FRANCE: Dictator by Demand

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Backed by Boussac's millions, Dior has branched out faster and farther than any other couturier ever has. In 1948 he launched Dior-New York, a wholesale house for which he designs twice-yearly collections derived from Paris motifs but aimed at the U.S. taste. There are Dior branches now in London and Caracas. He has installed a line of accessories, organized a perfume company, gone into hosiery, gloves and men's ties. He has designed cashmeres for Scotland's Hawick looms, bathing suits for Cole of California. In all, Dior enterprises in 24 countries gross $15 million a year. But the mainspring remains the painstaking, scrupulous design and construction of custom-made dresses in the headquarters on the Avenue Montaigne. Of the 12,000 dresses turned out each year, Dior sells more than $1,000,000 worth abroad, comprising more than half of all Paris couture's exports.

The Time for Masking. For all Dior's success, Paris couture in general is in parlous economic shape. Eastern European markets (except for exiled royalty) have dried up. Currency and import restrictions have cut purchases from Britain, Spain, Scandinavia, Brazil and Argentina. Since war's end eleven major houses have closed (among them: Molyneux, Lelong, Paquin, Worth, Schiaparelli). The big houses make their money on sales to the U.S. and abroad, or on sidelines—perfume, hosiery, etc. But most depend on private individual customers, who even at Dior account for more than 60% of the total dress sales. Nowadays, few couturiers do much better than break even on their sales to individuals. On a $400 dress, Dior reckons on a profit of only $30 (manufacturers who plan to reproduce it must pay much more for the same dress, sometimes a royalty on each copy sold). Since Paris dressmaking is almost entirely a handcraft industry (at Dior, one sewing machine serves 30 seamstresses), the couturier cannot cut costs by increasing production.

Despite their dependence on private customers, Paris' couturiers are apt to be haughty. An American visitor must show her passport before a showing, to assure the couturier that she is not a pirate in disguise. If she balks at the price, the vendeuse is apt to display a cool hauteur. "When they hesitate, I always advise them to buy elsewhere," says Dior's chief vendeuse. "Remorse is better than regret."

If the visitor is to be in Paris only a short time, she is stripped to her bra and girdle (preferably to her skin, but some are bashful). Measurements are taken in every conceivable direction, with especial attention to the size and disposition of the bosom, and a form is made to her shape. At Maison Dior, stuffed dummies are piled tidily atop closets in ghostly and lumpy array, all carefully anonymous but numbered.

The woman whom all dressmakers must finally please is the elegant and well-to-do Parisienne—a woman, says Dior, between the ages of 35 and 40, after she has won a few races and knows how to pace herself. "Since few women ever pass 40, maximum fascination can continue indefinitely. A woman does not really need chic until the animal has lost some of its spring and the mind begins to prowl. That is the time for masking."

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