Marc Bohan, the longest-serving creative director at Christian Dior, who spent nearly 30 years spinning out classically attuned looks with a touch of whimsy that, however resplendent, were meant to be worn, not gazed at on mannequins or in fashion magazines, died on Wednesday in Châtillon-sur-Seine, France. He was 97.
His death was confirmed in a statement by Dior.
Because he worked in an era before fashion became mass entertainment, Mr. Bohan was not required to be visionary. And surviving for decades at the upper reaches of the fickle fashion world, with its unceasing scrutiny, merciless critics and head-spinning fashion cycles, he showed little interest in coming up with grandiose couture creations that functioned more as sculpture than practical apparel, no matter how sumptuous or bejeweled his own work was.
“I’m not designing to please myself or for a photograph,” he told USA Today for a 1988 profile. “I am designing for a woman who wants to look her best. I have always in mind the reaction of women I know.”
Courtly, taciturn and immaculately dapper even by the standards of midcentury Paris, Mr. Bohan was 34 when he was appointed head couturier for the House of Dior in 1960, taking over for the maverick Yves Saint Laurent. Mr. Saint Laurent, then in his early 20s, had been called up by the French Army during the Algerian war for independence.
The post was supposed to be temporary, Women’s Wear Daily wrote in 2007, but it became permanent after Mr. Saint Laurent — who would go on to launch his own fashion powerhouse — suffered a nervous breakdown during his military service.
Mr. Bohan remained at the helm through the 1980s, guiding Dior longer than Christian Dior himself had. (Mr. Dior founded his first salon in 1946, turned it into a style-setting leader and ran it until his death in 1957.)
“Before my first collection for Dior, most people had the knives out,” Mr. Bohan told Women’s Wear Daily in 2007. “People were licking their lips. They were waiting for me to fall on my face.”
If so, the skeptics were thwarted. Carrie Donovan, the fashion editor of The New York Times Magazine, declared that 1920s-inflected debut collection, presented at the Paris shows in January 1961, “a smash hit.”
“This morning the shouting, clapping, surging mob at the press showing caused chaos in the elegant salon,” Ms. Donovan wrote. Mr. Bohan, she continued, “was pushed up against the boiserie, kissed, mauled and congratulated. Chairs were toppled. Champagne glasses were broken.”
Elizabeth Taylor ordered a dozen dresses from the collection, Mr. Bohan told USA Today; Marlene Dietrich snapped up a jacket and skirt.
Under his direction, Dior helped redefine silhouettes for women’s apparel, with an emphasis on bias-cut skirts and drop-waist dresses.
While his sensibility was refined, Mr. Bohan also channeled the explosion of free-spirited color and creativity of 1960s and ’70s pop culture into high fashion. He earned raves in 1966 for a fall couture collection inspired by the 1965 film “Doctor Zhivago,” set in wintry Russia, with its fur-trimmed coats and high boots.
His January 1970 collection raised eyebrows among some fashion arbiters for its extravagant use of cobra-skin banding on coats, suits and dresses, along with other dashes of animal hides.
“What made some critics cross,” Gloria Emerson wrote in The Times, “aside from all those miles of snake, were the horsehair and amber necklaces, and horsehair belts. They look like shaving brushes.”
The Times was kinder to Mr. Bohan’s 1974 collection, which the critic Bernadine Morris proclaimed a “bombshell.”
Ms. Morris went to so far as to compare Mr. Bohan’s skirts — widened and lengthened to midcalf with more generously cut tops — to Mr. Dior’s revolutionary New Look of 1947, which, with its emphasis on wasp waists and long skirts, revived Paris fashion after World War II and influenced women’s fashion for a decade.
“This one may return to the couture some of the prestige it has lost to ready‐to‐wear,” Ms. Morris wrote. “It’s the New Look with modern comfort.”
From his perch atop Dior, Mr. Bohan mingled with both Hollywood royalty and the actual version. He created a line of outfits for Elizabeth Taylor and her daughter Maria Burton, as well as a wedding dress in the 1980s for Princess Caroline of Monaco, whose mother, Princess Grace, was a close friend and favored client of Mr. Bohan’s.
He also courted the mainstream, introducing ready-to-wear lines for young women, men and children.
There was a deceptive simplicity to much of his work. “Things must look simple, but they must not look poor,” he said in a 1989 interview with Women’s Wear Daily. “What I’m trying to do is create luxury. Quality. By taste. By simplicity. Something very refined. Very elegant. Not showy at all. That is true elegance. And so few understand it.”
Roger Maurice Louis Bohan was born in Paris on Aug. 22, 1926. Artistically inclined as a child, he was introduced to fashion by his mother, a milliner.
After graduating from a public secondary school in the Paris suburbs, he briefly studied finance before turning his sights to fashion. He honed his craft at Piguet, Edward Molyneux and Jean Patou.
Mr. Bohan joined Dior in 1958 and was sent to design in London. He rose to chief designer and artistic director two years later, restoring a certain restraint to the company’s designs following a swashbuckling run by Mr. Saint Laurent, who had caused some consternation with his final Dior collection in July 1960, a Beatnik-inspired ensemble that included knitted turtlenecks and black leather jackets. (The collection was later hailed as masterstroke.)
Mr. Bohan’s run of success continued through the 1980s. He won the Golden Thimble Award, which honors the most creative and beautiful clothes of the season according to a jury of international fashion journalists, in both 1983 and 1988.
Although Dior notched $650 million in sales in the United States alone the previous year (about $1.7 billion in today’s currency), according to a 1988 USA Today profile, Mr. Bohan was replaced in 1989 by the Italian designer Gianfranco Ferré. The company had been purchased by Bernard Arnault, who was turning it into a crown jewel of his budding luxury empire, LVMH.
“Behind every major fashion move, there is a desire to ‘move the merch,’ as they say,” the fashion reporter Woody Hochswender wrote in The Times. “Mr. Bohan established Dior as the No. 1 maker of couture, or made-to-order, clothing in the world, but his ready-to-wear designs never caught on.”
After Dior, Mr. Bohan spent two years trying to revive the august, if financially troubled, British fashion house Norman Hartnell. He later designed under his own name.
Mr. Bohan’s first wife, Dominique Gaborit, died in a car accident in 1962; the couple had a daughter, Marie-Anne. His second wife, Huguette Rinjonneau, died in 2018. Information about survivors was not immediately available.
Despite his illustrious career, Mr. Bohan remained little known outside fashion circles. “Over the years, I’ve always thought of couture as being a sort of laboratory for fashion,” he said in a 1982 interview with The Montreal Gazette. “And it will continue to exist so long as there are clients for it.”
“But,” he added, “no matter how well known a name may be, success in this business is never attributable to one person alone.”