When Christian Dior opened its first North American boutique (not counting one in Honolulu) at the new Two Rodeo complex in Beverly Hills on Wednesday, the legendary Paris-based fashion house already had a strong local foothold.
The store's manager, Judith Porter, comes from the Adrienne Vittadini shop across the street on Rodeo Drive, and Dior's official Los Angeles representative is the socially prominent Nancy Vreeland, a one-time assistant to designer Bill Blass and a former L.A. fashion designer who manufactured clothes under her own label, Nancy Stolkin Ltd.
It's Vreeland's job to help Dior make the right connections in the business and nonprofit communities, in which the store intends to play a prominent role, and also, of course, among the women Dior hopes will become devoted customers.
Indeed, when asked what percentage of business is expected to come from Rodeo Drive's foreign tourist trade, Beatrice Bongibault-Dhjan, Paris-based chief executive officer of Dior worldwide, fairly jumped from her settee during an interview on one of her frequent trips to the United States. The Beverly Hills store, Bongibault said, will cater to the "permanent population."
The most successful stores on "the Drive" cater to a local clientele, said Bongibault, who dresses as well as any of her company's well-heeled customers. It would be foolish to open a store only to take advantage of a strong tourist business that might disappear, she said with some translating assistance from Michael Burke, executive vice president of Christian Dior Inc., the firm's U.S. arm.
For Bongibault, 38, considered the most powerful woman in the French fashion business, building a "long-term strategy" is the key to her business approach.
It was Bernard Arnault, head of Financiere Agache, the holding company of Dior and Christian Lacroix, who plucked her from Chanel two years ago. She had been working her way through the ranks at Chanel for close to 10 years. Among her maverick moves there, she hired German-born designer Karl Lagerfeld to reconceive the Chanel look. (Her first fashion job, at age 21, was production manager for the couture house of Jean Louis Scherer.)
It didn't take long for Bongibault to make her mark at Dior. It was no secret that her first desire was to revitalize the company's fashion image. Her most controversial act was the removal of Dior's stalwart, if dull, designer, Marc Bohan, in 1989 and the naming of Italian Gianfranco Ferre to replace him.
Since then Bongibault has built a new accessories line to coordinate with each new ready-to-wear collection. And, to create greater "coherence" among Dior's 250 licenses, she consolidated some manufacturers, eliminated others and created separate design studios in Paris for categories such as jewelry and leather goods. She put them all under Ferre's supervision.
"I was very, very insistent that the direction would be given by couture and would be followed in ready-to-wear and in the other creations," she says. "You have to build an image. It's not an easy situation. Karl Lagerfeld is doing very well. And now we at Dior are building an image. Coherence is essential."
It was also Bongibault who decided to build Dior retail stores beyond its headquarters at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris, and two additional company-owned shops in Geneva and Honolulu.
The Beverly Hills store is a replica, in dove gray and white, of the Avenue Montaigne shop. It has the canopied entrance, inlaid granite floors and reproductions of Louis XIV furniture.
"Previously, \o7 pret-a-porter \f7 (ready-to-wear) was not one of the strong cards," said Bongibault. "It was available in Paris and a few stores in the U.S., Canada and Europe, but it was very limited. The house was always making money, but it lacked retail presence and we needed to develop an upscale worldwide distribution of \o7 pret-a-porter.\f7
"I was not hired at Dior to change the company," Bongibault continued in her firm, businesslike manner, "but because of the experience I had. What I did I think was best for the long-term strategy we were building and Bernard Arnault was in perfect agreement."
Fashion-watchers believe that the Paris fashion industry is in a critical transitional phase. To stay vital, other venerable houses whose namesakes have long passed away have begun to rethink their images.
At Jeanne Lanvin two separate designers were hired to design the couture and ready-to-wear collections, Claude Montana for couture and Eric Bergere for ready-to-wear. Pierre Balmain has two new designers as well, London transplant Alistair Blair for ready-to-wear and Herve Pierre for couture. And last winter, 25-year-old Robert Merloz was credited with designing the fur collection for the house of Yves Saint Laurent. Now rumors are that he is heir-apparent to the YSL throne.
Bongibault warns that transitions are easier said than done.
"You can't simply be a couture house anymore. It's too expensive," she said. "You need retail stores. You need ready-to-wear, accessories. It's a difficult profession. To survive you have to be very professional. You have to have the best creative team."
Next on Bongibault's couture trek could be a move to the house of Hubert de Givenchy, according to a report in an August issue of Women's Wear Daily. So far, however, Arnault and Bongibault deny it.