BA for Dior bigraphy


1905 -1957
Gwendoline Hirst

Part Three

Part One.       Part Three.

The price of success

Christian was in his element. He was able to indulge in his favourite pastime of dressing up in order to attend the numerous balls held during the 1950s; designing many of the other outfits where everyone tried to outdo the others. Film stars such as Marlene Deitrich and Ava Gardner became clients and his clothes were worn in many films. He refused, however, to loan out his dresses for the theatre or films as he did not think his would be fair to his paying clients. In those days to be asked to dress royalty was a great accolade and for Princess Margaret’s twenty first birthday in 1951 he created a stunning gown of silk organza, embroidered over one shoulder with gold stars and mother of pearl.

There was great rivalry between Christian and Balenciaga and at one time many women who had been clients of Balenciaga changed their allegiance and moved to Dior. Balenciaga was a master at shaping fabric, whilst Dior used linings and stiffening to achieve his effects. Christian was, however, most upset when Balenciaga said that he was retiring, and even went to ask him not to do so.

Dior began worldwide licensing of the designs, and in 1952 a Dior salon was opened in Mayfair, London, with two exclusive collections each year. The same year the New York manufacturing outlet was closed due to high overheads and design and manufacturing of the collections was once more carried out in Paris. The clothes were then sent back to New York keeping the designs exclusively for the American market.

Unscrupulous agencies were already making cheap copies of outfits, so it was decided to provide buyers with copyright patterns for their clothes, either as a paper pattern or a toile. Even this did not stop the copying and Christian would get extremely angry at the thought of someone stealing his designs.

Despite these irritations the House of Dior continued to expand to include perfumes, furs, hosiery and accessories under licence all over the world. For Christian the main aim was always quality and everything, especially the clothes, had to be finished to perfection.

Throughout all this publicity Christian remained a very private individual, trying to avoid the limelight. When forced to appear in public he would try to joke about it to cover his shyness and this endeared him to a wide audience.

The wide diversity of products sold under the Dior label gave great scope for individual designers and many young hopefuls were given the chance to show their talents, whatever sphere they were in. Christian always had the last word and insisted on having a corporate image for any merchandise so that it was immediately recognisable as Dior.

In order to fulfil Christian’s aim of clothing his clients from head to toe in Dior products, he opened a new boutique in 1955 at 15 Rue Francois 1 in Paris selling inexpensive knitwear and accessories, as well as gifts, with shoes sold under his label next door.

The dress rehearsal for a show was a nerve wracking and long affair, with Christian vetting each outfit and even dismissing some as not being what he had envisaged. All this to make sure that everything was as perfect as it could be. Each season a slight variation of the New Look style was introduced, each with a distinctive name such as the Zigzag, Vertical, Oval and in 1953 the Tulip line which heralded the arrival in 1954 of the H line, with the A line in 1955; much sleeker and giving the female figure a much more slender outline.

Where was all this going to end? By 1955 Christian was exhausted. His doctors had warned him after a heart attack in 1947 that he should take care of his health, but he was so engrossed in his desire for perfection that he worked harder than anyone to achieve his goal. He looked after his staff like a father, buying everyone a Christmas present, so no one minded that he was such a hard task master.

After each collection Christian loved to retreat to the country and he bought an old mill with several cottages at Milly-la-Foret, which he renovated and soon created a garden in which he would work. This weekend retreat was always filled with his friends, including various young men, as well as his right hand woman at the House of Dior Raymonde Zehnacker. Although the cottage was fully staffed with a gardener and a cook, Christian liked to spend the morning gardening and would make liqueurs from the fruit he grew. Jacques Homberg, his companion, helped him to furnish the mill as a place to relax and unwind. Eventually though, even his country retreat was no longer a refuge and he would think about work more and more often, even designing his collections there and keeping in constant touch with Paris.

Always ready to promote new talent, in 1955 Christian took on twenty year old Yves Saint Laurent, who for two years worked quietly away at his designs, until, in 1957, forty of his designs were included in the collection. His patron decided that here was his successor to take over the House of Dior in Paris. Another young designer, Marc Bohan, was destined to take over the New York side of the business.

Christian’s last companion was Jacques Benita, a young Algerian singer, who he met in 1956 and who, from that time, had to be included in all Christian’s social activities. After the September collection in 1957 Christian was desperate for a rest and decided to take Benita to Montecatini in Italy, despite the warnings of his astrologer, who was against the trip. So infatuated was he with Benita that he decided to diet to try to make himself more attractive, even though Benita said this really was not necessary. But his body could not stand the strain and on October 23rd, 1957 Christian had a fatal heart attack whilst sitting in a chair at the Hotel Pace at Montecatini. The whole fashion world was stunned and the funeral in Paris was a truly lavish occasion. True to Christian’s wish he was buried in his beloved Callian in Provence near to his father, where he had spent some of the happiest times of his life. © GMH

The End.

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