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03 December 2023

How long can Dior thrive without a couturier?

Dior fashion house in Paris in 2011. Dior has yet to name a new chief designer - but sales are booming. (AFP)


Ten months after John Galliano was sacked over a racist outburst, Dior has yet to name a new chief designer - but sales are booming. Which begs the question: how long can the French fashion house thrive without a couturier at the helm?

At Paris Fashion Week in September, Christian Dior's chief executive Sidney Toledano batted away questions about Galliano's succession, saying the fashion house would take the time it needs to find the right fit.

The following month Dior - a crown jewel of Bernard Arnault's luxury empire - posted a turnover of 705 million euros ($890 million) for the first three quarters of 2011, up 21 percent on the period in 2010. Retail sales were up by 27 percent.

Buoyant sales suggest Dior has managed to limit fallout from the Galliano scandal, sacking him as soon a video emerged of him hurling anti-Semitic slurs at patrons in a Paris bar, and strongly condemning his outburst.

Since then, the British designer's former right-hand man Bill Gaytten has overseen its collections, sticking to house "codes" from Dior red to the classic nipped-waist bar suit.

For the historian of fashion Lydia Kamitsis, Galliano may no longer be there, but Dior can still draw on "all that he brought it in terms of product, of image or general artistic direction."

That said, experts warn the house cannot carry on forever without artistic direction, especially when it comes to haute couture

Looking back a few decades, Chanel carried on selling suits at a brisk pace after Coco Chanel's death in 1971 - but in creative terms the house was at a standstill until the arrival of Karl Lagerfeld 12 years later.

"You can manage without a designer for a season or two," argued Serge Carreira, a luxury sector expert and teacher at Sciences Po university in Paris. "But there is a limit, a brand must be regularly refreshed, renewed."

For the time being, he says Dior is reaping "the rewards of a considerable repositioning undertaken since the mid-2000s," building on the brand's identity and developing internationally, especially in China.

"A dynamic that was set in motion well before Galliano's departure," he stresses.

The success of the Lady Dior bag and the perfume J'adore - one of the world's top-selling fragrances - shows that "the brand has an engine".

Patricia Romatet of the French Institute of Fashion sees Dior's variety as a key strength, as exemplified by the very different actresses who embody the "face" of the brand in its ad campaigns.

Charlize Theron offers a "glamorous ultra-femininity", Natalie Portman a "more consensual feminity", Marion Cotillard brings "classy, French sophistication" and the American Mila Kunis a touch of youth.

The brand's variety - despite the lack of a designer - is also the sign of the "highly professional shadow workers who keep the company's business flourishing," said Romatet.

She suggests Dior could emerge stronger from its designer-free stint.

"The pause gives it some breathing space, and could enable it to take a new direction, to start afresh from a blank slate."

Belgium's avant-gardist designer Raf Simons is currently tipped by the fashion media as favourite to succeed Galliano.

The Gibraltar-born, London-bred Galliano, meanwhile, has vanished from sight, despite the best efforts of the planet's papararazzi to track him down.

Floored by what he said was a triple addiction to drink, drugs and medicines - which he blamed for his hateful outburst - Galliano headed into detox after he was dismissed by Dior.

Looking drawn, he made a brief appearance at his Paris trial in June, but was not there to hear the verdict in September when the court handed him a suspended fine for making anti-Semitic insults.

Court case aside, the designer has resurfaced only to attend the July wedding of his friend Kate Moss, telling Vogue magazine that making the supermodel's dress had been a form of "creative rehab".

"She dared me to be John Galliano again," he said. "I couldn't pick up a pencil."