In 1938 he became a full time modeliste, designing the clothes for Robert Piquet. His distinctive style was an immediate success, particularly a dress called Cafe Anglais, in houndstooth with a petticoat edging. He was fast becoming the person to know. His first foray into theatre design was in 1939, designing the clothes for A School for Scandal. He even became more open in his private life, being seen with his companion Jacques Homberg, ten years his junior.
Just before the outbreak of the second world war Paris was a city of frivolous excess, everyone trying to outdo everyone else with their lavish parties. In September 1939 all this changed and Christian was enlisted to the Second Reserve, helping on a farm, which he thoroughly enjoyed. in June 1940, when France was divided into two, he was in the Free zone and decided to stay on at the farm. After an idyllic year he rejoined his father and sister at Callian, in the south, where he set about filling the garden with vegetables. This reverie was not to last though, as his sketches had been remembered and he was asked to produce sketches of the top couturiers collections by Chanel and Hermes in Cannes.
Paris was now an occupied city, but in 1941 Robert Piquet was still in business there and he asked Christian to come back to work for him. After much hesitation he decided to accept the offer and returned to Paris, only to find that the position had been filled. Fortunately Christian had many friends to turn to for help and he was offered the position of modeliste with Lucien Lelong. Another employee, Pierre Balmain, soon became a good friend.
This was a particularly difficult time for the Paris couture industry, as the German regime was intent on austerity, not frivolity. Every attempt was made by the authorities to close the industry down, but the French were not going to be dictated to and continued despite all the restrictions, merely using their expertise to create dresses from less material.
Christian was almost forty when, at the end of the war, in 1945, his friend Balmain set up his own collection of forty five outfits. He had urged Christian to join him, but he had been too timid and backed out. Still in the back of Christians mind was the desire to run his own establishment, but he needed a backer for this expensive enterprise. On consulting his astrologer, in whom he placed great faith, he knew that the opportunity would soon arise and so it did. In 1946 Marcel Boussac, a textile manufacturer and well known racehorse owner, was on the look out for a designer to revitalise the ailing Philipe et Gaston. Christian was approached, but made it clear that he was only interested in heading his own fashion house. After consulting several friends who knew Christians work, Marcel Boussac decided to offer him the directorship of his own establishment, Christian Dior Limited. Christian, after once more consulting his astrologer, jumped at the offer.
Before he left Lelong Christian had been designing outfits which were obviously a forerunner to the New Look, with tight fitting bodices topping full, calf length skirts. He finally left Lelong on December 1st 1946, and by December 16th his ambition was achieved when he opened his new premises at 30 Avenue Montaigne, together with a staff of eighty five. In the midst of all the preparations Christians father died, and, though he was sad at his passing, Christian felt that the last obstacle to his success had gone. He was able to display the name Christian Dior Ltd. without any feeling of betrayal towards his family.
The weeks before Christians first show on 12th February 1947 were spent in a whirl; telling builders and decorators what he required, as well as finalising his creations ready for the catwalk. He was even going to launch a perfume called Miss Dior at the same time. With minutes to spare the ninety outfits were ready and the New Look was revealed to the world. After the austerity of the war years this was a fairy tale collection, showing off womens figures to perfection.
The House of Dior was a resounding success. The salon had to be kept open well into each evening to accommodate all the buyers and clients who were flocking to see the new style garments. It was soon necessary to open more workrooms, and a new building emerged on the site of the old stables.
Christians first thoughts were always for his clients and he was determined to have a very exclusive clientele. His second collection was even more popular, with longer skirts and more material, but keeping the tiny waists and tight bodices. Each season from then on had a new line, including the Oblique, Y Look and Scissors.
Such was the enthusiasm of the American press for the new Dior collections that in 1947 Christian was invited to go to Dallas to receive an Oscar for Couture presented by the Neiman Marcus store. With great reluctance he sailed on the Queen Elizabeth to New York and embarked on a whistle stop tour of America. He was very surprised to find great opposition by certain groups who said the wide skirts were dangerous when travelling and the bodices were uncomfortable. Christian rose above the controversy and, with his charm and willingness to please, soon won over the opposition. By the time the tour was finished people were once more flocking to buy his creations.
This visit was such an eye opener for Christian that he immediately decided that there should be a branch of Dior in New York. His designs were being modified for the mass market and his influence could be seen everywhere. He loved the affluence and generosity of the Americans and began to appreciate the American way of life. Once more Boussac was approached for funding, and, such was the success of his initial investment that he agreed.
The first American collection was on 8th November 1948 at 730 Fifth Avenue. The concept was quite different to Paris. The clothes were made for the wider public, still with the same exclusive design concept, but encompassing the big stores and other manufacturers. Clients could try on the outfits at the Fifth Avenue showrooms, but had to buy them in one of the many retail outlets in large stores. One best seller was a suit with a peplum jacket, named Bobby, after Christians dog. Christian kept a very close eye on the manufacture of his clothes in America and designed regular twice yearly collections exclusively for the American market.
English women in 1947 were still suffering the effects on the clothing industry of the harsh war years, when everything was made from a minimum amount of fabric and clothes were remade time and again. Clothing coupons were still in force and it seemed unthinkable to spend money on luxuries. However, the clothing firm Dereta did find material to make seven hundred New Look style suits which were snapped up by the fashion starved young women. Christian showed his collection at the Savoy Hotel in London in 1947 when word reached him that the Queen would like a private showing for her family. All the royal ladies were captivated and the young princesses were soon wearing New Look outfits. © GMH