Dior’s Gateway to India

Ah, the symbolism. On Thursday evening, about 850 local and international celebrities, artists, editors and influencers (and editor-influencers, since they are increasingly becoming one and the same) gathered in Mumbai in front of the historic Gateway to India as multicolored lights played on the nearby Taj Mahal Palace hotel and cool breezes blew in off the Arabian Sea. They were there for the first official Dior show in the country, smartphones in hands to blast selfies to the world.

The archway was covered in a 12-foot-high embroidered Toran, the Hindu door hanging that traditionally welcomes guests. The runway was divided by elaborate renderings of floral art and flickering lights. Outside, hundreds of young women had waited hours for a glimpse of the Thai actors and Dior guests Mile and Apo. A live band played. And out came 99 looks, a paean to the country and its artisans (and to the opportunity India represents as a luxury market) in the form of a pre-fall collection, jazzed up with some special additions.

Even in the context of the destination shows that have proliferated since Covid restrictions lifted — Gucci in Seoul; Chanel in Dakar, Senegal; Dior Men in Giza, Egypt — it was a big deal. And not simply because of the hoo-ha and distance and expense involved.

Not even because of the clothes, which spliced familiar Indian aesthetic tropes into familiar Diorisms while dancing on the verge of cliché (one of the pitfalls that often trip up Western brands attempting “homages” to host countries): Think madras and toile de Jouy; sari-wrapped skirts and soft jackets with Nehru collars; neutral shades that gave way to fuchsia, marigold and chartreuse. Think less Bollywood fantasy than haute world traveler, swanning through Agra in pearl chokers and flat sandals.

And then realize that, nevertheless, the show raised the stakes for everyone involved.

Looks from the 2023 Dior pre-fall collection in India.Credit…Photographs via Dior

For many of the local guests, the show was an acknowledgment of India’s importance and its aesthetic traditions, though some commentators saw the idea that such Western approval was even desirable as simply another version of colonialism. “It’s a very exciting moment,” said Sonam Babani, 31, who was one of the first Indian influencers to work with Dior when she started eight years ago. “It’s time India is on the map in the fashion scene.”

The Bollywood actress Ananya Panday agreed. “I don’t think there is anything possibly more iconic than this,” she said. While Indian embroiderers have long supplied French luxury houses, the relationship has remained in the shadows. (And there have been allegations of exploitation in the supply chain.)

For Maria Grazia Chiuri, the artistic director of Dior women’s wear, the show was “a dream.”

Ms. Chiuri has been involved with India, and especially its embroiderers, since 1992, when Vinod Maganlal Shah of the Chanakya ateliers first came to Italy to explore working with luxury brands. At the time, Ms. Chiuri was an accessory designer at Fendi, and, she said, embroidery was “not very fashion.” Minimalism and deconstruction were in.

But a relationship began that deepened when she arrived at Dior in 2016, and since then, Ms. Chiuri has worked regularly with Karishma Swali, the artistic director of the Chanakya ateliers, as well as the nonprofit Chanakya School of Craft, which trains women as embroiderers (traditionally a male profession in India). Ms. Chiuri has incorporated their work into her collections, just as she incorporates into her agenda the idea that artisans from other countries deserve the same platform as the petites mains of the haute couture.

The tie-up between Chanakya and Dior was great, said Anuradha Mahindra, the founder and editor of Verve magazine, but “the key would be is it really going to expand and trickle down and sustain.”

Certainly, for the industry, the show was a sign that brands are once again trying to access the Indian luxury market, which has long dangled like a golden ring just out of reach. It is an economic powerhouse full of promise and wealth that they have not quite managed to penetrate, thwarted by national regulation as well as proprietary aesthetic traditions. Dior currently has only two stores in the entire country.

And for Dior itself, where Delphine Arnault, the eldest child of Bernard Arnault, architect of the LVMH luxury empire, recently took the reins as chief executive, it was a major power move.

After all, pre-fall (which refers to collections that enter stores in May and June) does not traditionally get the big traveling show treatment. That’s usually reserved for cruise collections (those are the ones that arrive in November and December). And indeed, Dior is going to have another big show sometime in May for its cruise line. That’s alongside the couture collections in January and July, and the ready-to-wear in February and September. That’s a major show, on average, every month and a half.

And that’s a significant flex; a sign that the behemoth luxury players may be entering a new arms race for eyeballs, experiences and attention.

In that context, this show wasn’t just a gateway to India. Like Pharrell Williams’s appointment as designer of Louis Vuitton men’s wear (Louis Vuitton being a Dior sister brand in the LVMH stable), it was a gateway to the next stage of global fashiontainment. Dazzled, we’re all just walking through. What’s next? Gucci on the moon?

Bet you somewhere, some brand is talking about it.

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