Every ambitious business person dreams of changing their industry in some way. Many are driven by a desire to become wealthy but if you probe deeply enough, even the most commercially minded professionals hope to make a difference to their industry; either through the innovations they build, the cultures they create or the legacies that they leave.
Many people dream of doing these things, but very few achieve it.
One person who did was Christian Dior. Today makes the 70th anniversary of his very first fashion show, a show which not only changed the fashion industry forever, but created one of the world’s most iconic and loved brands in the process. A brand I love. A brand he built over ten very short years before his untimely death in 1957, but one where he created a culture so strong that it lives and dies today by the very values that he established over 70 years ago.
There are many things that today’s business people can learn from Monsieur Dior but I wanted to share just a couple of them.
Nothing unusual in that you may think. Every entrepreneur has a unique vision and seeks to surround themselves with the right people in order to turn their dreams into reality, but back in the 1940’s that’s not how people thought. And they certainly didn’t dream of creating the world’s most luxurious brand just a few years after a global war had destroyed many of the world’s economies. People were worried about many things during those years. To the common eye, dressing luxuriously wasn’t one of them.
Christian Dior didn’t see things that way.
At a time where everyone was more concerned with surviving than thriving, Dior was driven by a desire to fight for a different kind of ideal.
“The mode in women’s dress has become increasingly feminine… our civilization is a luxury, and it is that we are defending”.
Dior’s fight led him to create what became known as the “New Look”. A radical new style that accentuated women’s curves in a way that no other brand had ever done before. Many of Dior’s advisors told him that this “look” wouldn’t work and his ideas were too radical, but he believed in his convictions. Sometimes people don’t know what they want until you show them.
The most inspirational and visionary founders of every age have each chosen battles worth fighting, that’s often what makes their brands so iconic and their cultures so enchanting. People are proud to work there and consumers are proud to own their products. It’s easy to point at Apple as an iconic brand for example, one that challenged the industry and fought for beautiful technology, especially since they became famous for showing people what they didn’t know they wanted.
“There are moments when fashion changes fundamentally. When it is more than a matter of differences in detail. The whole fashion attitude seems to change – the whole structure of the body. This is one of those moments”. Vogue (1947)
But 50 years before Steve Jobs was issuing briefs to designers for the iMac which simply suggested “Make it like a sunflower”, Christian Dior was telling creatives who worked on his first fragrance to just “Make it smell like love”. It worked too. At a time when austerity was ripe and attitudes were conservative, the house of Dior flourished. Asked by a journalist for the secret of his success, Dior simply replied,
“Women have instinctively understood that I dream of making them not only more beautiful, but also happier”.
Within less than one year, Dior was the most talked about brand in Paris.
Christian Dior was the original visionary CEO.
The parallels to Jobs are uncanny. Both had a deep love of the aesthetic. Both understood the limitations of modern technology and sought to reinvent it in some way. Both had a vision contrary to those held by everyone else of their day, and they both obsessed over the smallest details of their craft. Both Dior and Jobs wanted to create products that would not only surprise and shock the world, but inspire and entertain them. Both loved architecture and built dramatic shapes and contours into their products.
“I think of my work as ephemeral architecture, dedicated to the beauty of the female body”. Christian Dior
Unlike Jobs though (or most entrepreneurs for that matter), Dior wasn’t driven by a desire to create hype, in fact he shyed away from it. Determined to invest in his money in material rather than marketing, Dior wanted his dresses to do the talking, not his marketing team. Contrary to popular belief, Dior didn’t spend a penny on marketing or advertising when he launched his brand. He wasn’t naïve though, he did hire a young American creative called Harrison Elliott as Dior’s first marketer, but his job was as much to avoid an excess of publicity as it was to stir it up. The relative secrecy in which Dior chose to work aroused (in his own words), “a positive whisper campaign, which was excellent free propaganda”. He believed that gossip was “worth more than the most expensive publicity campaigns in the world”. We take that kind of thinking for granted today. In 1947 it was revolutionary.
Over the last eighteen months I have spent hundreds of hours with people from Uber researching a book, and was told on many occasions different stories about disruptive thinking from their revolutionary founder and fearless CEO Travis Kalanick. Kalanick is another business person renowned for wanting to change an industry, and widely regarded as one of the world’s most important CEO’s, leading as he is the world’s fastest growing tech company.
Many Uber employees shared with me their provocative stories of a brand that grew by word-of-mouth and without any marketing spend. They also told me tales of talent recruitment where they were working to capitalize on changes in the law, by hiring people who thought differently.
But then I think back to Christian Dior who was struggling to find the right models to suit his “New Look”. He was leading a brand that thought differently and many of the traditional professionals in town that other fashion houses were looking to recruit just didn’t think differently enough for Dior.
“If you want something that’s not been done before, you’ve got to do things that people have not done before”.
So, instead of recruiting through traditional channels like every other fashion house, Dior took advantage of a new law which was closing down the brothels around Paris and hired “their former inmates” who were now without regular employment. Dior was a disruptive CEO who may have made even Travis Kalanick blush.
Lastly, Christian Dior knew what he wasn’t good at. In the 1940’s there was a culture among business leaders to show strong leadership skills. These leadership skills often spanned across various aspects of the organization, seeking to maintain control of each aspect of the business.
Today we take thinking like this for granted. CEOs and COOs often compliment each others skills, especially in fast moving industries such as technology and fashion. CEOs are often more visionary and COOs are usually more practical. CEOs speak to the heart. COOs appeal to the head.
Dior had Christian Dior and Jacques Rouet. Dior was the visionary who dreamed of making every woman feel like a duchess. Jacques was in charge of operations and administration. Dior built his organization on a culture that placed contrasting (but complimentary) executives his side. He wanted people who played reason to his fantasy. Order to his imagination. Discipline to his freedom. Foresight to his recklessness. And people (like his first Chief of Staff Mme. Raymonde) who could introduce peace into an atmosphere of strife”.
“His role was to provide my castles in the air with solid foundations”. Dior on Rouet
So on this happy Sunday, the 70th anniversary of Christian Dior’s very first runway show, I am reminded that the values and principles which built the world’s most iconic fashion house are as relevant today as they were back then.
“A person who sees only fashion in fashion is a fool”.
So… if you hadn’t realised already, this is not just a story about fashion. The founding principles of Dior are just as relevant to the business professionals and tech entrepreneurs of any industry today ~ especially the ones with any intention of changing it.