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Feminist Forces Unite at Women@Dior Conference at UNESCO

PARIS — “We should all be feminists” is not just a T-shirt slogan for Dior artistic director of womenswear Maria Grazia Chiuri. The fashion house put that ethos on display during its annual Women@Dior conference, held Thursday at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.

Christian Dior Couture chief executive officer Delphine Arnault opened the day with a video message.

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“We have an opportunity and a responsibility at Dior to have a positive impact on society. Women’s emancipation and inclusion have always been at the heart of our maison,” she said.

Arnault highlighted Dior’s longtime partnership with UNESCO, and added that it has become even stronger since the house joined the global education coalition to support young female students around the globe.

Dior vice president of corporate social responsibility Isabelle Faggianelli said the values of the Women@Dior program, while part of the maison since it was founded by Christian Dior, have been strengthened with these new initiatives. Having Arnault as CEO of Dior and Chiuri as the creative mind has also supported a special atmosphere within the company.

“It helps for sure,” she said of the dual female leadership. “When you have a creative director who is so committed — not only with our collections — to me that is really the turning point compared to the other maisons. You can find other artistic directors that are committed to women; however, she’s the first to be super supportive to other artists. That’s really something. She really wants to put other women on the stage, other artists and women in general. It is a commitment.”

As the director of the house’s CSR, Faggianelli sees that mandate as unique and integral to the company’s success. “It is a different way of seeing the commitment, and we are lucky.”

That overarching work to empower women has been imbued throughout the organization she said, noting that they have spread these topics transversally to give equal opportunity in employees’ careers, as well as create mentoring programs throughout Dior. The policy is a global strategy that is localized in each of the company’s main regions to interact with organizations on the ground.

Olivier Sastre, Dior’s deputy managing director, human resources and sustainability, added that empowering women is the key to facing this tense political moment.

“Our society is moving — not fast enough, but it is. I believe in education as a way to place women at the heart of the revolution we are facing. I believe in culture as a way of preserving their rights, their independence. So we try to create a future for all of us, because women’s rights and freedom is about building the future of humanity a future with values and passion and leadership,” he said in remarks from the stage.

The conference brought in a wide range of diverse speakers on creating positive change for women across industries, from film to artificial intelligence. Speakers included Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee; “The Girl From Tomorrow” producer Virginia Valsecchi; Women in AI cofounder Caroline Lair, and UNESCO assistant director general for social and human sciences Gabriela Ramos.

Valsecchi noted that while there is a shift happening in the film industry, more scripts and roles need to be written by women that tell stories of women as complete people.

Her film is about the woman who challenged the Italian legal system over reparations after forced marriages, a practice which pushed women to marry their rapists to absolve the crime and was not outlawed until the 1990s. Women have power in their pocketbooks and can shift the sector by choosing what to watch and support.

Speaking on the AI panel, both Lair and Ramos discussed how the developments in the technology, often programmed by young white men, are often reinforcing stereotypes and amplifying gender bias. “If you look at the big five [companies], it’s very energetic men at the top,” Ramos said. “Women are missing out.”

Ramos said that UNESCO’s research showed that only 22 percent of the AI industry is made up of women.

The lack of representation on development teams leads to lack of diversity in the results and ultimately representation. Lair said tech needs to be more inclusive and attract more women — and that’s where fashion can step up. “The tech sector could really benefit from women and men from the fashion and beauty industry to help us create another image and a portal for women to express their freedom and creativity.”

The conversation needs to shift to how to use new technologies to help women reduce their labor burden as well as have more access to new careers and ways to access mental health.

“All of these cultural codes, all of these societal codes, it’s not only men that have them,” Ramos said.

“It is important to create this space where you can share, and come in contact with these young women and to see how many ideas they have and how you can support them. It gives a sense of community that is strong, and they come from different parts of the world, so it is a really good moment to come in contact with the new generation and understand more about what they feel is important today.”

Chiuri was particularly excited about the winners’ projects. Having worked with embroiderers in India and visited South Korea, she explained that the these young women’s projects will make a direct impact on the cultures of their local communities.

Chiuri, who is one of the few women serving as creative director of a house, said that gender parity is slow to come in the fashion industry. “It’s not easy, but I think that step by step we can. These changes don’t get done in one second. It’s necessary to educate ourselves, to change our way to approach our work, and our mentality. It is that we must work together to change the approach,” she said. That core value influences her collections, but also her desire to elevate and shine a spotlight on women artists.

She also praised the younger generation’s perspective. “Probably this new generation is also more smart than us,” she said, noting they have more information, are savvy and are more vocal about the importance of representation in media and the workplace to promote structural change.

French influencer Lena Mahfouf took to the stage to discuss mental health.

Despite being an online leader, Mahfouf said she thinks kids should stay off of social media. “It’s a place that can be very dangerous for kids,” she said, explaining that the traditional social hierarchies of school popularity have transferred to social media. She also said she supports efforts to regulate influencer advertising because ads should be transparent and clear to audiences.

Mahfouf cautioned the fashion industry to be cautious with the messages they present, and said that while she personally loves fashion and beauty, she doesn’t want to gloss over reality or hold women to unrealistic standards. The fashion industry’s focus on “making everything look perfect” should not send the wrong message.

She also noted that when she does videos without makeup it’s considered strong or brave and questioned why. Mahfouf said her boyfriend Sebastien Frit, also an influencer, is notably treated differently by brands. The industry demands more intimate and personal content from women but conversely doesn’t recognize them as independent businesspeople or creators.

It leads to a case of “imposter syndrome” that can effect many young girls and women. “I’m trying to stop saying sorry…and trying to make myself shrink,” she said. “Even when you’re super proud, saying ‘Oh I don’t deserve this’ — well you do deserve this. We’re not taking anyone’s room. We can create this space [for ourselves].”

With that, she encouraged all the finalists to feel confidence. The young women are already accomplished speakers in their presentations.

The finalists included Soun Lee, from South Korea’s #BeNatural, which advocates for body neutrality and is working with local legislators on body image and perception education; Liz Bohner, from France’s She Guardian, which tackles daily security issues and street harassment for women through education and self defense classes; France and Ivory Coast’s Étoile Foundation, which educates girls on menstruation and increases access to sustainable hygiene; Neha Jain, from India’s Project Meraki, which runs an incubator to educate women artisans as entrepreneurs, and France’s sHeart founder, Laetitia Bonhomme, a foundation dedicated to supporting young female artists.

Chiuri chaired the jury, which ultimately selected #BeNatural and Meraki as the winners of the Dream for Change project. The two projects will receive additional mentoring and grants. #BeNatural revealed they will soon hold a workshop at the House of Dior store in Seoul to spread their message.

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