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Marc Bohan: A fashion designer of the old guard

By Jule Scott



Stock image, July 1988: French model Inès de La Fressange (left) and French Christian Dior designer Marc Bohan (right). Credits: PIERRE GUILLAUD / AFP

Fashion designer Marc Bohan, who died last Friday at the age of 97, accomplished a feat most contemporary designers can only dream of. For almost three decades he presided over the French fashion house Dior – longer than even its eponymous founder Christian Dior. FashionUnited took a moment to reflect upon his extraordinary career at Dior.

From a stopgap to the longest serving creative director of all time

Bohan's tenure at Dior commenced in 1958 as a member of the maison's design team. Merely two years later, he was to step into the role of the house's Head Couturier, albeit considered merely a place filler. At that time, no one anticipated that he would only depart the fashion house after nearly three decades. The then 34-year-old was originally intended to merely hold the position for Yves Saint Laurent, who was presiding over Dior at the time, but was conscripted by the French army during the Algerian War of Independence. However, following a nervous breakdown in the military, he never returned to Dior. Consequently, Bohan's contract metamorphosed from a temporary one to a permanent one, according to the industry magazine Women's Wear Daily.

At the helm of Dior, Bohan witnessed the evolution of time, yet steadfastly clung to timeless designs, without, however, losing sight of the zeitgeist and the evolving desires of women. The woman, and thus the customer, was always at the forefront for him. "I make clothes for real women, not myself, not for mannequins and not for fashion magazines," he asserted in an interview with WWD on the occasion of his 25th anniversary at Dior. "I happily leave the abstract creations to others."

Clothes for real women in changing times.

While in fashion nothing is as constant as change, Bohan's style remained steadfast over all his years at Dior. He created feminine clothes, not exactly subversive, if not slightly conservative, that were particularly well received by his wealthy female clients. Tailoring was at the heart of what Bohan created, and the designer certainly did not forget the legacy of Christian Dior himself. Just like Dior, Bohan emphasised femininity in his designs and thus elements such as narrow waists, wide skirts and tailored jackets reminiscent of Christian Dior's iconic "New Look" became commonplace.

That somewhat changed in 1961 when the designer introduced the "Slim Look". Drawing inspiration from the burgeoning Mod-culture, Bohan bestowed upon Dior a fresh, contemporary style. "The silhouette is supple, slim, the shoulders are natural, the waist fluid, the hips are very flat," thus read the press release for the collection at the time, as revealed in the book "Dior by Marc Bohan – A Glimpse into Dior’s Rich History" published by Dior. From this juncture onwards, Bohan skillfully navigated the ever-changing landscape of fashion. With his modern, whimsical designs, he captivated a new audience, while simultaneously ensuring that his loyal clients found solace in classic silhouettes.

During the latter half of his distinguished and extensive tenure at Dior, Bohan devoted himself to the arts, an often-utilised source of inspiration within the fashion realm. A particularly influential figure during this period was the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who initially worked as a Dior model before metamorphosing into Bohan's muse. Little did anyone predict that this collaboration would bear fruit years later on Dior's runway. However, for Dior's Spring/Summer 2018 show, its current creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri, cast a retrospective glance into the archives.

"My adolescence and youth were accompanied by the creations of Marc Bohan for Dior. He was a great innovator who succeeded in infusing a charismatic house such as Dior with all the vitality of the sixties, fully reflecting the spirit of the times," the designer stated in a post from the brand on Instagram. "When I arrived at Dior, I studied his work a lot and he inspired many collections, including one with the feminist artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who was one of his great friends."

Takeover by LVMH and the departure of Bohan

The beginning of the end of the designer's tenure at Dior is challenging to pin down, but it likely coincides with the acquisition of the Boussac textile group, which owned Dior at the time, by the luxury conglomerate LVMH in 1984. Five years later, Italian designer Gianfranco Ferré succeeded Bohan, a transition that The Times attributes primarily to the alleged lack of success of the fashion house's ready-to-wear collections. Bohan had established Dior as the number one entity for couture and made-to-order pieces, yet his ready-to-wear designs never achieved such acclaim. A predicament that may resonate with some contemporary designers.

The bottom line is that Bohan was a designer of the old guard. Clothes came before publicity and couture before ready-to-wear. Though he was ultimately largely unknown outside fashion circles, his designs outlasted endless fashion cycles, and while he may not have defined them, he never allowed them to define him either. While this may have been easier in his days - Bohan worked in an era before fashion became mass entertainment, and when designers were expected to deliver first-rate tailoring rather than grandiose visions - it does raise the question whether it's not time for the fashion industry to return to its origins.

Marc Bohan