Can you remember the last time you saw, or read, something that really made you stand still, draw breath and want to wallow in its beauty or message?
Something so impactful that it felt like it was literally reaching out and touching you, pulling you in.
Something that made you stop, held you and then sent you back on your way, but on a slightly altered course.
These things are rare, magical and can be found in the most unlikely places.
Last night I watched ‘Dior and I’, the documentary that follows Raf Simons’ first haute couture collection as the new artistic director at Dior.
Stay with me.
Clearly haute couture is not something that most of us will ever experience, or even something that many are interested in.
But the documentary is one of the most beautiful reflections of brand and culture I have witnessed or read about.
Quite frankly, business leaders could learn a lot from Raf Simons and his team at Dior.
Raf Simons joined Dior a mere eight weeks before their 2012 Autumn collection. Not just his first show for Dior, his first haute couture show. Ever.
Until you watch this documentary, it is almost impossible to appreciate what a huge undertaking that was. For starters, most collections are conceived and produced over a three to four month period, not in eight weeks.
But it is more than that. How many business leaders have eight weeks to set a new vision, on-board their team, and to create, design and produce a show of this magnitude (or the equivalent) – a show which re-engages your customers and the industry, and sets the tone of things to come?
How many business leaders, after merely eight weeks, have to simultaneously present not just their ideas and vision, but the resultant tangible product to their key customers, competitors and the press?
Not many. And for good reason.
It makes what Raf Simons pulled off even more impressive. It showed him to be not just a visionary, but an incredible leader.
What is clear from day one is that Simons really understands the value in the Dior brand and heritage.
After years of flamboyance and drama under the creative leadership of John Galliano, Simons knew he had to return the brand to its origins, to the imagery of Monsieur Dior himself.
He knew that to move forward, they needed to strip away the overcomplicated distractions and missteps of the past, to return to the heart, soul and DNA of Dior.
By the time Simons took over, it was no longer possible to describe or recognise a ‘Dior’ woman – the fundamental elements that enable that all important emotional connection with customers (and staff), and distinguishes Dior from its competitors.
Simons educated himself on the history of the brand, immersing himself in the designs from the archives, the places of inspiration for Dior, and in the many articles and books written by the man himself, and others, on the Dior brand and business.
He started to tease out the distinctive signatures of the brand, and re-introduce what he calls the ‘codes’ of the brand.
Only once he truly felt the brand through every fibre of his being, could he start to embrace it, to see where he wanted to take it. As he says, “The more you understand [a brand], the more you can see what it can become”.
And what it became was a stunning collection, sympathetic to its origins, but which was relevant in, and embraced, the 21st century. What Simons calls “nostalgia for the future”.
Simons took influences from the modern world and superimposed them onto traditional designs using cutting edge technology – in some cases, creating new processes to generate the desired finished article that everyone apart from he had deemed to be impossible.
And it is when you see his intellectual approach, his challenging attitude, you realise what a natural leader Simons must be. And how impressive the culture at Dior is.
The most telling aspect of the Dior culture is that so many in the Dior family have spent their whole careers with the fashion house. They were Dior man and boy, woman and girl. The longest serving seamstress has been there 42 years. They didn’t necessarily intend for that to be the case, but that is what happened. They didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Aside from the formidable talent that each member of the team displays, what is most impressive is the way they execute their work – their approach to a new project, the level of teamwork, their dedication and their pride in their creations.
The vision for the collection is set by Simons, as creative director, then shared with the whole team. Every team member has the opportunity to contribute ideas and designs within each theme. Once Simons has selected the designs that will be used, these are handed back to the seamstresses to develop and create.
This back and forth pattern continues throughout the multi-staged process of translating the original pencil drawing into the perfect finished physical form.
There is an intimacy in the way that the different players hand the designs between each other, each building on the contribution of the last, over layering ideas and gently perfecting each garment until it truly embodies the brand and the collection. As the seamstresses finally relinquish their beloved garments for the last time, they speak of loss and pride, almost as if they were speaking of a child leaving home to forge their own way in the world.
If only all companies could create such a deep bond between their employees and their business, vision and output.
We may not all work for companies as creative as Dior. But every business has its own story to tell, something different to offer. As humans, we love stories. We love to feel an emotional connection. We want to belong to something bigger than ourselves. Companies need to remember this, and use their stories, their history, their vision to connect with, and inspire, their staff and their customers.
– this piece first kindly published by Campaign Magazine