On the Runway: Dior in the Desert

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On the Runway: Dior in the Desert

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Vanessa Friedman

Vanessa Friedman

ON THE RUNWAY

When it comes to shows, fashion loves a venue metaphor: museums, art galleries, palatial chateaus — buildings and exotic destinations of historic and cultural value to which only it has entree, the better to suggest the extraordinary values brands hope will be associated with their collections.

This is never more true than during the cruise collections, which have become something of an arms race to see which name can go further, access the more inaccessible, or otherwise demonstrate their power and exquisite taste. A roll call of past locales, for example, would include: Blenheim Palace and Westminster Abbey in England, Paseo del Prado (Havana’s main thoroughfare), and the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Among others.

So what does it say that Dior unveiled the first cruise collection by its artistic director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, in the desert? To be specific: in the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve in the Santa Monica Mountains in California, where it was the first brand to ever have a show?

Possibly not what Dior intended.

To many, after all, the idea of wandering in the desert — even catwalking in the desert, for that matter — is inextricably entwined with the idea of expulsion: being forced away from one’s home and left to fend for oneself until a new sanctuary is found (see: Exodus). Given the mixed reactions to Ms. Chiuri’s collections thus far, from the fencing looks of her ready-to-wear debut to the navy workwear last season (which seemed to give most of her audience the blues), it was hard not to wonder if perhaps the choice of location was meant as a subtle suggestion that this was her own time in the wilderness.

The designer, however, would beg to differ.

“I was thinking about women, and nature,” Ms. Chiuri said in a phone call before the event. (Most brands fly members of the press to their far-flung cruise shows, acknowledging that traveling for what is essentially a 20-minute experience does not really make sense. But The New York Times does not accept press trips, so I had this experience remotely, at my computer.)

She said the company’s executives had told her they wanted to hold the show in Los Angeles — why, she was not sure. But odds are, I would guess, it was because they were actually supposed to have a cruise show in Los Angeles two years ago, under the previous artistic director Raf Simons, but it was switched unexpectedly to the south of France, and this was the rain check. So from there she had thought of the desert, because “most people, when they think of L.A., think of Hollywood and celebrities, but there is another element to this city, which is the way you live in contact with the outdoors.”

Then Ms. Chiuri said, apropos of the place (which required guests to be shuttled-in and wear flat shoes, and came complete with Dior Sauvage hot air balloons) but also the reactions to her work thus far: “People can like it or not like it, and I respect their opinions, but it’s not possible to please everyone. I do what I feel is right for me.”

What is right for her when it comes to Dior has been, in part, heavy on grab-bag feminism, and the cruise show on Thursday was no exception; Ms. Chiuri name-checked Georgia O’Keeffe in her notes as well as Clarissa Pinkola Estés, author of “Women Who Run With the Wolves” (likewise an inspiration for Ms. Chiuri’s debut), the Willendorf Venus, and Vicki Noble, author of “Shakti Women: Feeling Our Fire, Healing Our World.” (Ms. Noble was due to be in the audience, along with Charlize Theron, Nick Jonas and Rihanna.) Also the Lascaux cave paintings and a Dior collection from 1951.

Interactive Feature | The Open Thread Fashion Newsletter A look from across The New York Times at the forces that shape the dress codes we share, with Vanessa Friedman as your personal shopper. Sent weekly.

All of which translated as more than 60 looks in earthy, sunset tones of brown, burnt umber, ocher, black and white, most topped by flat-brimmed parson’s hats in a nod to O’Keeffe, and finished with leather boots, midcalf sneaker boots or sandals. The entrance to the nature preserve may have been in Calabasas, which is Kardashian territory, but these were not Kardashian clothes.

Instead, there were fluid day coats hand-painted with a new kind of tarot, courtesy of Ms. Noble; sheer lingerie-topped ball gowns of the kind Ms. Chiuri loves; elaborately embroidered denim; fringe and feathers and beading. There were simple shirtwaist dresses falling to midcalf and belted with thin strips of leather at the waist, smudgy Dust Bowl tartans, serape furs, suede and printed Bar jackets and black leather motorcycle jackets. The silhouette was loose, and walking easy. That freedom to stride may be, in fact, the most feminist part of Ms. Chiuri’s Dior. Less so the visible Christian Dior-banded undies.

While Ms. Chiuri can be a little overliteral in her approach to a theme, which often seems to be both her starting point and her end point — at times during the livestream I felt a bit as if I was watching an episode of Pocahontas meets “Westworld” — at least there were no message tees (though there were buffalo: home on the skirts, if not the range). Instead, under the wide open skies, there were more ideas.

The point, Ms. Chiuri had said earlier, was to provide as many different elements as possible of a wardrobe that could be mixed and matched by the individual as she saw fit.

“Women,” Ms. Chiuri said, “should be able to define themselves.” In the face of very heavy heritage and expectations, she is trying.

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