Dior Confirms Maria Grazia Chiuri As Next Couturier

Maria Grazia Chiuri Pierpaolo Piccioli
Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli.
Lodovico Colli di Felizzano/Fairchild.

PARIS — “The idea of hiring a woman is something I had in mind, and this woman was the right one.”

So said Sidney Toledano, president and chief executive officer of Christian Dior, as he confirmed first to WWD that Maria Grazia Chiuri is the French house’s seventh couturier.

Details of the contract were not disclosed, but Toledano described the pact as a “long-term relationship.”

Chiuri’s arrival at Dior marks the end of her long and celebrated collaboration at Rome-based Valentino with Pierpaolo Piccioli, who on Thursday was named sole creative director, bringing a final denouement to a widely expected changing of the guard, and capping off a vibrant couture week here. WWD first reported last November that Chiuri could be in the frame to succeed Raf Simons at Dior and reported on May 31 that she was among finalists for the job.

Chiuri will start next week as Dior’s artistic director of women’s haute couture, ready-to-wear and accessory collections. She will show her first collection here on Sept. 30 for the spring 2017 ready-to-wear season, with her first couture show next January coinciding with the house’s 70th anniversary.

Toledano lauded the Italian designer’s couture chops, experience in leather goods, leadership qualities, “hands-on” approach to fashion — and her wish to interpret Dior’s legacy for the women of today.

“She’s a very direct person, concrete, pragmatic,” he said in an exclusive interview. “She was really challenged and excited by the house of Dior. She has a global understanding of the values of the house.”

He described her vision of women as “both sensual and poetic,” echoing those of the founder. “I think there will be a clear evolution,” Toledano said. “She will bring her vision of modernity, her understanding of lifestyle.”

“It is a great honor to be joining the house of Dior; I measure the tremendous responsibility of being the first woman in charge of the creation in a house so deeply rooted in the pure expression of femininity,” Chiuri said in a statement. “The endless wealth of its heritage continues to be a constant source of inspiration for fashion, and I cannot wait to express my own vision.”

Bernard Arnault, chairman of Dior, called Chiuri’s talent “enormous and internationally acclaimed. She will bring her elegant and modern vision of the Dior woman, seamlessly attuned to the heritage and the codes defined by Monsieur Dior.”

Meanwhile, Piccioli pledged his continued allegiance to Valentino.

“Valentino and the people with whom I work with are a great part of my life. My decision of bringing forward the creative guide of this maison is driven by the strong passion that triggers my work and by the desire of continuing to express here my stylistic vision,” he said in a statement.

The duo spent 17 years at the Rome-based house, eight as co-creative directors. On Thursday, Chiuri thanked founder Valentino Garavani and his business partner Giancarlo Giammetti, chief executive officer Stefano Sassi and the team at the house for their support. Chiuri said she had “shared with Pierpaolo a great part of [her] professional life, and it has been an experience made of many successful creative achievements together.” She added she was “ready to embark on a new professional challenge.”

Maria Grazia Chiuri Valentino Pierpaolo Piccioli & Maria Grazia Chiuri. Giovanni Giannoni/Fairchild.

Chiuri arrives at Dior at a challenging time for the luxury sector, as terror fears impair tourism and economic and political uncertainty saps consumer confidence. Revenues at Christian Dior Couture declined 1 percent in its fiscal third quarter but remained stable on an organic basis, despite lower tourist footfall in Paris and some Asian countries. Sales at the French fashion house tallied 429 million euros, or $473.2 million, in the three months ended March 31, as reported.

The house closed out 2015 with revenues of 1.87 billion euros, or $2.08 billion, reflecting a gain of 17.1 percent at actual exchange rates and 7 percent at constant rates.

Toledano said he’s confident that Chiuri’s arrival will bring “new momentum” to the house, knowing that “newness” is a potent ingredient in fashion. He also highlighted that she would be “fully dedicated to Dior” and suggested she would have a wider purview as a result, giving input into “how products are presented” and communicated.

The first job for the Rome-born designer is to meet the men and women in Dior’s couture ateliers, sheltered under the rooftops of its historic headquarters on Avenue Montaigne.

This week’s developments set the stage for an exciting Paris Fashion Week, scheduled for Sept. 27 to Oct. 5. Besides Chiuri’s Dior debut, and Piccioli’s first solo outing at Valentino, the fashion flock will discover the first Lanvin women’s collection by Bouchra Jarrar and the first Saint Laurent collection by Anthony Vaccarello.

One source familiar with the inner workings of the Valentino design studio described Chiuri as clever, exacting and decisive as a designer, and possessing an “incredible energy.” Her orientation is pragmatic, focused “more on product,” the same source said. “She’s very sensitive to the commercial side of the business and fundamentally wants to succeed.”

By contrast, Piccioli takes a more holistic, artistic approach to fashion and is said to have been heavily involved in the image of Valentino. “They have different personalities, but they complemented each other,” the source said.

In an interview last year, Piccioli talked about the emotional component of fashion. “You don’t really need clothes. You need emotion,” he said. “It’s like creating a movie in a way. You want people to leave with a dream in their minds. That’s what fashion is.”

“I think they did a fantastic job together,” Toledano acknowledged of the Valentino duo. But the executive said he was convinced from his first meeting that Chiuri could bring a fresh perspective to Dior.

“The fact that she’s a woman, she has this approach of a woman. The eyes of a woman for Dior, for the woman’s side, is important,” he said. “We talked a lot about the women of today, and how women are going to change. She really has a fantastic understanding and an international experience.”

Dior has multiple creative directors, with Kris Van Assche in charge of Dior Homme men’s wear; Victoire de Castellane signing its high-jewelry collections, and her cousin, Cordelia de Castellane, heading up Baby Dior.

As for Chiuri, she has spent almost the entirety of her fashion career at Piccioli’s side. While they had a rough start at the creative helm of Valentino fashion, the duo have won acclaim for plying a chaste, graceful femininity with Renaissance airs, exemplified by their high-neck, fragile gowns. They have typically culled inspiration from Rome, recently branching out with collections referencing Africa and the world of dance. Their fall 2016 couture collection was an ode to Shakespeare, with plenty of literal, ruff-collared Elizabethan allure.

Speaking at WWD’s CEO Summit last year, Chiuri talked about her affinity for high fashion: “It’s a culture of couture. It’s very close with craftsmanship and quality, but also the tradition that’s part of our past, like Italian. In Rome, you feel that really strongly. In any case, it’s very close with the heart, with the idea that the profession is something artistic, something has a human touch, and we really believe that has made a difference in our brand.”

The designers were not new to Valentino when they were appointed creative directors. They had already spent 10 years as accessories designers within the company and were well versed in its history. That put them in a unique position when they were asked to assume creative direction of the entire brand.

Before Valentino, the duo spent 10 years at Fendi, where they met, and were credited with helping to invent the Baguette, one of the first so-called “It” bags of the modern luxury age. Valentino himself personally wooed them to develop accessories based on his briefings for each season. They were named creative directors of accessories at the house when Alessandra Facchinetti was assigned the same title for rtw after Garavani retired, in 2007, and then succeeded her in ready-to-wear in October that year.

In a joint statement on Thursday from Valentino, they underscored that after 25 years “of creative partnership and of professional satisfactions” they are taking the opportunity to continue their “artistic path in an individual way.”

Their fruitful collaboration and the management expertise of Sassi have propelled Valentino into one of the hottest and fastest-growing designer brands. Last year, the firm surpassed the $1 billion revenue threshold, posting a 48 percent jump in sales.

“Everything achieved in these years would have been impossible without Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli’s talent, determination and vision that together have contributed to making Valentino one of the most successful fashion companies,” said Sassi. “A new and exciting phase for the brand begins under the creative leadership of Pierpaolo Piccioli. The brand is strongly determined to continue its affirmation and development process accomplished in the past years.”

Chiuri’s exit came ahead of Valentino SpA’s possible initial public offering, expected to take place not before 2017. Valentino is owned by Qatar’s Mayhoola for Investments, which just bought Balmain and also controls Pal Zileri and has a stake in Anya Hindmarch.

With her move to Paris, Chiuri assumes the design helm at one of the most storied houses in fashion. Successors to the founder — who ignited postwar Paris with his extravagant, full-skirted New Look and whose brief career ended with his death in 1957 — included Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano and Simons, who exited the company last October after the expiration of his initial three-year contract. Ferré, Galliano and Simons all had signature fashion houses, which they juggled with their Dior responsibilities.

Excepting Saint Laurent, who logged only a few seasons before being conscripted into the French army, Simons had the shortest tenure of Dior’s recent designers, sparking debate about the breakneck pace — and constraints on creative freedom — in today’s global, bottom-line-driven fashion industry. He is widely expected to take up the creative direction of Calvin Klein in New York.

Simons succeeded Galliano, who was ousted in March 2011 following racist and anti-Semitic outbursts at a Paris café. The Belgian designer submitted his resignation only weeks before Alber Elbaz was pushed out of Lanvin after a stellar 14-year tenure, ushering in another wave of changes at the highest levels of European fashion.

Following Simons’ exit, Dior studio directors Serge Ruffieux and Lucie Meier, who had worked under the Belgian, stepped up to the plate and headed the studio, earning largely positive reviews for a slate of collections, starting with pre-fall ready-to-wear, spring 2016 couture, fall 2016 ready-to-wear and the resort 2017 collection, paraded at Blenheim Palace, outside of London, on May 31.

On Thursday, Toledano praised the contribution of the two young Swiss designers, noting that rtw designed by them is logging double-digit increases in Dior boutiques and that “clients are very excited” about the fall 2016 couture collection shown earlier this week.

WWD called the duo’s couture effort an example of “a gracefully spectacular exit” and “couture with all preciousness and retro yearning siphoned out, replaced by currency, a refined casual attitude and great style.”

Toledano confirmed that the luxury group controlled by the Arnault family, which spans Dior and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, are “working on a project” to retain the two talents. He declined to reveal specifics.

That Dior signed on Chiuri suggests the house is ready for another shift in fashion direction, given Simons’ predilection for minimalism and futurism, which was an about-face from the retro-tinged glamor Galliano plied during his 15-year tenure.