Artist Niki de Saint Phalle Becomes a Dior Muse—Again—in Maria Grazia Chiuri’s 2018 Spring Collection

The storied French house gets a dose of whimsy, courtesy of the beloved midcentury artist.

Dior Spring/Summer 2018 runway show in Paris. Photos by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.

When the renowned designer Maria Grazia Chiuri debuted her first collection for Christian Dior in September of 2016, it was a big deal: She became the first woman to lead the iconic French label since it was founded in 1946. Since that time, she’s used her collections not only as occasions for exceedingly refined design but also as a megaphone for social issues—her clothes literally make statements, with models walking the catwalk in t-shirts that read “We should all be feminists” and “Why have there been no great women artists?”—and a platform for her own interests and fascinations.

“Dior is about femininity. When I arrived here, everybody told me that,” she told Vogue UK last year. “Okay, I said, we have to speak about femininity, but what does that mean today? I try to speak about women now, and for the future. Dior has to be about female empowerment. Only with flowers? It’s not enough.”

One theme that has recurred in her work is her love of art and artists, especially women who have forged a path in the male-dominated art world—iconoclasts who did what they wanted, and changed the field while doing so. Perhaps she sees in them a reflection of her own creative struggle: to balance beauty with substance. The good news? That balance is working.

Christian Dior's Spring/Summer 2018 runway show. Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.

Dior’s Spring/Summer 2018 runway show. Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.

This season, Chiuri has released a collection partly inspired by the iconic French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002), whose exuberant sculptures in bright, joyful colors often belied darker, more serious creative motivations. (The artist also famously used to make paintings with a rifle, shooting bags of paint that she affixed to canvas.) When Chiuri discovered that de Saint Phalle had at once been a model and muse for Yves Saint Laurent’s successor at Dior, Marc Bohan, it led her on a journey to discover the breadth of the artist’s work; that in turn evolved into the 2018 spring collection, where allusions to de Saint Phalle’s art are woven into diaphanous skirts, bags, and shoes, imbuing the line with a playful femininity.

“I started to read more about her,” Chiuri told Vogue. “And step by step I tried to translate in the collection these different ideas about a woman who started as a model for Dior in the 1950s, who was really beautiful and [whom] everybody would ask to be an actress, and she decided to work in art in a moment that was not too easy to work in art for women.”

Here are several of the most striking pieces from the new Dior collection that were inspired by de Saint Phalle.

Lady Dior Bag in Off-White Calfskin

Dior's Supple Lady Dior bag. Based on the <i>Long Live Love (Vive l'Amour)</i> poster, 1991. © 2017 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. Image courtesy of <i>Long Live Love (Vive l'Amour)</i> (1990). Courtesy of Guggenheim Bilbao. Avenida Abandoibarra, Bilbao, Spain.

Left: Dior’s Supple Lady Dior bag. Based on the Long Live Love (Vive l’Amour) poster (1991), at right. © 2017 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. Image courtesy of Long Live Love (Vive l’Amour) (1990). Courtesy of Guggenheim Bilbao. Avenida Abandoibarra, Bilbao, Spain.

The traditional Dior bag shape is demure and ladylike (hence its name), a throwback to another era. Yet it’s instantly transformed into something vivacious and effusive—not to mention contemporary—when decorated with de Saint Phalle’s vivid art, here picturing a couple embracing beneath a verdant tree in undulating colors. It’s a charming marriage of classic and au courant and shows Chiuri’s dedication to honoring the artist’s oeuvre.


Niki de Saint Phalle Necklace

Dior's "Niki de Saint Phalle" long necklace with heart. © 2017 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. Right: Niki de Saint Phalle's <i>Heart Tree Brooch Pendant</i> (1990). Image courtesy of Louisa Guinness Gallery.

Left: Dior’s “Niki de Saint Phalle” long necklace with heart. © 2017 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. Right: Niki de Saint Phalle’s Heart Tree Brooch Pendant (1990). Image courtesy of Louisa Guinness Gallery.

Suffused with the positivity and love that was central to de Saint Phalle’s work, this heart pendant is crafted from aged gold-toned metal and colored lacquer—making for a piece that’s both endearing and luxurious. Its childlike simplicity provides the wearer a welcome bit of optimism, and it also celebrates one of the artist’s favorite symbols, the heart.


Silk Twill Scarves

From Left: Dior’s silk scarf based on Niki de Saint Phalle’s You are my love forever and ever and ever (1968); Positive Dragon (1988); Please give me a few seconds of your eternity (1970). ©2017 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, images courtesy of Dior.

Niki de Saint Phalle’s imaginative world is populated with strange yet alluring beings—a place where even the monsters are sweetly charming. Here, a silk scarf is populated by a few of the artist’s recurring creatures: dragons, spiders, snakes, and other gentle beasts, surrounded by flowers, music notes, and the sun. Scrawled across the garment in fanciful script, in French and English, are whimsical, innocent declarations of love: “You are my Tyrannosaurus rex,” for instance, and “Je te s’aurait toujours fidele.”


A Signature Dinosaur

Dior’s Spring/Summer 2018 runway show. Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.

One of the first references to de Saint Phalle’s work to appear on the runway, this classically French striped sweater is given a fantastical twist with the addition of one of the artist’s less cuddly dragons. It makes for a look that is casual and easy to wear while evoking the midcentury Gallic glamour that Dior has long been known for.


The “Nanas” Effect

Left: Dior’s Spring/Summer 2018 runway show. Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images. Right: One of Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Nanas.” © Niki Charitable Art Fund.

The season’s color-blocked outfits, like this leather jumpsuit, have an ultramodern and assertive feel, as if primed for competition on the racetrack. They are also reminiscent of de Saint Phalle’s vividly colored “Nanas” series—large, abstracted sculptures of women that celebrate femininity, fertility, and motherhood.


The Tarot Garden

Left: The scenery at Dior’s Spring/Summer 2018 Runway Show. Right: Models wear designs inspired by the immersive mosaics at the Tarot Garden. Images © 2018 Dior.

A staggeringly ambitious achievement, the dreamlike Tarot Garden is an outdoor sculpture park filled with mirrored-glass mosaics and sculptures that the artist built on an ancient Etruscan site in Tuscany. Creating it was not only an act of artistry but also of empowerment, informed by her interest in the motifs of the Tarot: “I’m following a course that was chosen for me, following a pressing need to show that a woman can work on a monumental scale,” de Saint Phalle wrote of the project. With such a powerful message, it’s no surprise Chiuri chose to evoke the colors and textures of the garden in her designs. 

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