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Originally published Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 2:00 PM

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Dior looks back to move forward

Fashion: In his debut collection for Dior, Raf Simons's themes included sculptural lines, ravishing color, a preference for pockets, a sense of chic femininity but also ease.

The New York Times

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PARIS — The hardest thing to realize in fashion is that the future lies in the past. The second hardest thing is to forget the past.

That precise turn of mind is what Raf Simons showed in his first collection for Dior, the high point of the fall haute couture shows. In almost every one of the 54 outfits, in the purposeful use of craft, Simons made a link to the modernity and energy that Christian Dior brought to fashion right after World War II. Those themes included sculptural lines, ravishing color, a preference for pockets, a sense of chic femininity but also ease. Simons then put those ideas through his own filter.

The collection was beautiful, modest and thoroughly engaging.

With a flair for drama, fashion people routinely describe any change of command in terms of a papal ascension. But this time the sense was legitimate. There are only two great couture houses left in Paris, Chanel and Dior. Karl Lagerfeld has been at Chanel 30 years. Simons, 44, is only the fifth designer to take over Dior since its founder died, in 1957, and his successor, Yves Saint Laurent, came to prominence.

On top of everything, Dior had the public relations nightmare of John Galliano's arrest and dismissal in February 2011 for a drunken anti-Semitic rant in a Paris bar. Although his excesses were an open secret, and praised when they were the creative kind, executives at Dior and LVMH, including the chairman Bernard Arnault, were eager to distance themselves from the Galliano era.

But what was Dior's look for the future?

The search for a new designer took months. Speculation initially centered on Marc Jacobs, Alber Elbaz, Phoebe Philo and Riccardo Tisci, among others. Simons emerged as a dark horse.

If he was not the most obvious choice for a big-time house, it was perhaps because people underestimated his abilities, or saw them only in the context of the fashion he did for Jil Sander. Through his women's collections at Sander he completely changed perceptions about minimalism and color. He did that in a matter of a few years. An influential star in menswear since the mid-'90s, Simons did not begin designing women's fashion until 2005. And he had no experience in haute couture.

So Dior had a lot riding on his debut Monday.

In couture, clothes are cut and stitched by hand. That gives them a roundness not available in ready-to-wear.

"The difference is hard to put into words," said Lagerfeld, who has been practicing couture since the '50s, and was trained by people who learned the craft in the '30s. "It's a kind of feeling. It's also about what's on the inside of a dress."

A couture atelier — Chanel has 200 workers in its atelier — works only on couture garments, while ready-to-wear has its own ateliers. There are specialists in feathers and embroidery, like Lesage. A dress that appears to be tweed or a knit may in reality be thousands of tiny threads, ribbons and beads embroidered on tulle, making the garment ridiculously light — and expensive.

For Simons, couture is a new and extraordinary playground.

There was a huge sense of anticipation as guests arrived for the show. The setting was five rooms of a classic Paris house, each lined in a floor-to-ceiling tapestry of fresh flowers that had taken 150 workers to assemble. A blue room in delphinium, a yellow room in mimosa, another in white orchids. Christian Dior loved flowers and cultivated them in his Normandy garden. Simons loves intense color.

"I haven't been this excited to see a show in a long time," said Emmanuelle Alt, the editor-in-chief of French Vogue. "Today I'm going to see something I've never seen before."

Adding to that sense of tension was the sheer turnout of designers. Among them: Pierre Cardin, Azzedine Alaia, Marc Jacobs, Alber Elbaz, Donatella Versace, Riccardo Tisci, Christopher Kane and Diane von Furstenberg. Arnault, after getting up to greet Cardin, sat between his daughter Delphine and Princess Charlene of Monaco. The audience included the actresses Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Lawrence, Melanie Laurent and Sharon Stone.

As Simons hoped, the flower-decked walls provided an electric background for the clothes, like a superbly plain coat in scarlet cashmere, its sides gathered in two discreet folds and with pockets set slightly back. Dior thought that position gave the wearer a more flattering line. Simons interpreted Dior tweeds, for gray coats and a strapless dress, by updating the pattern with a more geometric feel.

The Bar jacket appeared throughout the show, but the most stunning rendition was in black wool with the base embroidered in thousands of dangling black beads tipped in red. The beads were worked so closely together that the surface resembled fur. A full-skirted gown in white organza evoked pointillism with thousands of tiny round bits of chiffon, while another was embroidered all over in pale blue and pink feathers, after the painter Agnes Martin.

At a time when much of high fashion is influenced by images, whether iconic photographs of the '50s or digitally manipulated images, Simons' debut essentially ask you to trust your own eye. His clothes are often so simple that you have to look at them for a while before you see the small gesture or the magisterial way a sleeveless black crepe dress falls over the body, defining the waist, rounding the hips, then floating out again just below the knees.

"I think he was the perfect choice," Arnault, visibly pleased, said after the show. "He's full of ideas, and he's also very easy to work with." He laughed and added, "I know I can always call him on the phone, and you know that's not always the case with some designers."

Dior: http://www.dior.com/magazine/en_gb/(theme)/1258

New York Times slideshow of Dior show: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2012/07/05/fashion/20120705-DIOR.html

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