For a dress to be successful, you need to have an idea of how it will move in real life.
(Christian Dior, "Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art of Tokyo)
It can be said that fate, whether it exists at all, can play mischievous tricks on people. In 1919, a young boy of fourteen years old went to a palm reader to have his future read. The palm reader told him, “You will find yourself short of funds, but women will bring you luck and it is thanks to them that you will succeed." ("Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art of Tokyo) Twenty-three years later, beyond his expectation, the man, then 37, found himself working alongside one of France’s distinguished designers, Pierre Balmain. Soon after, he founded his own studio House of Dior on December 16, 1946 at 30 Avenue Montaigne, Paris. Here, he debuted his first dress collection “The New Look” in 1947, which was met with tremendous success.
The man is no other than the celebrated designer Christian Dior. An explosive retrospective of the designer’s colorful life and more than seventy-five years of unprecedented creations is now being showcased at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Tokyo until May 28th this year. In honor of the House of Dior’s 70th anniversary, “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams" was first presented at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris in 2017, then in London, Shanghai, Chengdu, Doha and New York. The stupendous exhibition, encompassing two floors and twenty-two themes, is an enchanting scenographic narrative that journeys in time through several rooms of aesthetically manicured sets, wonderfully curated by Florence Müller and architect Shohei Shigematsu from the OMA agency in New York.
Throughout the exhilarating visit, we learn of Dior’s ascension to fame, starting with his early life in Granville, coast of Normandy where he was born in 1905. At age five, he and his family moved to Paris. Although he was the son of a wealthy fertilizer manufacturer, Dior faced financial and emotional struggles by the impact of the Great Depression in 1929, the death of his mother and brother, and the crumble of his father's business. Devastated, he was forced to shut down the art gallery he had set up through his father’s aid. After he was drafted to military service in 1940, Dior rebounded to his passion in fashion. As he himself once said, "it is unforgivable to do what one doesn't love, especially if one succeeds.”
We enter the first introductory room staging Dior’s epoch-making line The New Look. Dresses, suit ensembles, hats and shoes parade in black and white. The style featured rounded shoulders, tightly secured waists, prominent hiplines, full skirts (such as “Corolle”) and pencil skirts (such as “En Huit”). The mode accentuated ultra-femininity and glamor in women’s fashion. The “Bar” suit on display became The New Look’s symbolic wardrobe associating the female line with flowers. Despite being bombarded by protests against the extravagant appearance amidst the air of austerity after the war, Dior’s radical alternative to somber post-war clothing excited modern women who took no hesitation to revolutionize their fashion.
From an obscure, minimally lit room, the next section Dior and Japan abruptly opens to brilliance, color, and undulating lines flowing around the walls and floor basked in light effects. Hereon, we step into Dior’s vivacious world marked by opulence, elegance, swirling curves, nature motifs and colors. It is believed that Dior was the first Western house to be installed in Japan. At an early age, Dior had already manifested sheer admiration for Japanese things. His memoirs relate how sunshine, birds, flowers and pagodas surrounding his family home in Granville fascinated him. He remarked,
Large panels imitating Ukiyo-e prints adorned the entire staircase. Utamaro and Hokusai spread out like my Sistine Chapel. I remember staring at it for hours.
(Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art of Tokyo)
In 1953, Daimaru and Kanebo had signed agreements for his haute couture reproductions. A Dior runway show was also inaugurated at the Imperial Hotel introducing Japanese models. The Rashomon coat and the Utamaro ensemble using brocade fabric from Tatsumura Textile, a long-established brand in Kyoto, were created in 1954 and stand out in the exhibition. The enchanting Suzurka-San Coat takes a solo revolving stage, garnered with stylized prints of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa”. Japanese motifs of cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, fans, and carps wrapped in kimonos fill the room, together with photographs, magazine covers and clippings, and other memorabilia recording Dior’s encounters with Japan. Photographer Yuriko Takagi captures images of Dior’s fashion line scattered throughout the show.
During the latter and post-years of Dior’s life, other designers stepped forward to manage the House of Dior. In 1955, Yves Saint Laurent, then only 19 years old, became Dior’s design assistant and eventually the House director after Dior suffered a fatal heart attack in 1957. The succeeding “heirs” to Dior’s fashion house heritage are presented in the The Dior Legacy section with amazing collection line-ups by Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and the first female creative director at Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri. Japanese-inspired hanging noren-like fabric panels project large-scale photographs by Takagi.
One of the most charming displays illuminate in Miss Dior’s Garden, encapsulating Dior’s true passion for gardening and nature. The picturesque garden in his Normandy home was the designer’s daily inspiration for sketching his designs. The glittering exhibition room is designed like a dream-like winding garden pathway with hanging cloud-like forms. The colorful mannequins reflect on mirrored floors resembling ponds in a Japanese traditional garden. The wooden structure is wrapped in backlit Tenjiku fabric and Awagami washi paperwork by artist Ayumi Shibata. We find the emblematic 1949 Miss Dior dress of embroidered flowers that triggered Dior’s first fragrance.
Another room emanating the Japanese ambience is Dior Around the World, decorated with jaw-dropping printed Japanese lanterns of varied sizes, some echoing the garment prints themselves. Dress patterns by Dior designers reveal universal themes, such as African ornamental art ( John Galliano and Raf Simons), Maharajah embroideries (Gianfranco Ferré), and a Greco-Roman tunic (Maria Grazia Chiuri). The set, designed by Shigematsu, keeps the visitor encircling round and round the dynamic space, itself appearing like the inside of an enormous lantern. Digitally illustrated on some of the lanterns and three-dimensional walls are maps of the world, signifying the Dior brand’s extensive global spread as early as 1948.
Visitors will surely be mesmerized by the high-ceiling room The Dior Ateliers, filled with white toiles, embodying the essence of Dior’s fashion studio. Precise supervision of sketches to technical details, embroidery, pleats, draping and accessorizing are visualized by astounding wall-to-wall dressmaker mannequins echoing the painstaking efforts shed to achieve the most perfect design.
From angelic white, the scene returns to rainbow colors in Colorama, demonstrating a multi-color spectrum of hats, shoes, jewelry, handbags, makeup, perfumes, and robed mannequins. Accompanying the artistic presentation are 1,000 Dior scarves created by famous Malagasy artist Joël Andrianomearisoa.
A similar presentation is seen in the Lady Dior tunnel-like red room. The iconic Lady Dior handbag, launched in 1995, and in honor of the late Princess Diana, served as a model of wearable art crafted in undeniable beauty and perfection. Throughout the years, the design has been reinvented by numerous international artists who have incorporated sculptural art, accessories, and light and illusional effects into the bag as the look of a new era.
No one can miss a Dior runway gala without its procession of classic gowns. In Stars in Dior and J’adore, the ceiling glimmers like a constellation of stars spotlighting gowns worn by film stars and renowned figures, such as Grace Kelly, Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, and the more recent Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence and Charlize Theron, among others.
Finally, the exhibition’s most lavish set design, The Dior Ball, bisects a grand slope of mannequins in sunken boxes that seem to climb up to the ceiling, thanks to its mirror technique. Viewers can gaze at the spectacle flickering alternating lights and patterns from below or above a bridge. Accompanied by dramatic music, the theatre-like pageant represents everything that Christian Dior had imagined and endeavored in making himself, perhaps, the most valuable visionary in the fashion industry.
In Dior’s words:
Everything I know, see or hear, everything in my life, turns into dresses.
(“Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art of Tokyo)