A workshop, a factory, a family. there are many ways to describe the Dior couture atelier. Artistic Director Maria Grazia Chiuri talks of it as being like a military establishment, with a strict hierarchy and strong tradition. there are no weak links. this is a place where perfection is the norm.
You cannot be a couturier without a couture atelier. The designer has the vision, but the craftspeople in the atelier realise that vision. The relationship between these two creative arms of a house is a defining one. For Maria Grazia Chiuri, spending time in Dior’s two ateliers – tailleur and flou – is a vital part of her process. “For me, the atelier is part of my job. The other designers used to work only with the sketch, I don’t. To see what is possible and what is not possible, I do that in the atelier,” she says.
The Dior ateliers are tucked away in a quiet street behind Avenue Montaigne, Paris. Sliding doors allow visitors to sweep into a stark lobby, where an elegant receptionist guards a heavy set of frosted doors. Behind them is a huge, brightly lit space. On one side is the flou atelier, headed by première Florence Chehet, a warm, upbeat woman with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. She worked at Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier before arriving at Dior 16 and a half years ago. On the other side is the tailleur atelier, with Laurence Morel as its première. Serious, focused, disciplined and utterly passionate about her craft, she has worked at the house for 38 years. Its essence is stitched into the fabric of her life.
“There is a strong DNA at Dior, some elements that Christian Dior created that you can find in every collection, so we are still in his head, it is deeply rooted,” says Chehet. But while the core of the brand is set, when a new creative director comes on board, the atelier has to relearn their approach. “I love it. I love to change. The nice thing at Dior is that the designer changes quite often, so it is like changing house,” she continues.
Chiuri joined Dior in July 2016. “I grew up in an atelier,” says the designer, whose mother was a dressmaker. Her previous roles at Fendi and Valentino brought her into the orbit of some of the most skilled artisans in the luxury world. She arrived at Dior with an immense knowledge of the craft of fashion. “I don’t ask something that I think is impossible,” she says. “If you give a sketch and you have no idea, it is like you have passed the problem to them.” That’s not her style. Chiuri is invested and involved in every part of the creative process. She uses collaboration and communication to get things done. In her first week at Dior, she visited all the ateliers, including those for shoes and bags, in Padua and Florence respectively. “She knows. She has been working in the atelier herself, so when she has a doubt about the technique, it is because she has done it. She would have made it herself, so that is why she is asking. We really feel that she has this experience,” says Chehet.
The two premières revel in the technical challenge of difficult designs, says Morel. “For us at the tailoring atelier, it is even more interesting, because if the sketch is difficult, we need to do more research into the making and the realisation of a piece, so it is even better for us.” She remembers, with satisfaction, learning origami, to create the paper-like folds and extravagant silhouettes of John Galliano’s SS07 Dior couture show. For Chehet, Galliano’s gilded Egyptian couture collection of 2004 proved to be the most challenging, technically.
The atelier is a world where tradition is maintained but it cannot remain static. Chiuri has a special division within the studio that carries out research into new fabrics, craft techniques, embroideries and lace. “I think, also, today’s couture client is different,” she says. “If you see an archive Dior dress, it is very dysfunctional for today, for the style of life. No woman wants to wear a couture dress that is so heavy. When I arrived I immediately tried to explain to them that I really appreciate all this kind of knowledge, but at the same time my DNA is Italian, so we have this idea of couture that you can use in your normal life. I didn’t want to lose the Dior code. We can use the same code, the volume, but with lightness.” For the most recent couture show of mostly black dresses the hardest thing to achieve were the couture volumes with transparency and lightness and to give a tailored jacket the lightness of a chiffon dress. It’s about “big volume that is comfortable for the life of today”, says Chiuri.
When she joined the house, she changed more than the artistic direction. She also changed the culture in the atelier. Her highly efficient methods of creation meant that all- night sewing sessions and last-minute changes became the exception, not the rule. “Maria Grazia thinks like a woman,” says Chehet. “She’s like a mother who has to get her children to school. She is very organised. She has a lot of respect for her staff and when she sees that we are exhausted, she says, ‘Let’s stop everything, we’ll start again tomorrow.’” This, she says, is in stark contrast to previous regimes. “With male creators it was harder, because they tended to arrive late in the afternoon and then we had to work very late at night, and get back to the atelier early in the morning.”
The wild side of creativity gets too much attention, says Chiuri. “There is an idea that sex, drugs and rock’n’roll is more creative. It’s not true,” she says, having put the focus back on the hard work and organisation it takes to make a huge brand such as Dior fly. She describes her approach to each couture collection as being “like a film – you have to decide what kind of story you want to tell with the show”. She’s the director, fixing on the set, location and character of the woman and then creating her clothes. Through a process of sketches, mood boards and fittings, she communicates that vision to her design team and the atelier. “Without a team you cannot do this job today. The idea of the creative director alone in one room with a candle is beautiful and fairy tale, but is not believable.”
All collections start the same way. “She comes with her sketches, she explains which material she would like and we tell her what is possible and what is not possible, so it is real teamwork,” says Chehet. “We work together. We decide together. Then we go back to the atelier and we make it. We start with the first fitting with Maria Grazia and it can take a lot of fittings to get to the satisfaction. It is very easy with her because she knows what she wants from the beginning, so it’s almost identical from the sketch to the model that we see on the catwalk.”
Two weeks before a collection is shown, the atmosphere in the atelier is like a beehive, say the premières, with everybody chatting and busily working. But the weekend before the show, the mood changes. “It is silence and concentration, because we know we have a deadline, so we need to work, stay quiet, silent,” says Chehet.“Maria Grazia works in a precise, deliberate way. Her vision is clear and complete. It’s all so different from the John Galliano era. Sometimes we would have a dress [to alter or start creating] at 5 in the morning for the show in the afternoon. Now it wouldn’t be possible to do that, we have different rules, we don’t work that much at night,” she continues. “It was true we had beautiful results on the outside, but when you could see the underside, it was not finished because we had a lot of last-minute work and alterations.” When she now looks at those Galliano pieces in the archive, she shudders at the memory of those hidden imperfections. The adrenaline of the Galliano days has gone, but with Chiuri, the catwalk clothes are so well finished they could be worn inside out.
When the premières started out in their careers, nearly 40 years ago, seamstresses were required to cut their nails so as not to catch the fabric. They weren’t allowed to wear make-up, for fear of spoiling the precious couture fabrics, and they had to tie their hair back. Morel wasn’t sure if this was the life for her. “It was like an old people’s home. [My colleagues] had no life, no children, no husbands. The atelier was their life.” The rules are more relaxed now. Their new recruits are not teenage school-leavers but twentysomething graduates of the LVMH craft academy. “It is really different in the atelier now, it looks fresher,” she says.
One aspect of the job never changes. “Patience is key,” says Chehet. “You also need to have the mind of an artist and a craftsman. You need to love doing and doing and doing things, so patience is crucial. You need to be born with this will, this wish to do this job.” The two premières often visit the archives, to research past techniques and revisit past collections. Couture is a world where the customer’s every wish is indulged and it is customary for couture houses to keep live archives. The client doesn’t have to order from the latest collection but can have something from any season. “A lot of the customers want dresses from the time of Christian Dior,” says Morel. This is a particularly popular practice for wedding dresses but, every year, they have requests for the Bar suit, as well as the famous Aventure jacket.
The Dior atelier is a well-oiled machine, but passions run deep. Chiuri reflects on the unique culture.“The atelier is a strange place because they are all in competition. All the individual premières are very nice, but between themselves they are terrible, terrible,” she says, only half-joking. “Because they are in competition for who made the most beautiful dress. They are really proud of what they do. This is good. It means that you push yourself.” Excellence, thy name is Dior.
by Claudia Croft
Portraits Maria Ziegelböck, Atelier images Sophie Carre.