Christian Dior was born in 1905 in the small French coastal town of Granville, the son of a wealthy fertilizer manufacturer. His family had high hopes that the young Christian would become a diplomat however Dior was artistic and when he left school in 1928 he received money from his father to open a small art gallery. His gallery sold art by the likes of Pablo Picasso but after a financial blow his father lost control of his company and the young Dior was forced to close his gallery.
From the 1930s to the early 1940s Dior worked with the designer Robert Piguet, until he was enlisted into the army. Having left the army in 1942 Dior joined Lucien Lelong where he and Pierre Balmain were the primary designers. For the duration of the war Lelong dressed the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators, as did the other Paris based ateliers that remained open during the occupation. While her brother dressed Nazi consorts, Dior’s sister Catherine served in the French resistance. After her capture by the Gestapo, Catherine was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She survived the ordeal and was freed in 1945. The first Dior fragrance was dedicated to her.
Dior founded his haute couture empire in 1946 at 30 Avenue Montaigne Paris, backed by wealthy French businessman Marcel Boussac. Together they established a company with a capital of FFr 6million and an 80 strong workforce. Christian Dior was in essence just a vanity project for Monsieur Boussac and as a result Dior was allowed, at that time, an unusually large amount of control in his namesake label.
In his first show Dior introduced his signature shape of the New Look. Consisting of a below calf length full skirt, a much fuller bust than had been in style since the early 1910s and a small cinched waist. The New Look style was a rebuttal to post war fabric restrictions with an average dress using around 20 yards of fabric. The New Look employed many hidden techniques to give its trademark curvaceous silhouette, dresses were lined with percale, bodices were boned in a rigid bustier style, hips were padded and waists were minimized with waspie corsets. Overall the look was the exact opposite to the boxy fabric conserving shapes of the war years. Initially upon its release there were some protestations at the excessive use of fabric, women were also unused to such long skirt lengths with hemlines rising during the war to conserve fabric. During one fashion shoot in a Paris market, models were berated by female stall vendors, however this opposition disappeared with the end of wartime shortages.
Although Dior is often cited as the sole originator of this silhouette, a number of his contemporaries had created a similar shape before the war but with the shutting down of the fashion machine during WWII their designs had in effect been put on hold. Along with Dior, Christóbal Balenciaga, Jacques Fath, and Charles James introduced similar silhouettes for evening wear, however Dior was the only one to make the radical move of introducing such a strong look for daywear. The New Look continued to strongly influence fashion until the swinging 60s and echoes of the signature Dior silhouette would reverberate for decades to come. By 1949 the New Look line alone had made the company a profit of FFr 12.7 million.
The reputation Dior achieved with producing such a polar shift in fashion led to his dictatorship of the fashion industry for the next decade. He was able to introduce a new silhouette bi-annually, dramatically speeding up the rate of change in fashion and sewing the seeds for the rapid moving industry we see today. His constant re-invention forced fashionable women to purchase new wardrobes at a much greater rate than was known previously, spurring on the notion of ‘trends’ in fashion. Every collection included a coat called the ‘Granville’, named after his birthplace and at least one model wore a bunch of his favourite flower, lily of the valley.
Dior also realised the importance of a complete look. Without the correct Dior shoes, gloves and hat the authentic New Look could not be achieved. With this in mind Dior, together with his partner Jacques Rouët, licensed his name to a range of luxury accessories, a move that was heavily criticised by members of the French Chamber of Couture who denounced the move as cheapening the haute couture industry. Despite this, licensing became a profitable move for Dior and the atelier’s lesson was followed by nearly all of the fashion houses.
Dior designed more successful lines throughout the 1950s but none came close to the success or widespread appeal of the New Look. By the atelier’s 10th anniversary in 1957 Dior had sold more than 100,000 garments, he appeared on the front cover of Time magazine on 4th March of that year.
On 23rd October 1957 Christian Dior had a reputed third heart attack and died while holidaying in Italy. Paris socialite and Dior acquaintance Alexis von Rosenberg, Baron de Rédé stated in his memoirs that contemporary rumour had it that Dior succumbed to a heart attack following a ‘strenuous sexual encounter’, other theories include Dior choking on a fish bone or suffering an heart attack after playing a game of cards. No agreement can be made on the subject of the great designer’s death and it continues to spark fierce discussion. What is certain is that by the time of Dior’s untimely death his name had become synonymous with chic luxury and style.
The death of its leader left the atelier in disarray. Rouët considered ceasing the operations but this idea was not well received by the numerous Dior licensees or the French fashion industry, the House of Dior was too important for French financial stability.
In an attempt to stabilise the label Rouët appointed Dior’s head assistant, the 21 year old Yves Saint-Laurent, to artistic director. His first collection resulted in the young designer being hailed as a hero who had saved the luxury house from collapse. Saint Laurent gained confidence from his initial success but then presented a succession of less and less well received collections. His tenure at Dior lasted for only four seasons.
Marc Bohan proved very successful as Saint Laurent’s replacement, defining a new era and new silhouette for Dior, the Slim Look, a more modern and svelte version of Dior’s iconic shape.
In 1978 the Boussac Group filed for bankruptcy and its assets, including Dior, were sold to the Willot Group. After they went into administration, Bernard Arnault and his investment group purchased the Willot Group’s holdings for ‘one symbolic franc’ in 1994. In 1985 Arnault became chairman, CEO and managing director of Christian Dior S.A. On assuming power Arnault drastically altered Dior’s operations.
Arnault's decision to appoint Englishman John Galliano as head designer in 1997 caused a stir in Parisian fashion circles, with Arnault himself saying he would have preferred finding a native designer but that “talent has no nationality”. In a show of support for the new designer Arnault publicly compared him to his illustrious forbear;
“Galliano has a creative talent very close to that of Christian Dior. He has the same extraordinary mixture of romanticism, feminism and modernity that symbolised Monsieur Dior. In all of his creations – his suits, his dresses – one finds similarities to the Dior style.”
When Galliano was given control over Dior advertising at the turn of the new millennium, he sparked a revolution. At the end of the 1990s Dior, along with other luxury manufacturers such as Gucci had started utilising ‘porn chic’ to draw attention to their brands. Galliano was a leading figure in this style of advertising and it became a trend that would escalate until companies such as Ungaro with their ‘Zoophilic’ adverts and the infamous Gucci ‘G’ girl raised a public outcry. It is considered by some that Galliano revolutionised Dior more through his clever advertising strategies than through his designs.
When Galliano was dismissed in 2011 for his drunken, anti-Semitic rant at a couple in a Paris café, specualtion as to who was replace him became the hottest topic in fashion. The role was offered but turned down by Marc Jacobs and in April 2012 the position was given to Raf Simons.
Born in Belgium in 1968 Simons made a dramatic career change from industrial and furniture designer to the world of fashion designer when he launched his own menswear label in 1995. In 2005 he was appointed creative director of Jil Sander where he proceeded to revitalize the label, making it one of fashion's hottest tickets again.
In February 2012, it was announced that Simons would leave Jil Sander and in April he was confirmed as the new creative director of Dior.