Last week ended what had been 10 days of a highly publicised and successful exhibition, Miss Dior at the Grand Palais. To celebrate the 66th anniversary (I must admit I didn’t know these birthdays were meant to be celebrated!) of the perfume’s launch, the Dior house organised a major display combining historical review and contemporary art commissions. The entrance was free and the exhibition had gained such publicity that numerous visitors attended the show that was, I must say, quite beautiful.
As I said, the interesting aspect of this exposition is that it handled patrimonial questions, presenting the perfume’s history and a few key moments concerning the fashion house, and it highlighted conceptual art installations specially commissioned near 15 contemporary feminine artists reinterpreting the Miss Dior codes.
Various themes organised the space. As an introduction, to somehow justify the reunion between art and fashion within this exhibition, the luxury house evoked Christian Dior’s first job as an art dealer and his strong friendship with some of the pre-war most major artists. Therefore, were presented art works by Bernard Buffet or Marc Chagall and personnel mementos, photographies, letters…that illustrated the future couturier’s close collaboration with the surrealist movement. This space was placed on an upper open floor overlooking the rest of the exhibition: it pushed the visitor to look upon the 15 contemporary art pieces with a different feeling, a sense of continuity…You could then come down a few steps into the exposition and explore what linked the past and the present.
The exhibition also clearly illustrated the powerful influence of flowers on Christian Dior’s work, infused by his childhood Normandie mansion or his Provençal home. An influence illustrated by the couturier’s creations that resembled flower bouquets – objects such as garments and drawings helped demonstrate this effect- and epitomized by the perfume’s scent.
The perfume was imagined by Christian Dior as a loving declaration to his sister, Catherine who had miraculously come back from deportation after she had been arrested for her activities in the French resistance. Miss Dior was launched the same year as, the now iconic 1947 collection: the New Look was accompanied by a new, impertinent scent that depicted the young, beautiful and audacious women the couturier liked to surround himself with: from his assistants to seductive celebrities. The display at that point, presented images of legendary muses such as Marlène Dietrich or Elizabeth Taylor and more recent faces such as Marion Cotillard and Natalie Portman: that was the exhibition’s celebrity moment! Besides this informative and somewhat gently frivolous documentation stood a Bar tailored ensemble, an emblematic symbol of the New Look and, how lovely it looked.
The scenography installed a pertinent dialogue between the house’s archives and contemporary art, the present constantly making reference to the past. The visitor jumped from a 1950s René Gruau illustration to an installation by Ionna Vautrin, from the Bar garment to Sofia Coppola’s advertisement video: the display efficiently mingled history with a contemporary concept. The most stunning example was a delicate 1949 bustier dress by Christian Dior, entirely covered by precious pastel flowers confronted to Raf Simon’s 2012 version of the garment, which he turned into a profound black piece worn by Natalie Portman in the Miss Dior ad, all was united: patrimony, contemporary fashion, publicity and the celebrity factor.
The display was thus regularly punctuated by the art installations imagined by 15 feminine contemporary artists who had all created art works that refered to Miss Dior. Polly Apfelbaum was inspired by the perfume’s hound’s tooth motif to create a colourful carpet, Carole Benzaken reinterpreted the perfume’s bottle into a graceful glass sculpture surrounded by forest landscapes, Alyson Shotz worked on a digital rose and Joanna Vasconcelos designed a gigantic pink bow epitomizing the juvenile spirit of Miss Dior… just to cite a few.
I much appreciated the dialogues between these feminine artists and the perfume. They all managed to convey new questions, new concepts looking at women, the body, nature, history, patterns…A fruitful and complete collaboration.
Obviously, I could not end this article without raising THE question: was this an art display or just a perfect marketing concept? Well, I’d say: both! While visiting the space, you could not ignore that all this was an ode to Dior, an ode to a consumption object, an ode to a bottle of perfume. There was something quite disturbing when you really thought about it…All the panels, although they did provide historical information, did however insist on Miss Dior, the product and some sentences resembled press releases: ‘Her perfume is nothing else than Miss Dior, the one she wears with passion.’, ‘Miss Dior is an olfactory conversation that will continue all the house’s creations, from Diorissimo to J’Adore..’ You had to look at all this with much distance….
However, let’s not just focus on this idea. Art and Fashion have been united for years, decades…it was considered fabulous when Elsa Schiaparelli would team up with Salvador Dali, Gabrielle Chanel with Jean Cocteau…Why should it disturb us today? Because our dear friend marketing has now taken over. We now look at art and fashion collaborations with a suspicious eye: brands obviously do this to gain respectability and as judicious communication tools. Yes, brands now use their patrimony to give sense and profoundness to their commercial concepts…But, why not? If this provides us, the public, with seductive campaigns and exhibitions: why complain?
It would be naive not to remark that the exhibition took place a few weeks before Christmas and its gifts’ shopping, to not consider the impact the show will have on the house’s image. It was definitely a seductive communication operation but how brilliantly coordinated it was! I surely think the Dior house actually clearly assumed that all this was a formidable publicity and I quite appreciate this honest assurance.
If I had only focused on the negative marketing aspects of the exposition, it would have clearly been a real shame for me to miss the beautiful archives the house exceptionally presented and the 15 installations produced by some of design and contemporary art major actors: all this for free! I preferred to please my eyes over controversy!