Maria Grazia Chiuri is thinking green.
In the lead-up to her spring ’20 runway show for Dior on Tuesday, the designer has been delving into the brand’s archives — and, in particular, its rich tradition of floral designs — while trying to imagine how that heritage could be updated to address today’s climate crisis.
Her answer? A collaboration with the Paris-based landscape and urbanism collective Coloco on the set for the show, to be held at the Longchamp race course in Paris. The show will feature 164 trees that will subsequently be replanted at four locations in and around the French capital.
“I asked them, ‘How can we do a set that speaks to the garden in a contemporary way?’” Chiuri told WWD in an exclusive interview in the brand’s temporary design studio overlooking the Seine river. “We have to translate this idea of a garden into concrete action: a support project that can create other gardens in the community.”
Coloco, whose expertise ranges from botanical activism to ecological engineering, was founded on the idea that gardens should be collective endeavors. The Dior show set was conceived as an “inclusive garden” that promotes the need for plant diversity as a response to climate change.
“The tree is an important symbol because it’s about investing in nature. Planting for the future is a positive action,” Chiuri said.
The designer has made activism a signature of her Dior tenure, starting with the “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt in her first show for the house in 2016. Her 2020 cruise show, held in Marrakesh, addressed cultural appropriation through collaborations with a host of guest designers from the African continent and beyond.
The approach has resonated with millennial consumers. In 2018, Dior entered the realm of megabrands, becoming luxury’s sixth player to attain sales in excess of 5 billion euros, joining the ranks of Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, Cartier and Hermès, according to a recent Morgan Stanley report.
But this is the first time that Chiuri is explicitly tackling sustainability, a topic she’s grappled with privately for some time and that’s becoming a growing focus at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the luxury conglomerate that owns Dior.
The group recently bought a stake in the Stella McCartney brand, known for its green credentials, and appointed photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, founder of the Good Planet foundation, as an advisory board member. LVMH is set to unveil further environmental initiatives at a press conference in Paris on Wednesday.
In fact, Chiuri’s statement could not be more timely. The Dior display, the first big show of Paris Fashion Week, coincides with the Global Climate Strike and will come on the heels of the U.N. Climate Action Summit, taking place today, and its debut Youth Climate Summit on Sept. 21.
Chiuri said she was unaware of the timing when she chose the theme for the show. “I know nobody will believe me,” she said, adding that she almost switched course over the summer, as shocking images emerged of raging wildfires in Siberia and the Amazon rain forest.
“The impact was so strong that I don’t know if the audience will understand the position of the brands that are working on it,” she said, noting that activists are demanding decisive action from everyone, from governments to private companies. “I get really stressed about the complexity.”
She added that she worried her motives would be misinterpreted and that critics will question why Dior’s efforts toward sustainability don’t extend to the clothes themselves.
“It’s really impossible to create a sustainable collection overnight. It’s not credible. First of all, what do you mean by sustainable? It’s very complex. It covers a lot of areas: There are chemical products, there is intensive production — there are many different aspects,” Chiuri said.
To better understand the issues at stake, she invited sustainability expert Marco Ricchetti to talk to her teams. The upshot: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, especially for a luxury brand catering to a global audience.
“We understood also that it’s very difficult to work in the direction of sustainability if we don’t work together,” she told WWD. “We know we’ve started, but we don’t know when we’ll arrive. I don’t know that we’ll ever arrive at a point where we can say that we’re OK. I don’t think so. I think all we can do is to try to make things much better.”
Chiuri noted that in addition to pursuing a group-wide commitment to curbing CO2 emissions, among other environmental targets, Dior is making sure its suppliers implement similar objectives. She’s also ramped up the brand’s permanent offer of timeless pieces.
These include the recently launched 30 Montaigne capsule collection of wardrobe essentials, including her signature Bar jackets and tulle skirts, and the Dioriviera beach line featuring Toile de Jouy prints. Another project, Around the World, offers seasonless designs in camouflage and houndstooth patterns.
“This is because even if we are a fashion brand that needs seasonal clothes, we strongly believe in timeless pieces that clients will not need to constantly renew, but keep and store across generations,” Chiuri explained.
Still, she’s aware that in the era of Instagram, such nuanced arguments tend to be drowned out by headlines and bold claims. At the risk of catching some flak, she’s willing to go the slow-and-steady route.
“I know they will criticize me also for this. I don’t doubt it,” she said. “But you have to decide whether you want to stay in your comfort zone and avoid taking risks, or you can try to do something and you take the risk that people [will] criticize you. I’ve decided to take some risks. I hope that people don’t criticize me too much.”
Chiuri certainly burrowed into her theme. The starting point of the collection was Christian Dior’s sister Catherine, who shared his passion for flowers.
A member of the French Resistance, she was deported to a concentration camp in Germany during World War II. She was a horticulturist, then a sales agent at Les Halles wholesale market in Paris and served as the inspiration for Dior’s first fragrance, Miss Dior, in 1947.
At the same time, Chiuri recently designed botanical-themed costumes for the ballet “Utopia,” inspired by the artistic community established on Switzerland’s Monte Verità in the early 20th century. The mountain location served as inspiration for a series of boldly colored dresses in her spring collection.
She also name-checked art projects like the “7,000 Oak Trees” installation by the German artist Joseph Beuys, and the tree-themed exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, alongside books by botanists Marc Jeanson and Gilles Clément, philosopher Emanuele Coccia and climate activist Greta Thunberg.
“I think that she’s really radical, but I think the young generation has to be radical because it’s right,” she said of Thunberg. “All the young are radical. My kids, too, are radical. I think that we have to start a dialogue with them to understand how we can work together and what we can do together.”
In addition to replanting the trees in the show, the benches seating guests will be donated to a nonprofit group called La Réserve des Arts, which resells them to cultural organizations. Chiuri hopes to recycle future show sets as well and to establish a longer-term relationship with Coloco.
“I think it’s a process that we want to continue for the future, but we have to reflect every time [about] what is the best choice and what we can do in reality,” she said.
“I try to do beautiful clothes that people desire and that make them feel good, and I know very well that I have to create also a business, because then I can support all the projects that I want to do. I’m in the system. I’m not outside the system,” she said, adding that she was grateful for the continued support of her Dior bosses.
“They try to understand and support me all the time. They’ve never stopped me. I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes and I will make mistakes in the future, but it’s a process,” she said. “It’s like a garden: The garden is a project for the future, and the important thing is to start step-by-step to build something.”
This story was reported by WWD and originally appeared on WWD.com.