Dior's Maria Grazia Chiuri on feminism, the female gaze and working with women photographers
Christian Dior’s The Female Gaze podcast series took on a new dimension on Friday, as its newest episode featured an interview with the house’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri, who happily described herself as a political couturier.
The series was inspired by the work of feminist theorist Laura Mulvey, whose ideas have influenced Chiuri ever since she joined Dior – in 2016 – to become its first female creative director in the house’s seven-decade history.
Rome-born Chiuri has been residing in her hometown throughout the Covid-19 lockdown, but she found time for an interview with UK author Charlotte Jansen; speaking freely on how she mines the DNA of Dior, even as she takes an iconoclastic approach to its campaigns and images.
“When I arrived at Dior, everyone told me it was feminine brand, but we have to reflect on what that means. We must not forget that fashion has a very big impact on how women are presented in the media and in photography. So, at Dior, I want to present a feminist point of view, I no longer want to present women as objects. I wanted to find female photographers who would understand what I want to do. I wanted to create a different image of women. The female gaze is about changing the way we want to present women in fashion. More like a subject and not like an object,” explained Chiuri.
Asked by Jansen to recall the first women photographer that really made a strong impression on her, Chiuri responded: “It was while working with Valentino – Deborah Turbeville. We shot two campaigns with her, and immediately thereafter it was evident she had different point of view. I was very fascinated by her image of women. She was the first one to look at women who were not-so-finished but more mysterious. Not the typical, glamorous image. I felt a big emotion, as this was a different way to represent women.”
“She was a revolutionary, as important as people such as Guy Bordin or Helmut Newton, and equally as pioneering,” added Jansen. Who then asked; do women and men photographers work quite differently?
“Very often, with the male photographer, I always think there is a sexual tension between who is front of the camera and who is behind it. With women, it is more a dialogue. You feel that in the image. A female can identify with the model because she is also a woman. It’s completely different if it is a male or a female photographer. (With a woman) I feel more comfortable and relaxed.”
How difficult was it for Chiuri to find women to work with commercially?
“Honestly, it was not so difficult. When I arrived at Dior, I immediately said I wanted to work with female photographers, as I wanted to represent women in a different way. And the company supported me a lot in this project. We found that women are very interested in these collaborations – femininity with a different point of view. Women with different backgrounds. So, of course, in the fashion system, there was some criticism, as they did not understand why it was so important for me to shoot with female photographers. The reaction at Dior was one of a little surprise, as sometimes, in fashion, there is this attitude to repeat a way to work. We must not forget that in fashion, when speaking of contemporaneity, what people actually mean is nostalgia,” chuckled the Italian designer.
Besides working with female photographers, Chiuri has also collaborated with women artists like Judy Chicago – who built The Female Divine set for Dior in the garden of the Rodin Museum – and with Sharon Eyal, the Israeli choreographer, on a historic show inside the Longchamp racetrack in September 2018.
Turing to the name of the podcast’s main subject, Chiuri explained: “I am very lucky, because my daughter supported me a lot in this process: she read the Laura Mulvey essay first. I think it is problematic; and very close to Freud, and I love the idea of the female gaze changing with photography, film and TV shows as a way to represent women in so many new ways. It’s what I try to do with my work at my in Dior: (to show) women in many aspects – that they are strong but also fragile.”
Chiuri also commissioned six African or of African origin photographers to shoot last year’s Dior cruise collection, which took place in Marrakech.
“The cruise in Marrakech was very special. We worked with artisans and fabric producers in different African countries. So, working with different women photographers was important to get a truly different point of view. I wanted women in Africa to reflect on the craftsmanship and the textiles, such as wax printing – which is so important,” she explained.
Does the female gaze have a political purpose, wondered Jansen?
“I think everything is political. Whether it be in image, photography, fashion. Even what you buy. For instance, using only female photographers was political. Being political, to me, means having a point of view, and working in a way that represents that,” added Chiuri, who also hired war photographer Christine Spengler to shoot the Autumn/Winter 2018 collection for Dior.
“We tried to call her, as the inspiration for the collection was representative of the revolutionary atmosphere of 1968. So, on the mood board, we found that many of the works were from women. And, I was very lucky that Christine immediately said yes to shoot the campaign. This is the part of my job that I enjoy most. It's really like being a community, in the end. Even the idea of a podcast, during which I can share this conversation and share it with a wider audience…
"Another thing I never can never be thankful enough for is every time I see a picture of a woman, or read a book, then I can immediately say: ‘Can you contact her? Because I would like to speak with her.’ And that I love that: so many women are open-minded, and will agree and say: yes, we can do that! It then makes us feel like part of the community and part of a sisterhood.”
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