Maria, the Mumbaikar? | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
April 14, 2023

Maria, the Mumbaikar?

Not only did Dior’s recent Fall 2023 show at South Mumbai’s Gateway of India capture popular imagination globally but it also put India front and centre of the spectacle. On display was the brand’s intent to play up the Indianness, as its creative director of women’s lines, Maria Grazia Chiuri, sank her teeth into all that the city and country have to offer. VERVE’S FOUNDER-EDITOR, ANURADHA MAHINDRA, looks beyond the fashionable vignettes to give her insights on how the major French brand crafted a seamless narrative around culture and inclusivity to deepen ties and cement brand presence in a burgeoning luxury market

The slight figure with her platinum bob, always spotted in fashion’s signature black, recently became somewhat of a familiar face on Mumbai’s social landscape, for a few days. And perhaps, from here to, well, eternity. Her trail of India love continued to be reposted for days on the hectic handles of socialites, Hindi film stars, the fashion junta, goggle-eyed influencers and on the viral pages of paps alike. She left us gobsmacked by her desi-style warm and friendly persona, partial to a gold-and-black-thread-knotted Indian choker, coral talisman pendant, kohl-smeared eyes and, most of all, by her ghar ki murgi  (familiar) status in the extended Chanakya family. A culmination of a 30-year-old friendship with the founders and artistic director of the Chanakya ateliers and an all-women school of craft.

All of these accoutrements were accompanied by her well-intoned paeans to Indian craftsmanship — heavily accented sound bites about Dior’s dedication to the multitude of ustads (artisans) unique to our homeland. Last but not least, we saw her animated embraces with the legendary Rekha, and award-winning artists, Madhvi and Manu Parekh. What an album of her cultural immersion, a wonderful testament to the fact that as an ambassador of a major French brand, not only had she transcended borders, but all of this was now safely archived under the heft of digital and social media broadcasting power. Inimitable Maria Grazia Chiuri chutzpah!

In ultra-unique fashion, Dior had penetrated India far beyond its two retail stores housed in tony areas of Delhi and Mumbai, which opened in 2006 and 2010 respectively. Ironically, the fashion house’s ties with India go as far back as 1947, when its haute couture show was named Indienne  (Indian). Later, the Spring/Summer 1953 collection reinterpreted the sari, and was named the Bénarès model. It’s a not-so-well publicised fact that one of her predecessors, Marc Bohan, spotlighted the splendour of India through the creation of 100 silhouettes at two Dior fashion shows, first held in Mumbai, and then in New Delhi, in 1962. For his final show in 1989, L’Année des Indes  (The Year of India), Bohan threw up vibrant colours, and “chiffon wraparound sari-blouse dresses and embroidery resembling Indian mosaics”.

Bohan’s successor at Dior was Legnano-born Gianfranco Ferré, who actually lived in India in the ’70s. Describing his experience, in his own words, he stated, “….everyday life that I observed…translated into my clothes through a detail, a shade of colour, a special technique.” Not surprising then that this maestro’s last collection in 1996 was called Passion Indienne  (Indian Passion).

According to a news item from The Independent that year, Naomi Campbell, recently featured wearing Indian designer jewellery on the cover of an international title printed in India, was apparently less than pleased for having to strut in Ferré’s creations for his final défilé . Thus, despite Dior’s earlier history with India, way after her tenure might expire, it will be “Queen” Maria, the first woman fashion head for the brand, who will be most remembered in the country as one of fashion’s global royalty.

While in Mumbai, MGC traversed craft ateliers, art openings, press conferences, sit-down dinners and gala nights in her deeply engaging and endearing style. Working the crowd at a come-one-come-all afterparty, daughter in tow, she sank her teeth into all that India had to offer. Think about it, in all of our speculation about which celebrity would take the front row at the Dior Fall 2023 show, an epic moment was perhaps overlooked.

At the Mūḷ Māthī // From The Roots exhibition, presented by Dior and curated by the Asia Society India Centre, where she stood diminutive against a backdrop of massive works of textile art, she spoke to me with passion about the importance of teaching needlework, embroidery and handcrafting techniques in art and fashion schools around the world, just like any other form of art. Ah, the virtuosity in simple hastshilp  (handicraft)!

Delphine Arnault, recently appointed Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Christian Dior Couture, daughter of Bernard Arnault, the head honcho of the LVMH conglomerate, spoke shortly, prior to the opening of the exhibition. Subsequently, she slipped out of Maximum City having attended Dior’s extravaganza almost incognito. Was this a considered marketing ploy to play down the Frenchisms, and play up the Indianness?

A coup of sorts, the Indo-Islamic Gateway of India loomed tall, welcoming fashion’s woman of the moment. “It was my dream,” Chiuri has oft said. The city’s politicos, bureaucrats, municipality department, police and the aam aadmi  (ordinary people) conspired with her to put up a 99-look fashion show in front of the 85-foot-tall, ceremonial arch that once welcomed King George V to our shores. A dream that went beyond the runways of crazy fashion weeks held since time immemorial in the fashion hubs of Paris, Milan, London or New York, where all of fashion’s bigwigs regularly congregate. There is only so much that those jaded runways can provide but here, in aamchi (our) Mumbai, within a few weeks and perhaps unwittingly, MGC has become a fashion tour de force. Even so, the Italian-born Creative Director of the French fashion behemoth took only a fleeting bow in front of the monumental Gateway of India, at the conclusion of the show.

The magnificent embroidered toran, which took 35,000 hours of handwork to complete, became the apt community-created welcome to that momentous finale. Chanakya master artisans combined phulkari, mirror work and kantha, among 25 techniques that drew from folk iconography; it included elephants, mandalas (geometric configuration of symbols), Kamadhenu (the celestial cow) and peacocks. Dusky models, a female tabla player, artisans in the audience, chappals on the cobbled Gateway ramp, floral rangoli art, eco-friendly diya pyramids…. The mise en scène was just right for the integration of Indian themes in the collection; whether subtle or nuanced, they exhibited a whimsical acknowledgement to our country.

The all-black opening outfits gradually gave way to an array of colours with expressive names like rani pink, jamuni violet and peela yellow. They appeared as solids or with multicoloured aari embroideries, appliqués of lotus flowers and tiger stripes that struck us with a sense of the familiar. Fluid silhouettes fluttered in the sea breeze, ankle-length sari-like skirts were tied at the hip. Soft drapes and folds stood out even though the look remained contemporary. The focus was on layering and wraparound wear that was more airy than figure-hugging and could thus be easily adjusted to various body types. Suitable for a walk in the city, a drive to the airport or an open-air concert. Combinations included skirts, trousers, cropped tees and jackets. Chiuri brought savoir-faire looks for the modern woman who could belong to any metropolis in the world, but wanted a taste of something that was handcrafted, with that hint of a local touch. She introduced this very hastshilp in a contemporary language, while still giving the nod to tie-dyes, block printing, brocades and jacquards that are an integral part of India’s artisanal heritage. A continuation of Dior’s own legacy with the toile de Jouy was on display, with the Jardin Indien incorporating prints of Indian flora and fauna and showing up in coordinated sets. A salaam to Bohan’s characteristic motifs of the ’60s.

The India-inspired collection with tinkling mirror work dresses, Madras-inspired lungi-sarongs and rani pink and fuchsia kurta-ish shirts were etched in our collective memory as the last model turned her back. I could hear the Carnatic percussion beats echoing against the soporific lapping of the waves of the Arabian Sea. The moonlight shone on the immaculate figure of Iqbal Chahal, Mumbai’s intrepid municipal commissioner. “The permission came from the top,” he whispered to a guest, pointing his thumb skywards, and then mysteriously slipped into the darkness that fell as the spotlights were switched off one by one.

After the last of the British troops had left India in 1948 from the very same monument arch, it had led to a new dawn. But, wait a minute, did the history books ever throw up images of Lady Edwina Mountbatten in love with a Nehru jacket? Or draped in a sari silhouette? Googling her name for images, I found her dressed in sumptuous fur coats, Dietrich-like gloves, pumps and elegant knee-length dresses, during the years of the Raj. And, didn’t the travelling toilettes of the to-be British memsahibs favour their bustles and tea gowns, a necessary ball gown for good measure, a good riding habit and an essential black silk dress, as necessities according to advice manuals and guidebooks, such as The Englishwoman in India and Indian Outfits & Establishments?

Can we then consider that fashion’s recent catwalk footprint will leave a more lasting impression on cross-cultural collaboration or is it just un défilé de mode (a fashion show). As the smoky-eyed Christian Dior models traipsed in the Fall 2023 collection, before a handcrafted Indian welcome arch, to a jugalbandi of sitar and tabla, did we witness a leap for…? The next iconic T-shirt from changemaker Chiuri that we might see could be another post-modernist shout-out, moving beyond feminism to cultural inclusion. It could well read: “We should all be feminists and culturally inclusive.” Go figure.

Should we consider the Dior fall 2023 collection presentation in India a new age, soft-sell-with-a-big-bang marketing endeavour? Read about it here.

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