Drum rolls as iconic Dior meets the avant-garde
Raf Simons. Photo : Pixelformula.
It took the French house more than a year to find the right fit for its top design job, after it ousted John Galliano in disgrace in March last year over a drunken, racist outburst in a bar that turned the Briton into a fashion pariah overnight.
That was long enough for the memory of the scandal to fade, and for months of speculation linking many of the top names in the industry to the job, held in the interim by Galliano's right-hand man Bill Gaytten.
But when Dior finally settled, in April, on the 44-year-old Belgian Simons from the house of German designer Jil Sander, the industry could barely contain its delight.
"It's a match made in heaven that you never imagined would ever be consummated," Tim Blanks of US website Style.com told AFP at this week's Paris menswear shows.
"It's going to be a beautiful baby!" enthused the fashion commentator, who has closely followed Simons' career over the years. "This is a genuine synthesis of past and future."
For the past year Gaytten has kept the Dior ateliers ticking over - and sales buoyant - with a string of polished collections built on trademark Dior codes like the 1950s nipped-waist suit, houndstooth and flamboyant red.
But fashion-lovers were left hungering for something more than competence at the brand's helm.
That something is what they hope Simons can deliver on Monday, the first of three days of haute couture shows set to cast a spell over the French capital city with their heady mix of craft and luxury.
"He's a rare bird," Blanks said of the designer, who is known for working pure, clean lines with a wry, playful touch.
"He really is consistently one of the most provocative and fascinating designers that we have - provocative not in a way that he shocks you, but a way that he makes you question things."
How much liberty is Simons likely to take with the venerable house, crown jewel of the luxury empire of LVMH owner Bernard Arnault?
"I feel that he has a natural restraint, and a natural respect in the way he approaches things," said Blanks.
Simons' last three collections for Jil Sander - dubbed his couture trilogy - were "like an amazing audition tape for a job in haute couture," Blanks said, based entirely around the hushed world of mid-20th-century couture.
"He's riveted by codes, codes of youth culture, codes of any kind of closed world where people operate to their own set of rules and create their own universe out of their passions and obsessions."
"Raf is obsessed too, so he understands obsession."
Simons headlined day one of the Paris menswear shows Wednesday, sending out an urbane, playful look that showed a lot of leg, before knuckling down to prepare for his Dior debut.
The Belgian made his name in menswear, as did his contemporary Hedi Slimane, the cult designer returning to fashion this year at the helm of Yves Saint Laurent, where he will show his first catwalk collection in October.
"These appointments, it's a new world for fashion," said Blanks. "The pendulum has swung towards designers whose basis is in the codes of menswear" - which, he noted, is a deeply codified discipline, as is couture.
"There's ways of doing things - it's not just 'It feels good, do it'."
Catering to a core client base of no more than 200 women worldwide, haute couture is a protected appellation in France, awarded based on strict criteria like the amount of work carried out by hand and in-house, and the share of pieces made-to-measure.
Two dozen houses including Chanel, Dior, Gaultier and Givenchy will send out their one-off creations - whose artistry is matched only by their astronomical price tags - over three days of exclusive shows from Monday to Wednesday.
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