Fashion News

New Zealand's own link to Christian Dior

As the French label celebrates a significant birthday, Jessica-Belle Greer rediscovers the New Zealand establishment that played a part in its global success.

By Jessica-Belle Greer
Cristian Dior is celebrating its 70th anniversary, and with this comes flowing champagne, couture collections harking back to the maison’s brilliant beginnings and exhibitions that enable us to appreciate the magic of the label up close.
At the haute couture Fashion Week show in Paris in July, creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri paid homage to founder Christian Dior with silhouettes inspired by the brand’s archives. Afterwards she toasted the opening of major retrospective Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, where an army of mannequins in nipped-in waists and voluminous skirts are on display until January.
Closer to home, Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria is painting the walls Dior grey for The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture exhibition.
But Aucklanders who wish to revel in the brand’s history need only to walk up the central city’s Kingston Street to the sign that has intrigued fashion followers for decades. It reads: El Jay – Manufacturer Under Licence of Christian Dior – Prêt-à-Porter.
Peer through the dusty windows, past the Auckland store’s faded façade, and you’ll find an exact replica of Christian Dior’s original salon on Avenue Montaigne in Paris.
Vintage coat and dress by Christian Dior by El Jay. Choker, cuff and ring by Christian Dior. Chair from the El Jay salon, Auckland.
Despite the New Zealand duplicate closing its doors around 30 years ago, its ornate reception chairs remain in the foyer along with an elegant porcelain hound, the last soul left to watch over the residence.
The salon was built by late fashion designer and art patron Gus Fisher in the 1960s, when he owned successful label El Jay and was the New Zealand agent for Christian Dior. A personal friend of the French founder, he was privy to the original plans of the famed headquarters.
Before El Jay shut up shop – and many of its samples, fabrics and more were sent to the archives in France to inspire the next generation of designers – the premises brimmed with the latest fashion from Europe.
Adorned with gilded mirrors and fresh flowers in the colours of the season, the ground-floor showroom hosted guests and fashion shows.
As well as the hum of the El Jay workrooms on the second and third floor, a separate, secretive Christian Dior workspace on the first floor operated at a slower pace. Using the couture methods of the Parisian atelier, it reproduced select styles one piece at a time from the same patterns, and often the same materials.
Having built a reputation for top-quality, stylish designs with El Jay, Fisher was scouted to be a licensee for Christian Dior in 1953. The premium brand was then only six years old and seeking to expand its reach while international trade was still restricted.
Fisher signed an agreement with Dior himself while the full-skirted ‘New Look’ was in full swing, and was delighted to be hand-picked by one of the most influential labels of the time. “When he got the offer, he was thrilled to bits,” says Fisher’s son, Michael. “He was deeply honoured by the whole thing.”
Founder of the New Zealand Fashion Museum, Doris de Pont, who curated Looking Terrific: The Story of El Jay in 2010, says the styles Fisher brought to our shores added a continental flair to the domestic fashion scene, which often looked to England for sartorial cues.
He travelled to Europe twice a year to view the latest collections and keep up with the industry’s elite, forging a friendship with Dior. After Dior’s untimely passing in 1957, Fisher formed a working relationship with his successors, protégé Yves Saint Laurent, then designer Marc Bohan.
“I got the impression it was a very exciting world,” says Michael. “He rubbed shoulders with leading designers – something had to rub off on him.”
Former model and friend of Fisher Anne Feigel (née McClurg) says he arrived home from his trips inspired to translate what he saw into looks that would connect with the local market. “I loved working with him because he was the most incredible, creative person.”
Feigel says the Christian Dior by El Jay garments she modelled were glorious. “When you walked into the showroom, you knew you looked a million dollars – you couldn’t help it.”
In fact, according to de Pont, a going-away outfit, like the pink linen piece purchased by a customer who kept the receipt, cost just over £33, the equivalent of half a month's average salary.
As well as being a man of style, Fisher was an exacting designer. Michael describes him as a “human photocopier”, sketching every last detail as the dresses swanned through the Parisian parlour.
His attention to detail suited Christian Dior well. As specified under the agreement, Fisher sent garments and samples to the French headquarters for inspection, but after 20 years, he was told he no longer needed to, because the quality-control team knew every button would be in its rightful position.
On Christian Dior’s 40th anniversary, he was sent a gilded plaque congratulating him as the longest-standing licence holder for the brand.
Fisher sold a limited number of the Christian Dior designs to leading local retailers, including Smith & Caughey’s and Ballantynes, and opened his own store, The French Shop, in Remuera, where he stocked his more adventurous ensembles that weren’t picked up by the department stores. In their charming cocktail dresses, sleek little black dresses and perfectly executed suits and coats, his customers were the chicest in town.
“He thought he had a mission to help every woman look her best,” says Michael. “I’m very proud of him for following his passion with such style.”