first show in New York,” said the designer. “I’ve desired from the first moment I arrived at Dior eight years ago to come here and realize this show.” Tonight may mark Chiuri’s first New York runway presentation, but it’s not the first time that the city has played host to the house of Dior. Monsieur Dior himself had a special relationship with the city, having been one of the first Parisian couturiers to open a satellite atelier here in the Big Apple.

Dior New York offered simpler, more casual iterations of the couture the designer presented in Paris. The stateside collection was imbued with pragmatism and the distinctly New York idea of American sportswear, originally spearheaded by some of Mr. Dior’s American contemporaries like Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin. The legacy of these designers is akin to the nuanced, considerate touch that Chiuri has made her signature at Dior.

Let’s start with the location—why did you decide to host the show at the Brooklyn Museum?
It was a dream for me to realize a show inside of the museum, it’s such an inspiring place for me in my life and my career. We have to recognize that it is the first public institution that has a specific department for Feminist Art, which I found helped me educate myself. I felt the first time that I arrived there that I was conscious more about Italian art and feminist Italian art, but less about other countries. The Museum allowed me to discover other women artists with different points of view, but at the same time, that all women around the world speak the same argument. The Brooklyn Museum is a place where they are well represented.
A personal favorite is the incredible Judy Chicago “The Dinner Party” installation.

It is incredible, because she really celebrated all the women in history that others might have forgotten. But it’s also how she realized it, with a dinner table as a monumental piece of art. Normally feminist artists are doing smaller pieces that are more personal, they are not so brave to take up this much space. It was exciting when I met her to collaborate together, because she expresses herself in a monumental way and encourages women to be brave. She also used embroidery as her medium, which is a big part of the women’s expression; there was, at the time, an idea that it was more domestic, but with her it became finally recognized as fine art. It was very inspiring for me and for my work, also with Karishma [Swali, the managing director of the Chanakya School of Craft], to promote this expression like a form of art, because it is a piece of art, and it is also something that you do not realize alone.

The Statue of Liberty features in the collection, but I’m curious about any other favorite New York City landmarks you may have? I just got off the train at Grand Central Station to come meet you, which is one of my favorites.

I grew up with the idea of New York and London, because they are such metropolitan cities. I came for the first time, I think, when I was 18 years old. I remember having a second job to get money for the flight, because it was so expensive, as it is now [laughs], but so much more then. I remember you could even smoke in the plane! So we are speaking about another era. There is this image of me in New York that Rachele [Regini, Chiuri’s daughter] found with this t-shirt with the words “KILLER” on top. I was here on holiday, and I remember that the idea was to do a tour of the United States, but when I arrived I just didn’t want to go anywhere else.

I went to the Statue of Liberty and all the monuments, and it was very different when I came back during my career because we also came here to see fashion. We didn’t have big department stores [in Italy], so we toured those. But I love this city because there is art, fashion, music, it’s another dimension, and you feel immediately welcome. The idea of community is very strong in New York.

Maria Grazia Chiuri

Christian Dior, pre-fall 2024. Photo: Emma Anderson / Courtesy of Christian Dior

Maria Grazia Chiuri

Christian Dior, pre-fall 2024. Photo: Emma Anderson / Courtesy of Christian Dior

Maria Grazia Chiuri

Christian Dior, pre-fall 2024. Photo: Emma Anderson / Courtesy of Christian Dior

Is that your favorite thing about New Yorkers?

Yes, you never feel alone. But I also think sometimes that you have to be young in New York, because you have to walk a lot. It’s a city that, when you are young, is much more simple, and when you grow up, it’s just a little bit more complicated. But the energy! Last night I was at Badass [Chiuri was honored with the Badass Art Women Award on Thursday] at an old church, and to me that is New York—the atmosphere where you meet people that come from different parts of the world. And everybody has a story.

How would you define New York style?

My obsession is sportswear. I remember on my tour when I was young I went to Gap. And then to Levi’s downtown, where you could do your special pair. I spent hours inside because I’m obsessed with denim. I love sportswear, it’s evident. New York is a city all about sportswear. Of course, there is uptown that is different, but the novelty to me was to find so many labels in sportswear that were cool. It was exciting.

New York is very much the genesis of sportswear, I think. We had Bonnie Cashin or Claire McCardell, all women designers, who defined that specific kind of practicality that became very New York. It feels like your point of view on fashion is very aligned with that.

[There is] this very strong narrative that comes from film that offers a different image of New York, depending on the film [laughs], and the reality is sometimes not the same. Here you can live in different ways in different parts of the city. I remember when I came with the past label where I worked. Jackie Kennedy was an icon and was very close with Valentino [Garavani]. Her New York in the ’60s…we have this image and this kind of woman that is very much part of our memory.

At the same time we have an image that is strong that comes from the magazines here. You have Interview, but you also have American Vogue, which is a really important magazine in a different way, that helps define culture and New York. You can decide what you want here, the idea of freedom in New York is very strong.

One of my favorite fun facts about the house of Dior is Dior New York.

Oh yes! Absolutely. Dior became immediately so well known because Carmel Snow defined the first collection and the first silhouette as the New Look. Six months later, he decided to open an atelier in New York, and adapt his collection to the different style of the women in New York City and America in general. Introduce more pockets, take off some corsets, and make it more easy to wear. In some way, it was the first idea of prêt-à porter. And they sent Marc Bohan here too. It shows the very strong relationship between Dior and New York, but also between Paris and New York.

Christian Dior arriving to New York City in March of 1950.Photo: Getty

How did you fold the legacy of Dior New York into the show and the collection?

I was very fascinated by this incredible book I found in the archive that has been done at the time of Mr. Dior where there was this map of the world. The title was Dior Around the World, where it was evident where Mr. Dior went to open the stores and ateliers around the world. I thought that it would be interesting for me to try to do the same trip. I added some locations that he didn’t do at the time, but I was very shocked that, for example, he had done Australia at the time. We are speaking about the Second World War, so it was very distant to go to Australia. The idea that this brand had to be international was so immediate. He also planned a big trip to South America, which I think that for a designer in the ’50s was very unusual. This is why when we decided to do our exhibition [“Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” which outlined the history of the maison] we thought that we would go around the world, and then we came here to the Brooklyn Museum. It was a dream of mine to come here and realize the show.

I’m from Bolivia, and Dior is one of the first fashion labels I learned about in school because I learned about Argentinian history and Eva Perón, who famously wore Dior couture.

Yes, and it’s also because now we are speaking about fashion with the idea we have now about fashion. But before it was only couture, not easy to deliver, to find, to make. That’s also why the exhibition was important, because you connect with how different life was at the time.

Sometimes we think that it’s all like now with Zoom and a photo, but I remember when I was young how much time you had to wait to see a new collection, until a magazine printed them. Now everything is streaming after one second and everybody sees.

Marlene Dietrich greets Mr. Dior at one of his fashion shows in Paris, August 1955. Photo: Getty

I heard that you went to the exhibition of photographs of Marlene Dietrich, who is another reference in the collection, at the International Center of Photography last year here in the city. What did you make out of it?

Marlene Dietrich was a really important reference to Mr. Dior, and I was fascinated by her. Her use of masculine, feminine, sport, and glamorous looks to define herself. I think that she was one of the first actresses that understood the power of fashion to define herself and her work.

I also think that another way to think about the heritage of Dior is to look at the women that were close to him. Marlene Dietrich was close with Mr. Dior. She bought a lot of jackets and invited him to dress her for films. I was fascinated by this relationship. It’s very interesting for me to work on this reference.

Do you have a favorite Dietrich performance?

Ah! “L’angelo azzurro” I think is very strong! I think it’s something everybody, every performer, dreams of. There are some women, some actresses, that are very close, like Liza Minelli. These kinds of performances are like the atmosphere of New York as well. The immediate image of the theater lights, and this performance on a major stage. It’s New York.

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