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A New Exhibition Recalls Vintage Dior Beauty


Before celebrities posed and pouted for fashion and beauty campaigns, designers turned to illustrators to create compelling advertisements that would spark the imagination of the buying public. In a new exhibition at London’s Somerset House, the iconic work of artist René Gruau, who collaborated with Christian Dior on some of the house’s most famed campaigns, takes center stage. Dior Illustrated: René Gruau and the Line of Beauty celebrates Gruau’s provocative bold, exaggerated brushstrokes and fluid figures, which perfectly captured “the energy, the sophistication, and daring of Dior,” according to John Galliano. The house’s current designer designed a special dress in homage to Gruau that’s included in the exhibition. Also on view are more than 40 vintage perfume bottles, original sketches, magazine covers, and posters from the Italian artist’s 1940′s-to-1960′s prime. Here, curators Claire Catterall and Vincent Leret chat with us over e-mail about the exhibition, which opens tomorrow and runs through January 9, 2011.

Why did you decide to launch an exhibition of Gruau’s work now?

Catterall: “There has never been a major showcase of René Gruau’s work in the U.K.; in fact, his last big show was in 1997 in the Musée de la Publicité at the Louvre, Paris. This is the first time so many of Gruau’s works have been showcased in one place. Also, Gruau seems to be experiencing a bit of ‘moment’ in London. Serendipitously, as well as being included in the Design Museum’s fashion illustration exhibition Drawing Fashion, the Fashion Illustration Gallery in Mayfair is also holding a show of his work—illustrations for the cover of International Textiles magazine.”

Tell us how Gruau and Christian Dior first met and became friends.

Leret: “René Gruau and Christian Dior’s great friendship dates back to the 1930′s, when both men met on the fashion desk of the French newspaper Le Figaro. They came from the same bourgeois backgrounds, shared the same childhood dreams, and had a very similar upbringing. They both had a strong maternal influence; their mothers were both elegant women from the Belle Époque era who were inspired by their mutual love of luxury and refinement. Each recognized in the other a kindred spirit.”

When did the two first collaborate professionally?

Leret: “Their friendship deepened during World War II and the hardships of the years under German occupation. With his family, Christian Dior started growing vegetables in the South of France, and he regularly sent baskets of fruits and vegetables to his friends who were in financial difficulty, including Gruau. When Christian Dior launched his first haute couture collection, the famous New Look in 1947, Gruau was extremely supportive. Having become a renowned fashion illustrator himself, he played a key role in the success of his close friend and confidant.”

What distinguished Gruau from other illustrators of his day?

Leret: “Gruau invented for Dior a completely new advertising style, which was sophisticated, daring, and humorous, all at the same time. He was the first one to break free of the product and rely on symbolic interpretations and enduring motifs—rather than simply drawing the perfume bottles themselves. By doing so, he created a very powerful and iconic visual identity for the House of Dior.”

What’s a particular highlight or favorite work in the exhibition?

Leret: “When Dior launched his first fragrance, Miss Dior, in 1947, he naturally turned to Gruau to create a series of drawings to illustrate the perfume, which is included in the exhibition. Dior instructed Gruau: ‘Do exactly what you want; we speak the same language.”

Do you think there’s a resurgence of fashion illustration lately?

Catterall: “Yes, there is renewed interest in it as an art form and it is appearing more and more in editorial—both in print and online. Generally, there has been a heightened interest in graphics and illustration recently; we see it much more now in magazines, newspapers, commercials, and in album cover art.”

Why hold the exhibition in London as opposed to Paris where Dior is based?

Catterall: “Gruau loved ‘English elegance,’ and he loved the eighteenth century—both things he shared with Christian Dior, who borrowed the famous Dior black and white houndstooth motif from English tailoring. We thought, what better place to exhibit his work than in one of London’s finest eighteenth-century buildings?”

The exhibition also includes the works from current illustrators who are inspired by Gruau. How did you narrow down the list?

Catterall: “We chose relatively well established names like Jasper Goodall, with newcomers such as Sarah Arnett and Richard Kilroy. Each has a very different style of illustration, and each conveys a different understanding of Gruau. Their work is testament to how Gruau’s work can influence and continues to resonate with contemporary illustrators today.”

Photo: Courtesy of Dior Beauty

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