All the good tables at L'Avenue – the alfresco ones – are full. Slim, well-dressed men and women tuck into even skinnier rosemary fries and flutes of champagne, while Christian Dior, Chanel and Louis Vuitton handbags snooze on seats next to their owners, gold and silver chain-link handles coiled around sleek, logoed leather bodies like exotic snakes sunning in the desert. The chic restaurant hums with the melodic din of mellifluous voices steeped in the lilts of Monaco, Milan, Hong Kong and Moscow, while chauffeured cars-in-waiting hum outside.
A woman walks in — her hair unruly, her jeans stiff and her T-shirt plain — with a giant tote bag on her arm that reads 'FEMINIST', the blackness of its canvas throwing each large, bold Helvetica letter into sharp relief.
Welcome to Maria Grazia Chiuri's Paris.
In a way, the entrance of that unknown woman with the loud and proud tote bag in the swish restaurant mirrors the Italian designer's arrival at Christian Dior — the first female artistic director in the company's 70-year-history — as much as it reflects the change happening in the fashion world right now.
'There is some argument that people's beliefs are political and so they prefer not to speak about them. But if you have a point of view, I think you are political in some way; everything is political now,' Chiuri tells me later that day, when I ask her about her own opening feminist statement, which she memorably made during her debut with the house last September.
A native Italian speaker (Chiuri was born in Rome), she's still adjusting to having to speak French as much as she does English, and tends to pause thoughtfully between words.
We're sitting in an incredibly bright, remarkably plush salon in the company's Paris headquarters on rue de Marignan. With the exception of her platinum-blonde bob, Chiuri is a vision in black, from her gothic eyeliner to her voluminous, ankle-length skirt and logoed kitten heels (all Dior, of course), and cuts a stark contrast to her soft, genteel surroundings.
This will become a theme in Chiuri's story. When she showed her debut collection, it was her series of plain white T-shirts, shouting in capitals, 'WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS', inspired by the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's essay, that spoke the loudest, rather than the updated bar jackets and ethereal tulle skirts.
The collection's sporty, quilted fencing vests and jackets and bags with hip-hop knuckle-duster logo straps in gold hardware couldn't be more different from the work of her predecessors, including the regal, sweeping, grandiose gowns of John Galliano and soigné femininity of Raf Simons. Chiuri's second collection, for SS17, done entirely in navy blue and filled with tailored workwear and sturdy denim, drove home her change in direction.
At Chiuri's Dior, the reality of women's lives would not take a back seat to the fantasy.
'It was about my vision for women now,' says Chiuri. 'Because Dior is a feminine brand. But what makes me speak about women today? That's a question that obsesses me. There is sometimes this thinking that if you are in fashion, you cannot speak about your time; that you cannot look around at what's happening, at life and what problems there are at the moment. I have a huge interest in this, because if you have kids, you think about their future; you want to know what's happening in the world,' she says.
When Dior announced its appointment of Chiuri last July, the world was embroiled in the confusing aftermath of the EU referendum and the building intensity of the US election, one in which feminist discourse reached a new high as it became clear a Trump presidency could put basic women's rights at stake.
Fashion on the one hand is a beautiful dress, but if there's no message it's just a dress.
Chiuri says it was impossible for her not to acknowledge the politically charged climate or the evolving reality of the women she designs for. 'I work in fashion, so I have to also speak about this. It's not possible to not speak about it. I think to be feminine now — and this brand speaks about femininity — to speak about the way you dress yourself, your point of view, you define yourself in the way you want. Because fashion on one hand is a beautiful dress, but if there's no message, it's just a beautiful dress.'
Her vision for the house was divisive. At her debut, the audience gave a raucous standing ovation, while women the world over celebrated Chiuri's strong messaging on social media with zealous regrams and a chorus of 'Hell, yeah!'
But although Dior's president and chief executive Sidney Toledano approvingly described Chiuri as a 'very direct person, concrete, pragmatic' when telling Women's Wear Daily why Chiuri was the right woman for the job, some fashion critics disapproved of her matter-of-fact approach to the clothes.
They complained her collections were too commercial, implying that denim, boiler suits and T-shirts were too pedestrian for one of the industry's most storied and revered houses, one that generates roughly €5bn in annual sales.
No matter: other designers followed her lead by producing politically-minded collections, and the AW17 season was an explosion of this, complete with protest-slogan tees.
'I think to speak about any argument is good,' says Chiuri. 'Some arguments need to be focused on: equality, intolerance, many different arguments. Because in one moment it can change. So I'm very relaxed when people criticise me; it's OK and I don't worry about it too much,' she laughs.
The critical response — so strong, so divided — to Chiuri's time at Dior so far has brought to mind the controversy surrounding another high-profile debut, Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent in 2012. His grunge babydoll dresses and rocker skinny trousers dismayed some longstanding members of the fashion press, but shoppers loved the change and the house's profits doubled in three years.
Only time will tell whether Chiuri will have the same impact at Dior. She certainly had the Midas touch at Valentino, where, together with her co-creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli, she helped quadruple sales between 2009 and 2016. But the designer seems intent on pushing the house to a place where it becomes a woman's go-to for her day-to-day wardrobe, as well as for special occasions.
I'm very relaxed when people criticise me.
In a way, the uniform — an idea that epitomises the notion of wardrobe basics — has become the conduit. For AW16, she explored the fencing kit, with its padded vests, breeches and sneakers. For SS17, it was the workwear of the women who kept World Word II-era factories afloat (sturdy denim dungarees), with elements of the Sixties militant's uniform (the utility jacket, leather berets) mixed in.
'In some way, the uniform influences the fashion world,' she explains. 'It describes the people that use it, as there are so many uniforms for work, and they all give different messages. I think sometimes it helps you to be more confident in yourself.'
'There are other moments where you want to protect yourself, and it can be used in this way. So my message is to find your personal uniform. It's not always easy for women to define their identity, plus society pushes on us a vision of this when we are young that we probably feel isn't right for us. And so you need to work to discover what your personal identity is.'
In Chiuri's case, her existence as an Italian woman, a mother and an expat impacts her work the most. Throughout our conversation, she talks about her career as a family effort.
'When I moved from Valentino to Dior, it wasn't only about Dior but rather a personal thing. I wanted to test myself. I'm 53, you know; it's a time where you see your life in a different way. You're not young, but you are young enough to have the energy to do something new. I discussed it with my family, trying another adventure in another country. And they told me, "OK, now is the right time." My son, Niccolo, is 23; my daughter, Rachele, is 20; my husband loves Paris and can travel. We can do this now.'
And she describes her early days as a parent — taking Rachele to work during her time at Fendi — as transformative.
'This job is part of my life. In many ways I share this job with my family — sometimes too much. We grew up in fashion, the whole family; it's a strange situation. I have a photo of Rachele, Niccolo and I in the factory when they were kids. Just imagine: a small Niccolo walking around the showroom with the bags. I was very lucky to start with the Fendi family because it was five sisters with kids and they understood me perfectly,' she says. 'I would say any woman needs the support of her family to be successful, but particularly in fashion, I think, because it's such a unique business. It's not like it starts at 9am and ends at 5pm.'
Chiuri lives in Paris full-time, while Rachele is in London, attending Goldsmiths University; her husband, Paolo Regini, owns a shirtmaking atelier in Rome, where Niccolo is a student. But the distance doesn't seem to have dampened their closeness. Her daughter's influence is regularly apparent in her work through Chiuri's desire to understand and appeal to the millennial generation.
'I think they are very inspiring for me, because they have another point of view about life. The new generation are the new clients.'
There is sometimes this thinking that if you are in fashion, you cannot speak about your time.
And she cites her relationship with both her children as a direct influence on her decision to be vocal politically. 'I have a daughter and a son and that changes your point of view. I started thinking: what's happening now? I live in Italy — well, I live everywhere now; I don't know where I live! — but in Italy there is a very traditional, macho culture. And I thought it was not right for Rachele to stay there.'
So she moved her to London when she was 17. 'I wanted to push her in a more multicultural direction; for her to see a different point of view. And I discovered other women felt the same about this traditional view of women; that there was the risk we were going back to the past. And I said, "We have to do something about this."'
So perhaps we shouldn't expect the message to leave the dress anytime soon. Chiuri's couture collection, shown this July at Paris's gilded Hôtel National des Invalides, was about addressing 'all kinds of womanhood', and underlined her unfussy take on glamour (borrowing heavily from menswear in the process).
Under Chiuri's vision, women have places to go and battles to win, much like the designer herself: 'I'm very happy the world is giving difficult positions to women. Everyone was so surprised when Dior gave me this opportunity. But why? Because it's not the usual. I want to see a future in which women have more solidarity. Together we can make a difference. But we need to do it together.'
This story originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of ELLE UK.