28. 2. 2020

Chiuri & Chicago: a conversation

by Ana Murcho


“What if Women Ruled the World?” It was this question, launched by iconic American artist Judy Chicago, that served as motto for Dior’s spring/summer 2020 Haute Couture presentation. The phrase could be read in several elements that gave life to the creative vision of Maria Grazia Chiuri, who recovers, to the fashion arena, one of the central themes of the 21st century: feminism.

In late January, the gardens of the Musée Rodin, in Paris, were occupied by a gigantic white structure - about 50 feet high - that served as the stage for the presentation of Dior’s spring/summer 2020 Haute Couture collection. Appropriately dubbed ‘The Famale Divine’, the installation was specially designed by Judy Chicago, emblematic American artist who, throughout an extensive and successful career, has fought for female emancipation. It is, first of all, a sanctuary, because it represents a tribute to all women and their ancestral power - it’s not by chance that it is inspired by the figure of a goddess that Chicago designed in the 1970s but never built. Perhaps that is why the motto for this season came from the title of a MoMa exhibition, in 1994, by Chicago herself: “What if Women Ruled the World?” It was this issue that served as a guiding thread for the creative process of Maria Grazia Chiuri, creative director of the French maison, who showed evening dresses that wink at women’s tunics in Ancient Greec (peplos), in the distant year of 500 BC, drapes that follow the curves of the body, and jackets whose cut caresses the silhouette. It is an allure of timeless modernity, which mixes classic representations of the deities, in particular Athena, goddess of wisdom, with an intervention in broader society issues, becoming some sort of manifesto - as it has been recurrent since Chiuri took the helm at Dior.“I have a certain responsibility in my role as the first woman to head Dior”, assumes the designer. And adds:“I like collaborating with artists. It is sometimes important to collaborate with an artist who can give you another point of view about your job.” In that sense, the decision to choose Judy Chicago was not accidental: “I have always followed with great interest the work of Judy Chicago, an important artist not only in the history of contemporary art, but also for her actions in favor of women empowerment. Discussing with her was incredible because she has no boundaries and she thinks always in an immeasurable way. She doesn’t set limits upon herself, which is something all of us women should do.”

Collaborations are at the center of everything that Chiuri does as the first woman heading the historical French House. From the now viral “We should all be feminists” (the phrase was taken from the essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) t-shirts from her first collection, in 2016, through the shirts that featured the title of an essay published by Linda Nochlin in 1971, “Why have there been no Great Women Artists?” and, one year later, the “nanas” (huge female sculptures made of wool) by Niki de Saint Phalle, which inspired the spring/summer 2018 collection, the Italian has been successful in aligning activism and fashion, in a constant dance between what is beautiful and superfluous, and what is real and necessary. “I think that clothes – and fashion in a more general sense – are tools that we use to dress our bodies, but also to reflect about ourselves. I believe that through my role I can contribute to the awareness of younger generations of women and the emergence of a new process of emancipation or, even better, equality in difference.” Maria Grazia, who at the time of this interview was in the middle of Paris Fashion Week, acknowledges that “this collection was born of an encounter between intellectual strength and aesthetic harmony. Each of the techniques used tells a story, which for me represents the highest expression of contemporary femininity.” In practical terms, it is a new way of understanding both Haute Couture and the needs of women: “On dazzling fabrics, gold symbolizes the exalted power of feminine creativity. That is what I celebrate in this collection for Dior, which honors a special link with the color’s power and majesty; golden sparkles also illuminate the banners in Judy Chicago’s decor for the spring-summer 2020 Haute Couture show.” The key words here are intellectual strength and aesthetic harmony.

But let’s hear from the American who became known, among others, for the Atmospheres series, which includes Orange Atmosphere (1968), Purple Atmosphere (1969), Immolation e Smoke Bodies (1972), where she used pyrotechnic explosions to create games of color that are actually a cry for the female condition. “This project provided me with one of the greatest creative opportunities of my life. I am grateful to Maria Grazia, Olivier Bialobos and Dior for this gift. Although it required months of intense work for me and Donald, we were thrilled by the opportunity – and challenge – this project presented.” The fact that Dior’s creative director normally collaborates with female artists became an extra enticement. “Clearly, Maria Grazia is using her position as Dior’s first female Creative Director to help women. Earlier designers have collaborated with artists but none (that I know of) have worked with women artists as she has. Also, I know that she supports many efforts around the world that help women like the embroidery school, Chanakya School of Craft in Mumbai, India but most importantly, her clothes seem to be free of the distorted shapes and demented high heels that many male designers have inflicted on women in the name of creative freedom.” However, Chicago assumes that, until recently, she was unaware of Maria Grazia’s work. “I first met Maria Grazia when she brought me and my husband, the photographer Donald Woodman, to Paris last July to discuss a possible collaboration. Prior to that, I became aware of her when I was contacted by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Quarterly magazine about an article on her that involved ten women who had influenced her. I was thrilled and honored to realize that I was one of them. Since then, we have met three times to discuss our collaboration; once when she and her team came to New Mexico to work with us, and twice in New York to look at the work in progress.”

How was the creative process? Where did the idea to call this The Female Divine come from? “I proposed a concept to Maria Grazia: The Divine Female, as I have long been interested in transforming the ways in which women are viewed — and in fact many women view themselves as secondary to men. In the 1970s, I created "The Dinner Party", a monumental work that symbolizes the history of women in Western Civilization which toured the world, was seen by over one million people and is now permanently housed at the Brooklyn Museum. Restoring this divinity to women was one of the goals of "The Dinner Party" and was one of my goals for my collaboration with Maria Grazia. The interior of the structure was chapel-like, with a golden glow and a series of banners in French and English that raised a series of questions starting with ‘What If Women Ruled the World?’ and exploring whether this would make the world a different, more equitable place.” After that they got down to business. “We made an inflatable Goddess structure based on a sculpture I designed in the 1970s and never had the opportunity to build. Viewers literally walked into the body of the Goddess and the viewers and the models were enveloped in the warm, golden light of her divinity. The dinner party that was held on the evening of the couture show was a real one, in contrast to my monumental installation at the Brooklyn Museum, which is a symbolic history of women in Western civilization. I designed the plates using the four basic colors of the installation: purple, magenta, red and green, which were the basic colors of the ‘millefleurs’ motif – purple references irises; magenta for violets, and green for the foliage. These colors were carried throughout the installation and also in the dress designs. The spiral and cowrie shell design repeated the motifs in the large banner and were early symbols of the goddess.” No detail has been left to chance, not even the dinner tableware, which will soon be available in Dior stores. Is this one more proof that fashion and art are interconnected? On this, Chicago has a clear position: “I don’t think of Art in terms of message.  I think of it in terms of meaning. The couture show was held inside the body of the goddess. It’s about making a contribution to changing our perceptions of women. It’s about empowering women. It’s about transforming fashion from a vehicle of oppression to a vehicle of empowerment. And it’s demonstrating that there can be a fusion of Art and Fashion.” Moreover, she says, “I read a lot of feminist critique about fashion and how it has oppressed women. I was curious to know if this could be changed; if fashion can empower women. In this, I believe that Maria Grazia and I are aligned. I was particularly impressed that she decided to have my banners embroidered by a school in India, the Chanakya School of Craft I already mentioned that is training women to be professional embroiderers. This is a perfect example of how fashion can have a positive effect in the world, on the clothes that are designed and the ways in which couture is presented.” All in all, what would happen if women ruled the world? Maria Grazia’s answer is peremptory: “I think that if women ruled the world, the meaning of power would be very different. Women have a different relationship with power, we have more of a community attitude.” This collaboration is just a further evidence of that.

This article was originally published in Vogue Portugal's Art issue, from March 2020. 
Para ler este artigo em português, veja a edição de Arte da Vogue Portugal 

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