The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan, are not, as it turns out, the only royal Western brands attracted by the promise of Africa.
On Monday, Dior, French fashion aristocracy, brought its court to Marrakech, Morocco. They landed in a Dior-branded plane and dined by a reflecting pool in the Bahia palace, off pottery made just for the occasion. Shailene Woodley was there. So was Lupita Nyong’o. So was Karlie Kloss.
And thus the cruise season begins. You’ve heard of destination weddings? These are destination shows.
Filler capsules once conceived to give customers something to wear on their winter vacations, the cruise collections have transmogrified into a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of a fashion moment that involves (at least for the super-brands: the names in the billion-plus cohort that can afford to transport models, clothes and coterie around the world) three-day-long marketing-meets-shopping-meets-content-creation extravaganzas in far-flung places not normally served by the ready-to-wear calendar.
Nominally focused on a runway, which features clothes that will actually be available in stores for longer than any other collection, the events also involve dinners and other extra-special local “experiences,” and are attended by celebrities, VICs (very important customers) and influencers, most of whom are “guests of the house” and chronicle the whole thing on social media.
Dior being a case in point. “My whole Instagram feed is about Morocco,” a colleague announced Monday at lunch, the day after most guests had arrived in Marrakech, unpacked and begun wining, dining and posting.
But it is always dangerous for a European luxury brand to parachute into a continent with a colonial history, especially these days when the discussion around cultural appropriation and fashion’s malapropisms is loud, and there are watchdogs waiting in exactly the same digital space to pounce on any misstep. Especially when the brand is doing so with a star-spangled display of power and money. It was hard not to wonder, sitting back at home and watching the spectacle unfurl, from the Bahia Palace to the El Badi (The New York Times does not accept press trips, so I saw the whole thing, like most people, via vicarious Instagram shots and livestream), whether the house could pull it off?
The answer is yes — ish.
Not because Dior has a history with Morocco: Christian Dior himself made a silhouette called the Marco in 1951, and his heir, Yves Saint Laurent, famously adored Marrakech. Or because it has two stores in the country. That’s a kind of tenuous justification, though that was trotted out.
But because Maria Grazia Chiuri, the designer, sensitised to the risks (Dior itself got into some trouble last year for an ad campaign that featured Jennifer Lawrence in a collection inspired by Mexico’s female escaramuza riders), bent herself practically double to integrate African artisanship into her work and give the credit it deserves, so the majority of the collection was a series of dialogues.
First, between two traditions of handwork: couture and wax print, as realised by Uniwax, a studio/atelier from the Ivory Coast whose custom-made reinterpretations of 15 classic Dior prints (toile de Jouy, Tarot) were used on cotton grown, spun, woven and printed in Africa as well as reinterpreted in silk jacquards. And second, between the tropes of Dior (Bar jackets, the New Look) and the way they could be interpreted not just by Chiuri but also by her collaborators — African-American painter Mickalene Thomas, Jamaican-British designer Grace Wales Bonner and Ivory Coast-based designer Pathé Ouedraogo, famous for the shirts he made for Nelson Mandela, all of whom also contributed their own looks.
“I felt it was important to give another point of view on Dior,” Chiuri said before the show. Or really, many points of view.
And because the end result of all those points of view, even through the grainy screen of a computer, looked genuinely fresh and unforced: the familiar Dior silhouettes given a cooler edge in allover wax prints; strapless empire-waist dresses tied with a delicately fringed twist at the bust; trousers cropped at the ankle under molded jackets motile with color and movement in the cloth. There were camouflage intarsia ponchos and flowing silk gowns with keyhole necklines, lacy white dresses and Murano-glass-sprinkled embroidery, and it all appeared on a significantly more diverse runway than in seasons past.
Chiuri said before the show that part of her goal was to highlight the fact that “couture” should no longer refer simply to the work of an atelier in France, but was really about culture: about know-how and history, human labor and the touch of the human hand, all of which applied to African wax prints as well as any woven jacquards.
She’s right, and you could see it on her runway — though whether that message will translate past the moment is now the question. Predictably, some eyebrows were still raised: The day after the show, I began to get emails questioning whether this was simply a new kind of colonialism, and who really gets the bulk of the profits. And the list of celebs was notably lacking in local names.
Beyond that, however, is the issue of what happens when these clothes go into stores, and from there into closets, separated from all motivation and multidimensional layering? Will they continue to, as Anne Grosfilley, the anthropologist who first connected Chiuri to Uniwax, said, “put in the light the talent of Africa?”
To be fair, every wax print piece will bear the Uniwax name on the selvage; the labels in the collaborations will say “Mickalene Thomas for Dior” and so on. But whether that will meaningfully resonate with buyers — whether they will take the time to read the labels and consider the antecedents and implications — is unclear. How many of us really contemplate labels?
And maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the sheer act of reaching out across so many borders in one collection to create something beautiful from two traditions is enough. But maybe next time, they could skip the plane.