East and West: two different hemispheres. Fashion and Art: two different planets. When they collide at Dior, something captivating is created.
Despite the Beijing winter chill, it was a night bustling with excitement when Dior held the November 2008 “Christian Dior & Chinese Artists” exhibition at The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in the 798 Arts Zone. This was more than an exhibition — perhaps, rather, a time tunnel, spanning the past few decades to reveal the essence of this classic, French luxury brand, and to demonstrate its singularity of expression in respect of cultural identity.
From an unknown couturier
Nowadays, the word Dior has become a synonym for French luxury and the title of a vast fashion empire. In fact, everything started in 1946, when a man dreamed of setting up a small couture house. Christian Dior established a small, closed house with few ateliers, in which he worked devotedly according to “the traditions of the very best couture” for a clientele of genuinely elegant women, creating “designs that appeared simple, but that were, in reality, very elaborately constructed.”
The historical moment came in 1947, when an audience of journalists, buyers, and socialites witnessed, with amazement, the first collection from an unknown couturier. His designs were seen to represent a “New Look” which drew a line under the war years and instantly became an influence on the fashion scene in Europe, where all elegant women immediately adopted the change of style. The designs seemed to liberate women’s dreams after the bleak years of wartime. Dior’s New Look brought about the restoration of luxury, and in Christian Dior’s words: “Young women realized that the opulent and regal fashion of their dreams was now accessible to them.”
It was true. What Dior sold were dreams. These dreams were perfectly executed by means of cuts, fabrics, and techniques invented behind the closed doors of the workshops. Dior rebuilt the silhouette of a woman’s body, transforming the female form into a line sinuous with curves, far removed from the rigors of the war years. Instead of padded shoulders, there was padding to emphasize the hips, inspired by nostalgia for the long, flower-like skirts and narrow waists of the 18th and 19th centuries and the Belle Époque. It was at this time that Dior began to extend his influence over the entire fashion world, his name a by-word for haute couture.
Monsieur Dior succumbed to a heart attack in 1957, but after his death, his legendary fashion house continued to move from strength to strength. His successors have included the young Yves Saint Laurent, from 1958 to 1960; Marc Bohan in 1961, and Gianfranco Ferré in 1989. Since 1996, John Galliano has been at Dior’s helm. In 2001, Hedi Slimane was appointed Artistic Director of Dior Homme, and in 2007, Kris Van Assche replaced him, rocking the world of men’s fashion. Dior’s Haute Joaillerie, by Victoire de Castellane, offers an innovative take on the traditional world of precious gems.
Each of these creative talents contributed, in their own particular way, to the revolutionary heritage of Monsieur Dior. Perhaps this has far exceeded his expectations, but maybe it was his original vision to build a fashion empire, in which haute couture represented the spiritual heart of the house, while its designers excelled in creating perfume, beauty, jewelry, prêt-à-porter, and accessories.
Reinterpretation of the Chronicle of Time
The story continues on the other side of the world, having travelled from Paris to Beijing. This November, the Dior exhibition at the UCCA bears witness to the vitality of art in China and of fashion in France. The show features over 20 specially-commissioned artworks inspired by Dior designs, whether by Monsieur Dior, John Galliano, Kris Van Assche, or Victoire de Castellane – as well as by emblematic Dior objects, such as perfumes and accessories. The exhibition includes the work of 22 Chinese artists, including Wang Du, Zhang Huan, Huang Rui, and Li Songsong; Zhang Dali, Xu Zhongmin, Liu Jianhua, and Zheng Guogu; Lu Hao, Wang Qingsong, Yan Lei, and Zhang Xiangang; Wen Fang, Shi Jingsong, Wang Gongxin, and Quentin Shih; Liu Wei, Rong Rong & Inri, Tim Yip, Qiu Zhejie and Ma Yan Song. Including a selection of designs, sketches and photographs from the Dior archives, the exhibition revisited the house’s historical moments and selected key elements as the source of future inspiration. The show revealed the power of Chinese influence over the Western world and confronted eastern and western culture with an eye on the future.
Apart from the line of contributing artists, our Guest Director Tim Yip showcased his spacial aesthetics at the exhibition as the setting designer. The setting, according to Tim, celebrates the beauty of Chinese landscape. “The venue has a great room for a huge setting, but the interior structure lacked a pleasant aura.” Thus Tim erected a 50-centimetre platform and a slipway to water the bamboos, the symbol of refinement in Chinese culture. “Bamboos and water form a special combination to create the mood of the courtyard in ‘Floating Leaf Garden’ (the name of the set as an art piece). It is a harmonious East-meets-West fusion.”
Rongrong & Inri
One of the most interesting contributions is the photography of Rongrong & Inri, whose work is inspired by John Galliano’s dresses. Rongrong from China and Inri from Japan offer an Asian interpretation of the fashion house. The pair had only a vague awareness of Dior before the UCCA project.
“Fashion just seemed like something that the media were always talking about, and I always just chose clothes that I felt comfortable in,” Rongrong recalls. “But after the collaboration with Dior, I realized that some brands have a unique personality. The development of a fashion house like Dior is a long journey, and each piece has a story behind it.” They discovered what an haute couture dress is by examining one closely. It was an exceptional experience, and they considered the design to be a perfect work of art:
“First we looked at the pictures of the dresses and asked Dior to send them to Beijing for shooting. We took all the dresses home to see how we felt about them. When we touched the fabric, and looked closely at every detail, we understood that we were examining something more than just a dress,” said Inri.
The candle-lit photo-shoot, for which the pair used an antique Japanese wood camera, yielded monochrome pictures to extraordinary visual effect. “We took black and white images and added colour to the parts we wanted to highlight. We added this soft colour to emphasise particular details on the dresses and to give the images a softer touch.” Rong Rong and Inri are among the few photographers who still use silver based photography in digital format and super sized Chinese format, making for a unique artistic signature.
Rong Rong and Inri’s artwork represents a reinterpretation of Western perspectives on Asian culture. While John Galliano’s designs for Dior incorporate Japanese stylings, Inri, as a Japanese artist, sees them differently:
“There are some Japanese elements, but as a whole, the designs are still very European. The ceremonial kimono becomes a wrap skirt; origami folding shapes the collar of a New Look-style jacket; an obi belt decorates a Premier Empire dress. The designs reveal a Western reception of Asian influence, and our work reinterpreted this reception, informed by our nationalities. It’s a meaningful way to examine the cultural exchange between East and West.”
The two artists did not want to limit themselves to typical fashion photography, resolving instead to give “a bit of themselves” to the project. Rather than using living models, they sourced mannequins in Japan, and chose to simply wear the dresses themselves:
“Using real models would have been rather more complicated as this would have created a three-way interpretation. We wanted to maintain a direct approach, so we just put on the clothes and experienced the designer’s concepts ourselves. From the outside, you can observe the different layers of the dresses. When you put them on, it’s a completely different experience, as you can feel every detail from the inside. You seem to be another person,” Rongrong explained. “The clothes present their own form in reality, but with our cameras we presented a deeper emotion about these clothes.”
Collaborators since the year 2000, Rong Rong and Inri have formed a brilliant team. Over the past eight years, they have come to share a common understanding. Inri recalls, “At the beginning, we couldn’t speak each other’s language” – (now speaks in fluent Mandarin) – “and sometimes we had to use body language to communicate. Some might have considered this a problem, but I think it has been good for us, as we now know each other’s thoughts without saying a word — it’s like having a sixth sense!”