In July 2016 Maria Grazia Chiuri became the seventh designer and first female creative director at Christian Dior. Her first couture collection, spring–summer 2017, presented in January 2017 coincided with the 70th anniversary of the House of Dior. Set amongst hedges, topiary and raked paths of the Musée Rodin in Paris the collection contrasted black tailored suits, that recalibrated the influential Bar suit of Dior’s 1947 ‘New Look’, with romantic ball gowns made ethereal by delicate embroideries, translucent fabrics and lace.

Essence d’Herbier, 2017, was presented as Look #31 from Chiuri’s debut couture collection for the house. This work is the latest in a long line of significant Dior Couture acquisitions that the National Gallery of Victoria has made stretching back to the early 1970s. This work was also one of twenty key works from the NGV Collection featured in the NGV’s 2017 exhibition The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture.

The strapless cocktail dress is constructed from sheer organza, which has been embroidered overall with raffia and scattered floral motifs in silk thread, further highlighted with coloured spangles. A deep raffia fringe extends from the hemline. The dress has an internal bodice of net with boning, a skirt lined with a single layer of lining and a separate tulle skirt with three bands of crinoline to support its sculptural form. Taking its starting point from an embroidered sample produced by French embroidery house Rébé for Christian Dior in the 1950s (now in the collection of the Musée Christian Dior, Granville), Chiuri used the exquisite floral design and motifs to form the richly embroidered surface of this dress.

Essence d’Herbier was first sent to the Paris-based embroidery atelier Safrane Cortambert as ten individual organza panels: seven for the bodice and three for the skirt. Detailed instructions were pinned to the panels denoting the exact position, colour, scale, thread count and beadwork necessary for the design. Stretched over a frame, the panels were then worked on by up to seven needleworkers, beginning with the floral sprays, followed by the surrounding raffia – which was first flattened, then spliced into fine strips for stitching into a surface of small raised loops – and finished with the beadwork. It took more than a month and several thousand hours to complete, the embroidered panels were then returned to the Christian Dior Couture atelier for fitting, shaping and assembly by one of its skilled tailoring artisans.

Haute couture represents the pinnacle of individualised perfection in a garment: a union of design creativity, technical expertise, flawless fit, costly materials and countless hours. Evermore exceptional in a world of global fast fashion, haute couture remains unique in its adherence to tradition in the pursuit of originality − yet it is also a symbol of collective endeavour. Since 1946 the Dior workrooms at 30 Avenue Montaigne, in accordance with their respective divisions, have maintained an acute, specialist knowledge that privileges manual methods of making and arcane skills in the transformation of a sketch or idea into finished garment form.

Essence d’Herbier embodies the renewed interest in the artisanal practices associated with haute couture, such as embroidery, pleating, feather work and flower-making. It also demonstrates how these time-honoured practices have now become part of the vocabulary of contemporary couture designers, highlighting the extraordinary levels of craftsmanship demanded by high fashion. Chiuri’s own design philosophy appears to be a careful blend of the history and traditions of the house coupled with her own layered and romantic vision for the future of couture.

Katie Somerville, Senior Curator, Fashion and Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2017)