When fashion-show audiences last saw designer Raf Simons, he was standing on the Jil Sander runway back in February flush with emotion. Simons was leaving the house that he had remade in his own aesthetic image, one of humanistic minimalism, confident color palettes, and a kinship with the visual arts. In that moment, his destination was pure rumor and the concern was real that his wholly modern sensibility was about to be lost.
Monday afternoon in Paris, Simons took his first bows as creative director of Christian Dior with his debut couture collection. Even as Simons celebrated the rich history of the venerable French brand, his dedication to the contemporary woman remained undiminished. At Jil Sander, Simons had begun an intimate dialogue with a woman for whom sophistication, ease, and romance are inextricably linked. Thankfully, he does not desert her at Dior.
The setting of Simons’s fall/winter 2013 couture collection was one of those grand Parisian homes from a time when being a demi-royal counted for something. The guests were seated in a series of connecting salons, each one wallpapered in a thick blanket of fresh flowers. The salon bleu drew its name from the thousands of delphiniums blossoming from the walls. Another room was covered in white orchids. Yet another one bloomed with peonies and roses. The scent was exquisite. The sight was magical.
“I’ll have to borrow this idea for a movie,” quipped an admiring Harvey Weinstein. The Hollywood producer is a friend of the house, as they say in fashion-ese.
To prepare for this collection, Simons spent considerable time in the Dior archives and emerged inspired by the clothes’ distinct architecture as well as their references to flowers. But instead of focusing purely on the color and whimsy of blossoms, Simons looked at their structure. The bust detail on his dresses often mimicked the layering of petals, for instance. Simons zeroed in on proportions, transforming full-skirted ball gowns into little tops that barely covered the derrière and were paired with slender black trousers. Indeed, his most dynamic looks were those in which richly embroidered bodices were contrasted with austere trousers—a blending of the past and the present.
There was evidence of Dior’s masterful workrooms where skilled seamstresses and tailors have honed their craft for decades, even as designers have come and gone. Ball gowns lush with pale feathers stayed true to couture’s promise to sweep one up in a fantasy. And gowns that combined two utterly unrelated color palettes and embroideries—one story coming and another one going—made the most of dazzling handiwork.
But the strength of this collection, the assertive way in which Simons announced his arrival, was in the shapes. That’s where his hand seemed most sure, with the trim bodices, the rounded hips, the cinched waists. The relative simplicity of his colorful mesh jackets and skirts made the eye linger thanks to their strong lines. To be sure, there were gestures that recalled some of his later work at Jil Sander—a more than pleasant reference—but that work, in turn, owed a debt to Dior.
If there was a disappointment, it was Simons’s use of fur. This isn’t a political assessment but rather an aesthetic one. Astrakhan fur pants might be an indulgence that is irresistible to a couture customer—that rare, fabulously wealthy, patient-enough-to-endure-multiple-fittings bird—but their bulk was more than even the slenderest of models could overcome. There was tremendous technique in a midnight-blue mink and astrakhan cocktail dress, but the ultimate garment was unforgiving to the female figure.
The hubbub surrounding Simons’s debut—as expressed by the multitude of hovering passersby and photographers, the parade of admiring designers and the anticipation of fashion editors—reflected the esteem in which Dior is held and the tumult the house has been through. The brand, owned by billionaire Bernard Arnault, remains the crown jewel in French fashion, famous for its post–World War II “New Look” that helped to revive a deeply disaffected and struggling national industry. The search for a new designer, which lasted more than a year, had been triggered by the public humiliation of its former creative director, John Galliano. He was fired after making anti-Semitic comments in a Paris bistro.
Galliano’s former assistant, Bill Gaytten, helmed the collection in the interim.
In a show of both curiosity and good wishes, a host of designers attended Simons’s debut, including Donatella Versace—who presented her Atelier Versace collection Sunday evening—along with Azzedine Alaia, Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz, and Olivier Theyskens, who has designed for Rochas, Nina Ricci, and now is creative director at Theory. “Raf was at my very first show and I was at his first show,” Theyskens said as he arrived to carry on the tradition of support.
As the last models made a final march from salon to salon, the audience applauded pleasantly—and, perhaps, with a quiet sigh of relief. Simons, dressed in black trousers and a black shirt, took his bow and gave the audience a wave. The collection was not a definitive pronouncement of a new Dior, nor was it too attached to history. It was not a spectacle. But it was far more than a mere droning on about techniques and hidden luxuries. It was the best sort of debut: one that promises a thoughtful conversation.