This is not the first time that an Asian appearance happened to be at the peak of popularity. In the 1950s, wide cheekbones and narrow eyes with cat eyeliner drove both men and women crazy. Alla Ilchun, who was half-Russian, half-Kazakh became the trendsetter for Asian appearance. She was Christian Dior’s muse and his happy talisman, but she was also lucky that the famous couturier made her his fashion model.
At Enlighten, we decided to find out what is known about this mysterious and once incredibly popular woman who had such an unusual life.
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Alla Ilchun worked as a kitchen maid, and it was probable that she could’ve ended up as a waitress or a cook in a French restaurant. By some stroke of luck, she went to Christian Dior’s casting and became his leading model. Though her origin remained a secret during her lifetime and even afterward, coming to light only recently. People of her time thought that this Asian beauty was originally from China, and even in Christian Dior’s memoirs, she was called a Chinese or a Manchurian fashion model.
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It was true that Ilchun and her mother arrived in France from the Chinese city of Harbin. They fled after the October Revolution. They had Chinese citizenship but Alla’s mother was Russian and belonged to a noble family that had lost all their money. Her father was the son of a Kazakh Bai. This means that Alla was actually half-Russian and half-Kazakh. In Europe nobody knew about this, and she didn’t even discover her origin until 2 years before her death.
The capital of France didn’t welcome the 2 immigrants with open arms and it wasn’t easy for them to settle down. Alla’s mother had to return to the music that she used to study in Russia, and sing in a cabaret, while Alla got a job as a kitchen maid in a restaurant. During World War II, Ilchun was a member of the French partisan resistance — she was a nurse and a signalwoman.
Alla Ilchun found her way to the House of Dior by chance. This is how she described this fateful event:
“One of my French friends decided to go to Dior to try herself as an understudy, and she took me along. As I waited for her in the lobby, I noticed that the curtains of the fitting rooms were parted now and then and curious glances examined me from head to toe. Eventually I got tired of these glances and of the waiting, and I decided to go upstairs to find my friend. At that very moment, a lady informed me that Christian Dior was extremely eager to see me. Reluctantly, I agreed to follow her. They took me to a fitting room, pulled off my dress, did my hair in the shape of a big bun, painted my lips with red lipstick, put on a new dress, gave me terribly uncomfortable stiletto shoes, and led me downstairs where a team of painters in white coats was working. “Well,” I thought, “they dressed me up like a monkey, and now brought me into the room with painters.”
After a few moments they took me away, and I never noticed Dior there.
Then the same lady told me, “Mademoiselle, you have been engaged!”
“But I have already passed the competition in Le Lido,” I said. “And I didn’t even see Dior.”
The lady laughed, “Dior was among the painters, but with a pointer in his hand!”
From Christian Dior’s book Dior by Dior
She won over Christian Dior at first sight. The combination of an incredibly thin waist (18.5 inches), a womanly figure, and an exotic Asian face charmed the designer. He was first to hire an Asian girl. Then Hubert de Givenchy and Cristobal Balenciaga followed suit. For the first time in the history of haute couture, a woman with a non-Western appearance was the focus. Even Dior admitted that it was risky to invite an Asian model to showcase European clothes. But this risk resulted in his unprecedented success.
Christian Dior called Alla his muse and his talisman. She was the embodiment of the new look style. She was graceful, unusually feminine, with a thin waist — everything that a fashion designer and society needed, who were tired of the rudeness and simplicity of a woman’s dress during the war years. After Alla showcased a dress, it immediately became popular and was quickly sold out. Among the customers who chose the dresses worn by Alla were the British Princess Margaret and actress Elizabeth Taylor.
Alla Ilchun was not just this famous fashion designer’s muse, but she was also a role model for beauty. In the 1950s, many fashion models and fashionistas tried to imitate her. They drew bright black wings on their eyes and even had surgeries to be more like her. The press noted her unique moves on the runway, her unique turn and her mysterious and impenetrable glance that she hypnotized the audience with.
Alla Ilchun worked at the Dior fashion house for 20 years. During this time, it was led by 3 fashion designers — Christian Dior himself, his successor Yves Saint Laurent, and then Marc Bohan. She was married twice: first, to Mike de Dulmen, the photographer for the Dior fashion house, and second, to Igor Mukhin, a Russian photographer.
Alla Ilchun’s life story would have gone to the grave with her in 1989 if it were not for a curious coincidence. Berlin Irishev, a Kazakh economist and diplomat, accidentally saw a painting by Leon Zeytlin in Paris that depicted Alla. He became interested in the story of this woman, as he had previously read bits and pieces of information about her. Due to his diligent work, his search for information, and the cooperation with French archives, Berlin Irishev published the book The Dior Muse. The Story of Alla Ilchun in 2019. In early 2020, the film Alla, the Oriental Pearl of Dior was released.
Have you ever heard of Alla Ilchun? Have you seen the photos of this Asian beauty? Let us know in the comments below.