Fashion’s most exquisite and exclusive creations are often called “fairytale” dresses. There is a good reason for this: storytelling and myth-making are how brands conjure up their halo effect of desirability.
What has changed in the 68 years since Christian Dior founded his atelier is that the story now needs to reach customers living many thousands of miles from the Avenue Montaigne. And so, in pursuit of the pot of gold at the end of the luxury rainbow, Christian Dior travelled from Paris to Tokyo to stage a catwalk show for 1,200 guests at Japan’s national sumo wrestling arena on Thursday night, billed as a celebration of Dior’s historic links with Japan.
But Raf Simons, the 46-year-old Belgian designer who has been at the helm of Dior for two years, put an unexpected twist in the familiar Dior-in-Japan plot with the collection he unveiled in Tokyo. There is no place in Simons’s vision of Dior for cherry blossom or kimonos. In fact, Simons told the Guardian during an interview at his hotel the day before the show, “There is no literal Japanese reference in this collection at all. To do a Japanese collection in Japan… that just isn’t interesting to me. We have moved on from that. The world is not so insular. Women in Japan look to European fashion, and I am fascinated by Japanese fashion. It is that tension that is interesting to me.”
Instead, Simons took Tokyo to stand for a “futuristic, urban environment. When I think about Japan, I think about the fashion activity on the street. The mix of people, the urban energy. A life that happens partly outside. Blade Runner is a strong reference for this collection.”
A Raf Simons collection is never simple to unravel, but you can guarantee a great deal of thought in every detail; it is not too much of a stretch to suppose the black sequins glued to models’ eyelids were a reference to the idea of “capillary dilation” in Ridley Scott’s film – a test, ultimately, of humanity.
The Dior element underpinning this collection was the bar, the exaggerated hip which Christian Dior himself used on a jacket, here translated into waxed, zipped-up coats. The central message which Simons wants the Tokyo event to project is, he said, “to communicate that there is a lot of reality to this brand. That it is not only about clothes for special occasions, that it can be connected to real life – to the weather.” In leather boots and calf-length coats, the Dior models were dressed for the snowstorm that rained down on the catwalk; the sequin polo-necks they wore underneath leant catwalk-worthy glamour. Fair Isle knits were given a graphic, Manga reworking; the Lady Dior bag was supersized – the days when all it needed to hold was lipstick are long gone.
The show was staged on an enormous square catwalk, with an audience seated all around and models criss-crossing the space in all directions, at a clip. As a format for people-watching, it called to mind not the salons of the Avenue Montaigne but the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, an intersection at which the throng of pedestrians traversing in all directions when the traffic stops has become a tourist spectacle and featured in another Tokyo film, Lost In Translation. The phenomenon of Shibuya crossing – urban life as awesome spectacle – fits with a collection which Simons described as “utilitarian glamour”.
The choice of the Kokugikan Sumo stadium served a dual purpose. It physically locates the brand in a venue which references not only Japan’s traditions, but its future: the stadium will host the boxing contests in the 2020 Olympics. But for Simons, the essential appeal was that the cavernous space could be made to feel almost roofless. “Ideally I would have loved to have this show happen outside, in the street,” he said. “This was the closest we could get, an abstraction of that.”
Christian Dior himself was a pioneer of his time, adds Simons. “He was moving over borders, exploring different places in the world.” The couturier’s fascination with a Japanese aesthetic began as a child when his mother, Madeleine – influenced, like many fashionable Parisiennes at the turn of the 20th century, by the oriental pavilions at the Universal Exposition – had the ground floor of the family home decorated with Japanese-style frescoes of white egrets against a blue sky. When Christian became a couturier, Japanese motifs, including cherry blossom embroidery, were a recurring theme. In 1955, French Vogue ran a feature on Dior’s Japanese influences, highlighting a black evening gown with an obi-style belt. That year, dancers from the Azuma Kabuki troupe attended the Paris Dior haute couture show.
The catwalk show, along with a multimedia exhibition about the history of Dior, forms the centrepiece of a Dior charm offensive in Japan. The exhibition takes care to foreground historic ties between Dior and Japan, such as the three bridal outfits the house made for the wedding in 1959 of Princess Michiko; Simone Noir, a senior employee of the Paris haute couture studio, accompanied the dresses to Tokyo. Noir reported back to Paris that when the princess put on the dress, “she had a glowing complexion, scarlet lips, gleaming hair held in a headband. She looked like the heroine of a fairytale.”