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Dior CEO Sidney Toledano in conversation with Maurice Lévy: ‘Today’s luxury consumers want roots and a story, but they also want modernity’

Luxury takes different forms for the modern consumer. It’s a well-heeled blend of history, quality, modernity and aspiration, according to Dior chief executive Sidney Toledano, who meets Maurice Lévy, chief executive of Publicis Groupe, for a tête-à-tête to discuss the role of the iconic fashion house as enduring curator of a particularly Parisian brand of style.

Maurice Lévy: Christian Dior is both an amazing character and a brand that has lasted 70 years without a wrinkle, with a distinct style and image. He indelibly left his mark on fashion. Big names have taken on the mantle of the successor, all with very strong personalities, for example Yves Saint Laurent and, much later, Gianfranco Ferré. So how can the Dior spirit stay alive and distinct with this broad group of creatives? How does the brand remain timeless, and how does one define this Dior spirit?

Sidney Toledano: When Monsieur Dior showed his first collection on 12 February 1947, what took place is something that could accurately be described as a big bang. His creativity just exploded. It was the appearance of the famous ‘new look’, according to the phrase coined by Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of the American magazine Harper’s Bazaar.

It was a total revolution, a new style. Elegance and femininity returned to chase away the bad memories of the war. You have to remember that in 1947, with Paris only recently emerging from WW2, femininity was still shaped by privation and rationing and women were wearing men’s jackets, the ‘zoot-suit’ look. Then Christian Dior presented the ‘bar’ jacket which had a distinctive allure, a real elegance. It heralded a renaissance for haute couture.

The whole spirit of Dior was condensed in that one collection, which was the combination of an unflinching artistic vision with an exceptional level of savoir-faire, provided by the ‘petites mains’, which resonated very strongly with the aspirations and desires of women in that era. And ever since, each time the planets have been in alignment with a designer with as singular a vision, that resonance has been there, too. In his recent cruise collection for the house, Raf Simons further redefined and sublimated the bar jacket.

ML: Who are the ‘petites mains’ and what do they represent?

ST: Today, designers can be British, Belgian, German – real creativity doesn’t come with a passport. However, the savoir-faire remains very French, even more specifically Parisian. We have always fought to maintain the training of ‘petites mains’, those seamstresses and tailors who are at the heart of the house. In specialised schools, like the one operated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture – over which I preside – they learn the style, how to sew and how to cut. Then they enter our ateliers and work with women, some of whom have been in the house for more than 30 years. It’s a long learning process.

ML: With the explosion of social networks and blogs, how can a brand like Christian Dior maintain its standing, its voice, and guarantee its image is protected? It seems that people have a tendency to pick and mix.

ST: We were highly proactive when it came to digital, firstly by creating our site and using it as a way to communicate our message, then we produced videos with our muses. The adventure with Marion Cotillard is a part of that. She wanted us to do small films designed to be shown online. The first was directed by Olivier Dahan. Then there was David Lynch, among others, a web documentary, a video recently. Today, for every campaign – whether it be with Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman, whoever – we always produce a making-of and other forms of additional content for the social networks. With Rihanna, it’s gone way beyond what we imagined – the results are incredible. We premiered the as-yet-unreleased song from her new album. She’s also been posting herself. The impact this has among young people is enormous.

ML: Which leads us to two big questions: what is luxury today and who are today’s luxury consumers?

ST: Luxury has changed. It has developed and adapted itself according to the new markets. In the early 1980s, Japan changed the playing field. The Japanese had begun to travel and wanted to buy accessories, more so than ready-to-wear, for reasons to do with morphology, taste, adapted materials. There was an explosion of leather goods and then watches. What’s more, the profile of the luxury players changed. Suddenly we began recruiting people who had studied, who were engineers. The overwhelming growth meant that such companies have had to be organised differently. The top managers will often be product people who have a real inherent passion for this world, for the image, the retail.

What is luxury today? Obviously, it’s still all about a product of exceptional quality, and an image. The luxury consumers want roots, they want a story, they want to know the tradition, but they also want modernity, especially because they’re younger. All these young people who have succeeded in, among others, the tech industry, communication professions, entertainment, they all have high incomes; we see young millionaires of 30 or 35. They are massively well informed, whether they’re Chinese, Korean or American, unquestionably thanks to the internet. You need to be able to boast tradition, expertise, excellence, and services at the highest level.

ML: When looking at the forecasts of the IMF, World Bank, etc, the suggestions are that we will end up with a rising middle class that will represent 500 million luxury consumers. Does it still make sense to speak of luxury, which in essence is about selectivity, something rare and precious, when there is such a mass market of this kind?

ST: Luxury was once associated with rarity. Haute couture is not something that’s available to everyone, that’s a certainty. Fine jewellery, crocodile bags costing more than €50,000, these are definitely things you will not see everywhere. We don’t allow ourselves to produce products that are too accessible, but at €3,000 – the average price for a bag – we’re no longer defined by rarity either. Many women in the world today can afford a bag for €3,000.

And then there is the global phenomenon: there are customers in China, Korea, there are European customers, French, Italian. We operate globally which allows us to target the very high-end in many countries, and goes towards explaining the potential contained in hundreds of millions of customers. Hence my optimism on the growth of luxury.

ML: We get the impression that women dream of Dior, but men somewhat less. Is Christian Dior really interested in the men’s market?

ST: Christian Dior was focused on women and was also very much inspired by men’s fabrics. But let’s not forget that Monsieur Dior lived for only 10 years of his house. He passed away in 1957, and never had the time to make any inroads in menswear. That happened later with designers like Patrick Lavoix. Then there was the Dior Homme phenomenon in 2000 with Hedi Slimane. It was a revolution in men’s fashion.

The men’s share is now weaker than the women’s, but we have a network of nearly 200 stores, with 60 men’s stores that are establishing and growing very well, particularly in Asia. Menswear was less ‘fashion’ before the arrival of Dior Homme, now men are emerging from their classic roles, looking after their own children. It’s a growing sector, and I think Dior Homme has a bright future.

ML: We’ve seen that women dream of Dior, we’ve seen that Dior dreams about reaching more men, but what does Sidney Toledano dream about?

ST: I would say that I share Monsieur Dior’s dream of making women more beautiful and more elegant. My dream is that our house, which has enjoyed strong growth in recent years, continues to maintain that famous Dior spirit.

This feature was first published in The Drum's Cannes issue, guest edited by Maurice Lévy.

Translation by Farah Nayeri

Photography by Christophe Beauregard