How Dior and Harrods won Christmas
A little bit of magic (and ginger bread) goes a long way. Welcome to the world of fairytales, and the future of fashion
Lay aside your sustainability concerns for one second, and remember the reason why we are all here in the first place: the magic.
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The business of sustainability is about science, agriculture, retail and supply chains. It is not about the sheer joy of a new pair of shiny shoes, the passion of a designer locating their craft, or the thrill of theatrical display. But fashion is, and that’s why it exists: to lift us from the everyday, articulate our dreams and enrich our culture. I went down to Harrods last week, my alma mater, where I spent two years stalking the glitzy hallowed halls as Editor in Chief. I went down on the doomsday of Jeremy Hunt’s budget, ready to have a good old moan about the terrible overconsumption of Christmas. But that’s not what I found.
Harrods is a temple of excess, no doubt, and moments I witnessed there made my eyes pop: someone buying a £500,000 watch with a nod of their head; towers of shoe boxes transported into limousine boots, the hoovering up of six figure bottles of cognac and cigars. But I also remember my first day, riding the ridiculous Egyptian escalator up past womenswear, with Miu Miu and Balmain mannequins sparkling beside me, and thinking - this is beautiful. And it is: being surrounded by craft of the highest order is extremely uplifting.
Harrods at Christmas is a cultural tradition, even if getting in to see Father Christmas now is almost impossible. December sees the arrival of the “bears and bauble brigade’ as the day trippers are known internally. As customers they are chicken feed - when you think one more visit from the Sultan of Brunei can double seasonal revenue, you understand where the marketing dollar is focused.
This year Dior, one of the store’s top selling brands (and Harrods is certainly Dior’s number one selling door) has paid for a store wide takeover. The building’s famous lights have been embellished with the Dior compass star, every one of the 44 windows has been decked out with a gingerbread mise-en-scenes, parading Dior shoes, bags and Bar jackets, a fabulous fashion display to match the Edwardian terracotta building. Obviously it’s not actual gingerbread in the windows, but still the sight of so much sugary excess does leave one feeling slightly sick. If it makes you hungry, then you can eat in the Harrods Dior café, where miniature iced biscuits of perfume bottles, logos and dresses cost £15 each. (£15!!)
Downstairs there is an exhibition, for which you have to book tickets, (they are free, and they are also taking walk ins - or were last Thursday). And this is where everything changed.
Once you have passed through the supermarket of PVC Harrods bags, plastic key rings and acrylic Christmas bears, you enter The Fabulous World of Christian Dior. Down an escalator, a curtain is pulled back on an extraordinary model world of the life of the designer himself, leaving the crowds and the PVC far behind. The creativity and attention to detail is breathtaking, with three of Dior’s most meaningful locations, the famous 30 Avenue Montaigne Parisian atelier, his childhood home in Normandy, Granville, and La Colle Noire, the estate he bought in Grasse for his sister when she returned from a prisoner of war camp, all brought to life in mock gingerbread, and set against a digital background of moon rises and sunsets, hot air balloons and shooting stars.
A theatre of wonder, “an exaltation of end-of-year festive magic” as Dior call it, and it truly is. I was taken round by a young actor, who told the story of Dior’s life with great admiration, pointing excitedly to all the details in the display: here is the star that fell from a horse’s harness, that Christian Dior found on his way to the job interview and became his lucky totem (it is now hammered into the soles of every Dior shoe); “That star was reinvented by Maria Grazia Chiuri into a compass, for people who were lost to find their way,” he told me. Here is the Parisian townhouse “where he was so broke he had to hold his first show on the staircase of the house”; there he is as a gingerbread man drawing at his desk while the miniature mannequins of his dreams rotate above his head, reflected in digital projections on the drawing pad in front of him. Little bees hover everywhere “the worker bees Christian endlessly referenced as the craftspeople who brought his dreams to life”. A tiny bag “originally called the Chouchou, but renamed the Lady Dior after Lady Diana who loved hers so much,” is depicted in the red that symbolised success and good luck to the designer, “he measured the success of his fashion shows on the number of Rouge Noir lipstick marks on his cheeks.”
La Colle Noire, the gardens that housed the couturier’s passion for flowers, are shown as a “true Provençal haven of peace where he created the Miss Dior perfume for Catherine his sister, who went missing for 10 years in a prisoner of war camp in WW2.” Little flowers circle in adulation of the Suprema rose, the flower that constantly inspired his dress designs.
Then you come across the original 1949 model of the Miss Dior dress, a tiny, pretty confection of embroidered flowers in creams, purples and pinks. It has its own security guard, (real life, not gingerbread) as only one person in the world is meant to touch it. She brought it over from Paris, because it was at Harrods that Dior opened their first store outside Paris, in 1953. Dior loved England, writing in his diaries “There is no other country whose way of life pleases me more… I love its practices, its sense of tradition, its politeness, its architecture and even its cooking.”
In Granville, we come across the family villa, a horizon inspiring all things possible. “I have the most tender and amazing memories of the house of my childhood,” the designer wrote, a poignant remark as the family lost their fortune and the house in the Great Depression of the 1920s. Here we see a gingerbread Christian asleep in his childhood bedroom with rocking horse and gingerbread cat, the Bar jacket in a dream bubble above his head; and the Dior family having their photograph taken in front of the Christmas tree, before the ravages of debt and war were to separate them.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the wonder of this tale, and not to admire how Dior has crafted reverence for its founder into such a magical business today. The totems of his life: the star he always carried with him, a bit of wood he carried in his pocket for good luck and the house’s flowers, they were his tools to control the world around him.
By now both the actor and I are wrapped in wonder, causing him to remark, “This is just what I think, but in the 1920s, the family lost all their money and the Granville house. Then he lost his sister after she disappeared into a prisoner of war camp. Going through WW2 - really, he lived such a tragic life. And that’s the deeper layer to all of his designs, it makes it more conceptual than if it was just fashion. For me anyway.”
Fashion making sense of the world around us, with magic and metaphor. This is luxury as entertainment - like Disney, it is storytelling, using 3D interactive universes to immerse us in the narrative. Gucci’s metaverse partnership with The Sandbox is similar: both are pure new ways for us to interact with the brands. And this is quite right. The logos and merchandise and endless paraphanalia that drove their profits over the last few decades were built on the marketing that built their brands: owning Gucci or Dior, whether it was a handbag or a perfume or a pair of mules, symbolised money, success and power, rather than the inherent craft of the object itself. (In fact sometimes the object would fall apart). Brands know they need to reimagine that model for the future - a future where purpose, care and kindness become the values we look to. Because money, success and power are raping the world.
As I leave, I take one last look at the gingerbread shoemakers threading J’adore Dior ribbon through the heel strap of shoes. And suddenly, I am shudderingly reminded of an article I ran in Sunday Times Style in 2005, “Who adores Dior?”. It’s a little bit of fashion journalism folklore and it’s very naughty, so I’m just sharing it with my Premium subscribers below.
Wishing you all happy gingerbread making, and all my American friends a very happy Thanksgiving. May we all feel grateful for magic, wherever we find it.
Until next week,
This is a story I always reserve for private conversation as it involves national newspaper editors and CEOs. And, erm, ladies of the night… If you’re not keen on upgrading to £4 a month you’ll have to buy me a drink sometime!