Maria Grazia Chiuri Talks Feminism in Fashion & the Power of Sisterhood

Fashion

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May and Ruth Bell in Dior clothing, jewelry, and accessories; Artwork: Cynthia Mailman, God, 1977.

JASON KIBBLER

It began with an e-mail from the House of Dior, from a stranger I’d read about: Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first woman to become creative director of that venerable French institution. She was writing to request my collaboration on feminist T-shirts for her Fall 2019 collection and invite me to her show in Paris. Being a creature of words, I’m grateful that the three anthologies I edited—Sisterhood Is Powerful, Sisterhood Is Global, and Sisterhood Is Forever—had achieved cult status. But Dior T-shirts bearing their titles was something I never anticipated.

Maria Grazia wrote that the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, the organization that Simone de Beauvoir and I cofounded in 1984, would receive a donation plus a percentage of the profit from each T-shirt sold. Feminists like ourselves—who work with grassroots activists around the world on issues such as human trafficking and laws allowing forced and child marriage—spend sizable chunks of our lives fund-raising. So donation, you say? Percentage of each T-shirt sold? Incroyable! Off I went to Paris to meet my new friend.

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Maria Grazia Chiuri in Dior clothing and jewelry.

PAOLA MATTIOLI

Maria Grazia radiates Italian exuberance. Her laugh is infectious. She’s unpretentious and warm, with a sharp intelligence. She surrounds herself mostly with female colleagues, especially younger feminists, including her 22-year-old daughter, Rachele, whom she calls her muse. And she doesn’t just mentor these young women; she actively seeks out their advice and listens to it. Maria Grazia’s feminism is authentic, and she wants her work in fashion to reflect something greater than itself.

Ever since that first day we met in Paris, we have e-mailed each other or FaceTimed when schedules permit, and, as women do, we sometimes even send little presents. There’s affection, support, laughter. On October 22, Maria Grazia will come to New York to receive the Sisterhood Is Powerful Award for Wearable Media from the Women’s Media Center, cofounded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and myself, at the annual Women’s Media Awards gala. So when Bazaar asked us to share parts of our conversation while Maria Grazia was briefly in Dallas with the traveling exhibition “Dior: From Paris to the World,” we welcomed such elegant eavesdropping.

Clearly you’re a dedicated feminist, Maria Grazia. But why specifically the sisterhood shirts?

Sisterhood is very important. Together women can, as you’ve written, make the world better. I was lucky to begin my career at Fendi, with the five women who built that company. There was teamwork, which gave me the idea that it’s possible for women to work together—

And not compete?

Yes. There used to be this idea that women had to compete with other women for a man. Now women are more independent; they don’t need a man to support them.

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TK Wonder and Cipriana Quann in Dior clothing, jewelry, and accessories; Artwork, from left: Shirley Gorelick, Frida Kahlo, 1976; Martha Edelheit, Womanhero, 1977.

JASON KIBBLER

You’re a woman of power and influence modeling quite a different example.

I don’t think women experience power the same way as men. I’m 55, but want to hear different opinions, from women who are 22 and from women with more years and experience than me.

I think patriarchal societies have defined power as “power over” and women are redefining it as “power to.”

I completely agree. Your books, and the work of other artists, helped me understand this concept because I never got to study such arguments in school. Nobody spoke to us about patriarchal power. I was proud that you consented to have your book titles on the T-shirts because it’s a way to promote these ideas.

“I don’t think women experience power the same way as men.”

How tremendous it will be if your efforts to promote female solidarity and freedom inspire others in your industry! Because fashion really is a form of media.

I think fashion can do a lot. Fashion is very popular, so it can help broadcast a message and reach a new generation.

Well, fashion has always both reflected and influenced culture and politics. Hoop skirts, corsets, foot binding—so much of fashion history has been about constraining women.

Yes, because in the past women were unable to see themselves through their own eyes. When I started to work as a designer, the prevailing attitude was that fashion should tell women what they should wear. But I believe that women must develop their own personal style and realize everyone is different.

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May and Ruth Bell in Dior clothing, jewelry, and accessories; Artwork, from left: Sharon Wybrants, Self-Portrait as Superwoman (Woman as Culture Hero), 1977–78/2010–16; Diana Kurz, Durga, 1977.

JASON KIBBLER

Homogeneity is boring. Our differences are what’s interesting.

Yes, it adds richness to life. We need to pay attention to what we do as an industry because we can send positive messages, but we can also send very bad ones.

You were quoted as saying that luxury brands need to be more democratic. What did you mean by that?

That we have to send a good message. Of course we have to acknowledge we are a luxury brand and that not all people can buy our products. But I was so happy after my first show when I did the we should all be feminists T-shirt and I saw fake T-shirts all around the world!

Happiness is not a designer’s usual reaction to knockoffs, Maria Grazia!

If someone sees your book titles on a T-shirt and then Googles and finds the books, that’s the goal for me. And, really, I can thank Dior for supporting me in this. Everyone seemed worried, “Uh-oh, you are political.” But the company never stopped me. Everything is political anyway! Everything you buy, everything you eat. Life is political!

Exactly.

There were people who didn’t believe a woman could be creative director at such a huge brand as Dior. Why is it so strange? Creativity has no gender. When I started to work in fashion, I never supposed this would be possible because as a woman you don’t believe in yourself.

Your sense of self has been eroded.

Absolutely. As women we are taught that we are supposed to take care of others, that it’s wrong to think about our own creativity. We all have to get such ideas out of our minds. It’s not easy, eh?

“Fashion is very popular, so it can help broadcast a message and reach a new generation.”

No, not easy at all. [Laughs]

And I want to thank you, Robin. You and all the women who support me in this project. This year was very intense. Honestly, I could never do this alone.

Maria Grazia, no one can do it alone! Speaking of which, you’re a whirlwind-busy woman. You must get depleted. When you relax what’s your favorite thing to do, to eat, to read?

Oh, I love, love pasta! And chocolate! I love sun, and I love sleep. One book that relaxes me a lot is Pride and Prejudice. I think I’ve read it 10 times.

Because it’s pure delight. Well, I hope you do get a little rest. Then again, people have told me to do that my whole life, and I never have. What’s the point, there’s no time when we’re making good mischief against patriarchy.

Me too, like you!

And now we can dress for the occasion!

That is sisterhood!

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May and Ruth Bell in Dior clothing, jewelry, and accessories; Artwork, from left: May Stevens, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1976; Alice Neel, Bella Abzug—the Candidate, 1976.

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Written by Loknath Das