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When Maria Grazia Chiuri made her debut as Dior’s creative director in September, she sent a model on the runway in a white T-shirt that read: We Should All Be Feminists. Chiuri, formerly at Valentino, had good reasons for raising the banner of feminism in her first Dior show. Her appointment was a milestone for the fashion house, which had never had a woman at its helm during its 70-year history. Nevertheless, Chiuri stands on the shoulders of many women who led Parisian haute couture ateliers over the last century.
Before Madame Grès relinquished control of her troubled fashion house in the mid-’80s, she had been the last of the great female couturiers. In the first half of the 20th century, women such as Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Coco Chanel helped to reframe French fashion as French fashion. As soon as Germaine Krebs—Grès' real name—opened her atelier in the 1930s, her flattering dresses based on drapes and pleats garnered the patronage of high-profile clients like the Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and, later, Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy. She died in 1993, the year her rival Madame Carven retired from her namesake couture house. That year also marked the exit from haute couture for Lanvin, France’s oldest fashion house in continuous existence, which Jeanne Lanvin founded in 1889 at the corner of 22 Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré in Paris, a few steps away from the current headquarters. Lanvin’s appointment in 2016 of artistic director Bouchra Jarrar (she designs ready-to-wear but is one of the rare female designers to hold official haute couture certification in France) continues the return of a female force in French fashion—at a time when most major fashion brands are still run by men.