If we’re calling fashion exhibitions at museums “blockbusters”, a term coined when Met’s 2011 Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty broke all visitor records at the time, then trailers must be warranted.  Consider this to be a bumper trailer for a bumper exhibition.   Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams at the  Museé Arts Décoratifs is big.  3,000 square metres big.  The biggest fashion exhibition Paris has ever staged and of course the biggest retrospective Dior has ever seen, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the house.  It’s not quite enough just to scroll through the pictures because the scale of the exhibition is such that requires in-depth and multiple viewing to really grasp everything you’re seeing.  Co-curators Florence Muller and Olivier Gabet have succeeded in amassing a vast amount of artefacts – the clothes of course taking centre stage with  over 300 haute couture frocks on show, in addition to sketches, photographs, hats, shoes, bags, jewellery that complete the Dior megabrand universe that was put in motion very soon after Christian Dior debuted his New Look in 1947.   And add to that, the paintings, furniture and objets d’art, the Dior archives are given an enriched contextual background.

We begin with a room that charts the making of Christian Dior as a young man, through letters, photographs, video clips and trinkets, all compiling a a visual digest of a man who grew up in Granville, and immersed himself in the world of avant garde art in the roaring twenties in Paris.  In fact, that’s the main starting point of the exhibition, where a Salvador Dali bust confronts you alongside a photographic recreation of the progressive art gallery, Christian Dior ran in Paris with his friend Jacques Bonjean, exhibiting works by the likes of Calder, Man Ray and Giacometti.  In turn those artists also attended Christian Dior’s fashion debut in 1947, eager to see what this man of eclectic and on-point artistic taste would do for what was then a down-and-out fashion industry.  The point of colliding Dior with Dali is that whilst they both pushed boundaries in their respective fields, they would also share tastes for something as out-moded as art nouveau.  The onus of being a “revolutionary” is a bit of a misnomer.  In the introduction to the accompanying catalogue, Dior is described as seeing himself as a reactionary, and by bringing his romantic and dreamer influences from his youth to his work as a fashion designer, it was a reaction to wartime frugality that was incidentally innovative.

One of the oldest pieces on show in the exhibition – the Diablesse dress from the fall/winter 1947 collection, the second after Dior’s debut

In the next room, the iconic imagery of Dior is brought to life with images such as Richard Avedon’s 1955 Harper’s Bazaar photograph of Dovima and an elephant, fading in and out on a screen, to reveal the original black velvet dress adorned with a white sash.  This is where Nathalie Crinièr’s scenography design really comes into play.  Rarities such as a sumptuous dress, constructed with seven layers of silk, net and organza, created for Princess Margaret in 1951 are also on display, loaned from the Museum of London, representative of the significant and slightly controversial relationship between a French couturier and a British royal (it was an unwritten rule that royal women should patronise British fashion houses).

Dior’s affinity with artists – both contemporary and historical – are further underlined in the work of successors, who picked up on those inspirations of Christian Dior, when he died in 1957 of a heart attack.  Whilst Monsieur Dior might have ventured to a retrospective exhibition on the Ballets Russes at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 1939, decades later, John Galliano would create his outfit for Shéhérazade in his Opera Garnier collection in 1998.  It is here that you discover that the works of all of Christian Dior’s successors are given equal billing, which is a real strongpoint of the retrospective.  You have Gianfranco Ferré’s 1995 couture interpretation of Cézanne’s harlequin character as well as Marc Bohan’s 1984 take on Jackson Pollock’s paint splatterings.  And of course more recently, Raf Simons’ collaboration with Sterling Ruby on a series of couture dresses that pitted shadowy paintings with printed satin.

The impressive visual onslaught begins to build, as we enter a winding room dubbed, “Colorama” – a rainbow gradiated arrangement of dresses, shoes, hats, bags, perfume bottles and sketches.  It’s a technicolour representation of the world that Christian Dior set into motion quite rapidly, with his agreement to begin licensing out the Dior name around the world and the creation of Miss Dior perfume as early as 1947.  Dior was arguably the first mega fashion maison that became a globally recognised household name through these enterprises.

All roads lead back to Paris, as two fur ensembles created by Frédéric Castet as a tribute to Paris monuments in 1988 are on display alongside a vitrine of robe noir.  Not long after Dior showed his New Look, the House of Dior accounted for half of France’s haute couture exports and it revived Paris as the beating centre of fashion.

Just outside of Paris, Versailles comes calling as 18th century rococo is evident throughout Dior’s output.  Christian Dior’s own Trianon gowns recalled the pannier dresses of the eighteenth century as did Raf Simons’ fall 2014 couture collection.  Those colours dubbed by Monsieur Dior as “Marie Antoinette blue”, “dauphin green” and “Bertin pink” (named after the milliner to Marie Antoinette) crop up, time and time again.  John Galliano’s fall/winter 2004 moiré bustier gown with gold embroidery is another standout piece with its exacting corset contrasted with a rebellious draped bustle of gold embroidery.   A portrait of the Duchesse de Polignac anchors this Petit Trianon passage, where decadence and opulence are indulged upon.

The thematic catalogue of inspirations continues into a global journey where you can quibble with the modern day catcalls of cultural appropriation.  This is where “impressions” of China, Japan, Spain and Africa are formed by extreme abstraction.  From Christian Dior’s 1955 silk brocade tunic and skirt made for the Duchess of Windsor to John Galliano’s epic spring summer 2003 haute couture collection to Maria Grazia Chiuri’s sakura embroidered dresses for a special haute couture redux show in Tokyo in April – chinoiserie and japanaiserie are on display in abundance.  Travelling in the mind spans from Ancient Egypt artefacts to Goya’s depiction of flamenco to Masai tribe masks, eliciting interpretations of these cultures, and what strikes you is how different the interpretations are, depending on the creative director at helm.

Dior’s love of flowers is of course well-documented.  “After woman, flowers are the most lovely things god has given the world,” said the couturier, who would go on to create his flower women with corolla-shaped skirts and calyx-esque bodies.  An intricate paper flower installation created by Barcelona-based paper artists Wanda forms the backdrop to the keen gardeners of Dior, who have all taken Christian Dior’s original love of nature and created their own creations in bloom.  A beautiful Monet hangs on the wall as a reminder of the impressionistic approach Christian Dior and his successors took towards interpreting flowers as seen in a Yves Saint Laurent dip dyed tulip dress, in Raf Simons’ haute couture pieces for Dior that focused on abstracted floral embroidery and Maria Grazia Chiuri’s enchanted garden gowns of embroidered tulle.

On the opposite side of the museum (all of the above was only half of the exhibition…), this is where the physical height of the museum is used to superb effect.  A vast display of iterations of Dior’s New Look – specifically, the Bar jacket – that towers over you like a monument of iconoclastic fashion with its rigorous wasp-wasited cut, often paired with a skirt that celebrated an excess of fabric.  The “Bars” of every decade don’t waver too far from this undulating silhouette and it’s that continuity, which is the main takeaway from the exhibition.

Galleries dedicated to the creative directors that helmed the house after Christian Dior’s death – Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and presently, Maria Grazia Chiuri – also seek to emphasise the way Dior has moved through the decades and through stylistic time epochs, as well as being reactions to each predecessor.  Saint Laurent’s youthquake-fuelled radicalism (well, radical in the context of haute couture) was followed up by a more polite and steady offering from Bohan.  Ferré’s Italian flamboyance came to shake things up at the house, quickly followed by the theatrics of British enfant terrible Galliano.  And then Raf Simons came to offer his clean break from the past, wiping the slate with his purist vision.  And finally, Grazia Chiuri – the first female to steer the Dior ship – into an ever fractured fashion landscape where it’s not quite enough to just simply make pretty clothes.  You need to stand for something too, and her “women for women” messaging does just that.

Yves Saint Laurent for Dior

Marc Bohan for Dior

Gianfranco Ferré for Dior

John Galliano for Dior

Raf Simons for Dior

Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior

A hall of toiles (where artisans from the Dior atelier will be demonstrating their skills throughout the exhibition) and an illuminated linear display of the Dior “Allure” all seek to impress upon you that above any one creative director’s vision, the spirit of the house must always be present and codes adhered to.  The changes to the fundamental silhouette from decade to decade, illustrated in a neon-tubed line-up of tailored ensembles, appear to be subtle.

By the time you hit the incredible room of the Dior Ball, dedicated to the gowns that have graced many a star over the years and Christian Dior’s own love of a lavish soirée, you give up looking at captions.  Most of the dresses are so recognisable and iconic in their own right that they stand twenty metres above you, defying the need for labels.  Like John Galliano’s sphinx line dress from his Egyptian collection in 2004, which sits on top of yet another height-driven display.  Other instant stand-outs include Christian Dior’s 1949 Junon gown with its skirt of sequinned ombréed petals and then Maria Grazia Chiuri’s re-interpretion of that gown in diaphanous tulle.

This is the room where I was lucky enough to witness at a press preview without a single person in it.  Maybe a late-night opening of the museum at an unsociable hour might yield the same thing.  I stood there for at least half an hour, taking in the looped video projection, that takes this illuminated nave from day to night, basking these gowns in sunrise, dusk and midnight hues.  The experience was, and I’m going to cheese it up here, moving.  Some might accuse the exhibition of employing Disney-fication tactics but for the non-fashion onlooker, this sort of atmospheric razz-ma-tazz is what is required, to well and truly animate these dresses and make them seem tantalising to the uninitiated.  This room is the culmination point of an exhibition that will surely encourage future fashion enthusiasts, as it dazzles the young to sketch, sew and yes, dream.

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams open at Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris until 7th January 2018

I’m loathe to use buzzwords.  Especially ones preceded by a hash sign #.  “Woke” is one of those dreaded words, not so much because of its meaning and intentions but more to do with the general implications of its usage.  Its very grammatical structure implies that somehow the people that aren’t crowing about their “wokeness” online are asleep, drugged by political and social lethargy.  And where it is used as a hashtag, one’s very acknowledgement of “wokeness” seems to dent the noble cause they purport to protest and fight for.

However, it is a useful bit of vernacular when looking at a new generation of designers, graduating from their embattled MA courses, from which they emerge into the world, saddled with an increased amount of debt and most probably riddled with uncertainty as to whether they can make it in an ever-tough industry.  Being “woke” is what will differentiate these designers from the ones that simply want to make pretty clothes.  In fact, aesthetically pleasing things may not be enough to entice a younger generation of consumers who prioritise experiences over stuff.

And so on the day the extraordinary election in the UK played out, 48 MA students from the Royal College of Art under the tutelage of Zowie Broach made their debut through a combination of performance, choreography and installation, in a stand-out graduate show that utilised both a traditional catwalk show structure as well as that of an art gallery.  “It is fitting that the show takes place at the very moment when the UK decides on its future Government,” said Broach in the introductory notes.  “Since the UK voted to leave the EU last June, students have been asking urgent questions about owning their own culture that haven’t been asked for generations.  They have been pushed to ask deeper questions about fashion within the current political climate and its power to effect change in this unsettling landscape.”

From the overtly political to personal identity issues to the questioning of gender archetypes and materials, this cohort of students had idealised ideas in spades.  And they ranged in their final resolution of commercial viability, from clothes you could see making their way onto a shop rail to more visually surreal results.  That’s how the show seemed to oscillate from the down-to-earth to the fantastical.  Zahra Hosseini kicked proceedings off with a sobering display of the Muslim call to prayer.  A leather-trimmed black chador robe, unfolded to form a prayer mat, like an origami fortune teller.  Downstairs in the basement Hosseini’s Iranian compatriot Maryam Navasaz also drew from her Islamic identity, with her exaggerated head pieces sitting zen in a verdant courtyard garden.  At a time when feelings of fear and anxiety have sadly once again been stoked up around extreme Islam, both Hosseini and Navasaz felt pertinent in their objectives.

Zahra Hosseini, Womenswear


Maryam Navasaz, Womenswear Millinery


More topical moments came when Bianca Saunders’ black men wandered out in clothes that sought to define “contemporary black masculinity”.  Bathed in a pink light, one central figure in a do-rag and little else was lifted up by the others like a baptism of sorts.  The references to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight were deliberate and were instantly felt.  Saunders hopes to start her own label soon.  Another voice that adds yet another dimension to black masculinity is certainly more than welcome.  Ellie Rousseau’s rave-inspired oversized knits and Manchester-proud garb came trooping out with signage that was bound to get an election night crowd going.  “Corbyn In, Tories Out”, “Save our Future” and “Peace for MCR” were met with vehement cheers.   Another menswear knitwear designer, Jennifer Koch chose to address her own personal gripes about Chinese identity with a blinged out sportswear collection, doused in fortune cookies and lucky red packets.  As a mother of a biracial “hafu”, the statement “You look more Asian today” was bound to resonate.

Bianca Saunders, Menswear


Ellie Rousseau, Menswear Knitwear


Jennifer Koch, Menswear Knitwear


Designers that chose to confront the real and the mundane also found their calling in knitwear (a particular strong suit of the RCA MA graduates).  Alison Hope Murray exploited the stretchy property of her monochromatic knits to express a state of extreme comfort – so much so that one model can feel comfortable in her own topless skin.  Pippa Harries‘ knitwear was more rigorous with its nods to traditional silhouettes but in peeling back a pair of checked trousers with ciggy in mouth and a leek in hand, it revealed a facet of odd domesticity that was intriguing.

Alison Hope Murray, Womenswear Knitwear


Pippa Harries, Womenswear Knitwear


When things took a more fantastical turn, they still held true to that personal quest for answers to questions consistently asked in culture at large.  Alternative ideas of female empowerment – another misused buzzword – were explored by Fabian Kis Juhasz, and his cartoonish horror film archetypes with daggers in their feet and blood drenched tulle.  Women as maximal flora/fauna was expressed in Rose Frances Danford-Phillips‘ joyous explosion of nature-driven embroidery and feathers.  And to flip that gender exploration, Sophie Condron‘s pastel-kitsch installation of pink satin, rhinestones and nan’s house soft furnishings, transposed onto her menswear collection made for heady viewing.

Fabian Kis-Juhhasz, Womenswear


Rose Frances Danford-Philips, Womenswear Knitwear


Sophie Condren, Menswear


Confronting a rocky future ahead hasn’t killed these designers’ ability to dream big.  There were a few that unashamedly tapped into the aesthetics of the futuristic convincingly.  Aubrey Wang is hoping to set up a collective of engineers, artists and tech heads – an ambition, which was reflected in her retro sci-fi cast of characters, welding giant mobiles and encased in Mars Attacks glass bubbles.  Han Kim pieced together plastic feathers of candy stripes and polka dots in a CMYK colour palette, in complex bird-like configurations on the body.  And Colin Horgan‘s woman stood on the precipice of danger, in draped bands of holographic and black patent, that elongate the body into female figures of strength such as Lightning from my own Saturday night childhood TV staple, Gladiators and Nina Williams from the video game Tekken.  For me, they were all a welcome dismissal of a pervasive minimalism that has dominated fashion MA shows of recent years.

Aubrey Wang, Womenswear


Han Kim, Womenswear


Colin Horgan, Womenswear


The most memorable of RCA grads have often surprised with their interpretation of materials or garment categories.  Their millinery pathway once again excelled with Jing Tan‘s surreal presentation of strange fruit and flower bouquet heads atop conservative looking suited men.  We got to experience the top of the world with Ting Ting Zhang‘s physical iCloud of computer-programmed knitted hats, which utilises the same technology as Nike’s FlyKnit.  She plans to set up her own label to bring her headfuls of knitted data to the world.  Why?  “Because they are slogans, they are full of spirits, they are forever on the top. And of course, they are indeed cute!”  Quite.

Jing Tan, Menswear Millinery


Tingting Zhang, Womenswear Millinery


In between the two runway shows, we were invited to explore the installations that also yielded new exploration into the possibilities of materials on the body.  Take Abbie Stirrup’s “tailored gunge”, which had models dripping in moulded neon silicone and realtime applied gunge.  Stirrup is proposing the idea that these second skins could perhaps enrich us spiritually or even one day nourish us physically.  It’s not too far off the mark if vitamin drip bags take on a wearable form.  Louis Anderson-Bythell seems set to open up a materials lab with his collection of self-shrinking, elastomer garments, moulded and cast into clothing that appears to be alive.  His work points to the fact that true exploration of the technologically new in mainstream fashion is still largely absent.  “Fashion is always quick to adopt an image, slower to adopt any new mechanism. Maybe this will change.”

Abbie Stirrup, Womenswear


Louis Patric Alderson-Bythell, Womenswear


Finally, you have Kira Goodey‘s intricate shoes that range from more ready-to-wear friendly leather specimens to a full-on slashed PVC bodysuit, printed with a blur of Into the Void-esque neon lights from her recent travels to Tokyo.  She like all her contemporaries, is hopeful for change.  “We are on the brink of a paradigm shift in terms of the way fashion is designed, manufactured and sold – one that will usurp the ready-to-wear mass produced culture currently in place.  This movement will be much more grassroots and empowering to smaller manufacturers.”

Collectively, this was a graduate showcase that left you with a sense of optimism for fashion’s future – woke and ready to wake this industry up with their ideas.  On Alison Hope Murray’s own website, her personal summary of the RCA show says it best.  “Just because we can’t buy a house. Doesn’t mean we won’t work something else out for ourselves.  Stay tuned, we’ll probably Facebook Live the whole thing.”  

Kira Goodey, Footwear

I challenge you to find someone who is more enthusiastic about tufts wool “tops” (the stuff that a sheep’s fleece is processed into before it gets spun into yarn) than Laura Lusuardi, the longtime global fashion director of Max Mara.  At the launch of Max Mara’s Woolmark collection at their Old Bond Street store a fortnight ago, Lusuardi thrusted a wad of super soft tops in my hands, urging me to feel it.  “There are 71 million sheep versus 21 million people!” she exclaimed.  “The ingredients of the wool is the lovely grass and the Australian sun – the sheep run free and it makes the wool super soft.”  Lusuardi of course knows a thing or two about a flock of sheep.  Max Mara is of course famed for their iconic camel coat but whether it’s camel, cashmere or Merino wool, Lusuardi’s wealth of knowledge of the various fibres, yarn weights and fabrication possibilities is vast.  And with that expertise, Max Mara have come up with a way of replicating the look of denim with its traditional 3/1 weave, but instead of cotton, they have used 100% Merino wool to showcase the lighter side to this natural fibre.

“Wool is a fibre that is most versatile,” said Lusuardi.  “You can have it light, medium and very heavy.  Wool is very easy to shape.  This wool-denim is new because it’s so fluid.”  Indeed, scrunch the fabric in your hands and it is far more malleable than traditional cotton denim and once released, it instantly returns to an unwrinkled state.  Lusuardi also pointed out the various examples of Max Mara that utilise wool – mixed with lycra or silk for instance – to create fabrics that feel like anything but wool, and are also suitable for the summer season with its breathable qualities.

On one of the hottest day of the year in London, I donned the double breasted jacket and matching trousers from the wool denim collection, into town (on the tube) and emerged remarkably perspiration-free.  And comfort aside, this also happens to be the first trouser suit in my wardrobe (yes, I triple checked just to be sure).  Max Mara’s ability to master wardrobe cornerstones makes the ensemble an easy one to wear and to mix in with some of my more adventurous pieces.  Lusuardi often photographs women wearing Max Mara on the street with her phone.  How does she envisage this collection being worn?  “With personality!  It’s exactly what I believe in it.  You can customise it as you wish.  Max Mara clothes aren’t overpowering and so you can wear it as you want.”  Don’t mind if I do…

Max Mara double breasted wool-denim jacket and trousers worn with Marques Almeida corset, Uniqlo shirt and Malone Souliers sandals

Max Mara x Woolmark wool-denim dress worn with Marques Almeida jeans, Coach shoes and Delada shirt

This post is sponsored by Max Mara

>> It could be the fact that I’ve spent more time at home, camped out on the sofa with Nico permanently attached to my chest and a roster of distractions on Apple TV.  I’ve somehow found myself reliving the decade of the Space Race by rewatching Mad Men (I like to shuffle play the episodes in non chronological order just to prove to myself that the writing of that show reigns supreme), binging on the documentary series The Kennedy Files, along with its declarations of “We choose to go to the Moon” and also catching the brilliant film Hidden Figures, about the role of African-American mathematicians at NASA, when I was flying to Los Angeles.  It’s not so much the intricate science of space but more the idea of getting there and unravelling the mystery of the skies beyond that makes that 1960s journey of reaching this new frontier so compelling.     Type “space collage” into Google Image and you’ll find a whole raft of Photoshopped imaginations of space that are also tinged with the era Kennedy vs. Khrushchev with a litany of dreamscapes, depicting galaxies colliding with retro pool scenes and cadillacs.  Irish artist Steven Quinn is a primary instigator of these weird but wonderful images that draw your eye into a world where outer space feels that bit more tangible.

It’s no wonder then that Americana dreamer Stuart Vevers chose to blast off into space for Coach, with a comprehensive collection of jackets, sweatshirts, tees, bags and trinkets that have been embellished with space age nostalgia.  Coach’s stable of shearling, varsity and leather jackets and Dinky and Saddle bags have been patched up with space motifs that might have lured the wide-eyed wannabe astronauts, watching the Moon landing in 1969.  “There’s something about the time of the Space Program that just gives this feeling of possibility,” says Vevers about the collection.  “The space references, rockets and planets are symbolic of a moment of ultimate American optimism and togetherness.”  Two things that seem woefully lacking right now, which is probably why the gung-ho patriotism and enthusiasm of those space missions feel somewhat comforting to watch.  And even more of a trip to wear.

 Coach Space sweatshirt and Gotham Tote worn with ShuShu Tong poloneck and Serena Bute tracksuit bottoms 

Coach Space varsity jacket and bad worn with Miu Miu skirt

Coach Space trucker jacket worn with ASOS shirt, SomewherexNowhere dress and Christopher Kane sunglasses

Coach Space sweatshirt and purse worn with Blue Roses by Ed Meadham sleeves and Jonathan Saunders slip 

Coach Space shearling jacket and Dylan bag worn with Balenciaga vest and MYOB trousers

All collages by Steven Quinn

This post is part of an on-going partnership with Coach