Dior in China

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There are few names which conjure up the magic and artistry of couture quite like Christian Dior. So it was only fitting that walking into the maison’s new exhibition in Shanghai, which has completely taken over the MOCA, is like walking into a wonderland of delight and magic. The exhibition, entitled Esprit Dior, aims to enlighten Chinese viewers as to the diverse and rich history of the brand and to point out the daring and visionary man behind the name with which we are all so familiar today.

Monsieur Dior was a renegade and invented concepts which nowadays are so commonplace we take them completely for granted; for example, being able to buy your dress, shoes, scarf and handbag all from one maison as opposed to having to visit a different specialist shop for each. Or having the brand’s label inside the clothes or accessories – for which he was initially heavily criticised for (it was considered vulgar) but was of course very swiftly copied by every fashion brand in existence.

But it was his strong shapes and bold vision for women that truly garnered him international fame. At a time when the world was emerging from a long and gruelling war, Dior reminded people of what beauty, elegance and femininity looked like. His long, flowing skirts laughed in the face of rationing and his dazzling toilettes beat back at sombre austerity. And now, more than ever it seems, we need the magic of fashion to lift our spirits once more.

This effect was certainly achieved as we wandered through the enormous gallery at the exhibition’s inauguration. We marvelled at the incredible skill and craftsmanship evident in every dress and the timeless beauty of pieces that were made 60 years ago but wouldn’t look out of place today. The curator, rather interestingly, showcased the dresses in terms of themes – completely mixing up the different eras of Dior – rather than showing them in chronological order as one might have expected. We soon realised that this had the ingenious effect of making it almost impossible to guess which dress was old and which was new – and thus the curator had cleverly highlighted the seamless identity that the house of Dior has managed to maintain and the timeless nature of its fashions.

As we journeyed from a mock-ballroom into a reconstructed garden of Versailles – complete with the ubiquitous French white gravel paths), into an ‘art gallery’ we bumped into the esteemed milliner and long-time Dior collaborator Stephen Jones and asked him about his journey with Dior thus far.

“In the Dior story,” he explained, “the hat is an integral part. Also, if you’re in China and you’re thinking of glamorous French fashion, they’ve got a hat on it. It’s magical working with Dior. Do you know that photograph of Marlene Dietrich sitting on the stairs in the Dior apartments? When I go to work I walk up those stairs every day. It’s just amazing to be part of fashion in that way. It’s a little bit of a dream come true. And it’s amazing to work with all these incredible technicians, they are so skilled – a couture jacket takes 150 hours without fittings! A hat on the other hand can take anything from a week to just a few hours – even a ribbon placed nicely on the head can be a hat.

“And this show is incredible,” he continues, “there are pictures I’ve never seen before – you see these black and white photographs here?” He points to some old black and white photographs which form the wallpaper of the room we are in. “These are actually photographs of Dior’s art gallery from before he became a designer, he represented Dali, Man Ray, all the best. I know that’s something that really excited Raf (Simons) when he came to Dior, the art side. I think Dior was the first person to really mix art and fashion.”

We part ways with Stephen and as we wander on through the exhibition we are also captured by the stunning photographs which are backlit on each of the walls; mesmerising black and white portraits, bold colourful scenes – all depicting supermodels in Dior and all by Patrick Demarchelier. Soon we stumble upon the man himself who graciously agrees to a selfie with us and to share a few words.

He tells us in his heavy French accent, “To work with Dior is fantastique, they were one of my first clients, I’ve worked with them such a long time, since I was, since I was… (he takes a moment to think), well I was young! I love every single one of the photos in the exhibition. For me what makes a good photograph is the moment. There is a moment, it’s like magic and every room here is like a surprise, each room has something different.” When we ask if he has enjoyed his time in Shanghai he is a little hesitant, but when we ask him for his favourite Chinese dish he fires off without a moment’s hesitation, “Peking duck!”

The history of Dior is not the only story at work in the exhibition though, there is also a merging with new Chinese talent. Ten well known artists, including former Glass interviewees Lin Tianmao and Zeng Fanzhi, were invited to create works informed by their understanding of Dior. Catching up with Fanzhi, he said of his haunting Bacon-esque portrait of Mr Dior, “My first encounter with Mr Dior happened through a Chinese fashion magazine named Liu Xing Tong xun, in the 1990s. For me, he is not only a designer but also an artist. I hope this portrait expresses my respect for him.”

In another room the renowned painter, sculpture and performer Zhang Huan presented a portrait of Mr Dior made entirely of ash collected from the remnants of incense sticks from Buddhist temples. He wanted to convey the complexity of Dior’s character and feels that this portrait represents a “collective soul” and symbolises memory, wishes and hope signifies the significance of Dior in the world of fashion.

The pieces are interestingly integrated throughout the exhibition – in a room filled with golden couture gowns, artist Zheng Guogu, whose has a personal obsession with consumer items, suspended from the ceiling hundreds of large gold droplets in the shape of the iconic J’adore Dior perfume bottle. In a stark white room where three couture technicians in lab coats sat busily showing off their atelier skills, Li Tianmao had grafted skeletal bones fused with items from the couture world to express the fusion of worker and tool as their hard forms merge into one through repeated cooperation.

All in all this is a tantalising glimpse into the story of one of the world’s most iconic brands, one of fashion’s most legendary photographers and the luxury industry itself. If you have a few spare hours in Shanghai, you might just be able to scratch the surface.

by Nicola Kavanagh