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An infallible nose

Christian Dior - Esprit de Parfums at the International Perfume Museum of Grasse. Copyright Laziz HamaniDior: it’s a name that everyone knows, even 60 years after the death of its founder. Dior perfumes still sit among some of the world’s most expensive bottles; its breathy advertising is legendary. But did you know that this designer extraordinaire has close ties to Grasse and its surroundings?

Christian Dior was not the first designer perfumer of the last century – there was Paul Poiret, who from 1911 created not only apparel, but also matching scents and thus conceived the now abundant pairing of fashion and fragrance, then Coco Chanel, who released N°5 in 1921, and Jeanne Lanvin with Arpège in 1927 – but he could not imagine his fabric creations without them having a suitable olfactory accessory either.

The summer exhibition at the International Perfume Museum (MIP) in Grasse, which begins midway through May, lifts the curtain on this famous brand. It explores the influence the south of France exercised on Dior – a native of Normandy – and above all, the impact the light and fragrances had on his work. From vintage Dior bottles and perfumes to photographs, historical documents, furniture from the first half of the 20th century, paintings, dresses, videos, interactive installations and, of course, his perfumes, the exhibit displays the considerable works of this man who died suddenly of a heart attack aged 52 in October 1957.

“He took a long time to find his way to his vocation,” says Olivier Quiquempois, the director of the MIP and the other municipal museums in Grasse.

Dior started designing clothing shortly before World War II, but it wasn’t until 1946 that he would found his own label, Maison Dior. “With this, he became famous overnight,” art historian Olivier continues, “and it was likely thanks to his connections in the artistic, media and economic milieu.

He was able to identify trends of the time, he had the right nose and he knew what people wanted.”Even after the war came to an end, he continued to visit his sister frequently and in 1950, purchased his own estate – Château de la Colle Noire - in the neighbouring village of Montauroux. There he grew fragrant florals such as roses, jasmine and lavender. He welcomed many great names of the time – Bernard Buffet, Marc Chagall, Marie-Blanche de Polignac, René Gruau and Marie-Laure de Noailles – into his home, which dates from the mid-19th century and is a spacious, elegant place. It has recently been repurchased and renovated by the House of Dior. His beloved sister Catherine continued to live in Callian, growing Centifolia

Copyright Philippe Schlienger Collection Christian Dior Parfums roses beneath the Mediterranean sun, until her death in 2008.

Dior worked tirelessly on his brand from the end of 1946 and, having secured financial support from textile manufacturer Marcel Broussac, unveiled his first collection in 1947: a style that was once to be called ‘New Look’. It was lusher and more feminine than the sportier style of Chanel, with detailing at the hip and chest.

The materials were almost shockingly lavish and luxurious after the barren war years, but they also had another quality.

They had a scent, they had Miss Dior.

The perfume, which is still available today, was inspired by Dior’s experiences in the Pays de Grasse. It plays with notes of rose and of lavender, and is considered to be superior to the perfumes that other fashion houses were creating at the time. It was, in part, created by haut perfumeur Paul Vacher while the following Diorama, Eau Fraîche, Diorissimo and Eau Savage are productions of Dior’s close friend Edmond Roudnitska.

To this day, the perfumers of the House of Dior continue to have a close connection to the city of Grasse. Chief Dior nose and Grasse-native François Demachy, who joined the company in 2006, moved his studio from Paris to the city at the end of last year.

Dior didn’t just occupy himself with the scent of a perfume, he also designed the bottles and the packaging. To him, the outer trappings should convey the same level of excellence as their high-quality content.

For Dior, art was the elixir of life. Copyright Philippe Schlienger Collection Christian Dior Parfums

Now, 70 years after his first show with the New Look collection and the introduction of Miss Dior, the time has come for the ‘Christian Dior: Esprit de Parfums’ exhibition. The House of Dior, along with many museums and private collectors such as the Dior Museum in his hometown of Granville, has generously lent the MIP in Grasse pieces for its summer spectacle.

“We wanted to show the deep rooted connections between Dior and the French Riviera,” says the museum’s director. “As such, our

 exhibition focuses less on his work as a fashion designer and more of his perfumes. Nevertheless, there will, of course, be dresses! We don’t want to simply pay homage to the brand, but rather to the artist behind it.”

From 17th May to 1st October at the International Perfume Museum, Grasse. Open daily from 10am to 7pm. Entrance 6€.


Aila Stöckmann