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Art Review: Esprit Dior

Legendary fashion label Dior has transformed MOCA into a temple of couture. If fashion is your bag, this exhibition is not to be missed.
Sep 17, 2013 | 12:52 Tue

Esprit Dior, at MoCA, sets itself apart from the slew of big brand showcases to grace China over recent years, not only through its sheer breadth, but also its element of dialogue and exchange. Of course, it’s a savvy PR move in terms of preaching Dior’s heritage to its fastest growing market worldwide. But going beyond that, the participation of nine contemporary Chinese artists, the presence of a handful of the maison’s artisans, topped off by creative exhibition design elevates the show to something special.

Focusing on the relationship between fashion and art, the exhibition is part history, part exploration of recurring themes, framing Dior as a springboard for creativity through the inclusion of mixed media works by artists old and new. As you’d expect, there’s eye candy galore, courtesy of a hundred or so frocks, bags and jewelry, all set alongside gorgeous imagery of Marlene, Marilyn, Audrey et al., as well as more recent brand ambassadors Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lawrence and Princess Diana.

Divided into nine main areas, things kick off with the label’s 1947 debut collection: since dubbed the "New Look," its full-skirted silhouettes and cinched waists brought frivolity and decadence to an austere postwar world. Radical and refreshing, that first catwalk at 30 Avenue Montaigne heralded a new beginning for couture culture in Europe. The section also touches on Dior’s early career as a gallerist in 1920s Paris, setting the stage for subsequent offerings from Alberto Giacometti, René Gruau and Christian Bérard, as well as contemporary Chinese talents.

From here, beautifully designed areas explore recurring motifs of Dior’s legacy — the color red, gardens and nature, and Versailles — all featuring a balance of photography, film and immaculately-dressed mannequins. Mixing things up, a ground floor area has been transformed into a modern day atelier, with clinical white walls, instantly recognizable mock-ups and five artisans flown over from Paris.

They’re apparently doing two-week shifts, with the current batch comprising two tailors, a leather craftsman, and two ladies from the fragrance department. Dior has even laid on a couple of translators. Go there, quiz them on their craft, and watch the masters at work sewing, gluing and, erm, tying gold thread around bottles. They looked overwhelmed by the weekend’s crowds—and honestly so were we—but for anyone interested in the day-to-day of Dior it’s an awesome opportunity.

Dotted throughout are those new pieces by nine specially commissioned Chinese artists. While we applaud the concept, the works get lost among the general splendor of everything else on show here. There are exceptions, of course — namely Lin Tianmiao’s intriguing sculptural objects, tightly wrapped in the gold thread of those iconic J’adore perfume bottles. Stealing the show, though, is Liu Jianhua’s downright stunning installation of those very same bottles, suspended and glittering above the exhibition’s swan song, a glittering array of gold.

All of that points towards some impressive exhibition design, punctuated by clever touches to evoke the glamour of the frocks themselves. Think the sound of staccato, stiletto clip-clopping heels; and an intricate installation featuring an oversized Parisian dolls house, backlit to show silhouettes behind. Similarly, a section titled "The Dior Garden" features gravel underfoot and the twittering of song birds. Bien fait, Dior.

All that said, some stuff is less great. A black gauze in front of certain displays, for example, may keep hands at bay, but it also dulls the colors of what’s on display. Oh, and unless you’re totally au fait with either French or Chinese, some films may well pass you by. Our biggest gripe, though, was the snap-happy crowds. On the opening weekend, we were tip-toeing to see exhibits and (inadvertently) photo bombing way too many pics, selfies or otherwise. But hey, this is Dior, in Shanghai. It’s inevitable.

All in all, it’s a beautiful exhibition, creatively designed and definitely accessible regardless of your knowledge of fashion or art history.

Esprit Dior is on show through November 10, 10am–6pm every day, including holidays — for details, click here.