Fashion documentaries often suffer from the preconception that pricey clothes are frivolous and therefore unworthy of serious attention, or they’re relegated to the “guilty pleasures” pile. Yet design is about creativity, and the dialogue that designers have between past and present is akin to painters’ influences: the process is intrinsically fascinating. Fast-rising helmer Frederic Tcheng brings out this element and much more in his beautifully crafted “Dior and I,” which follows Raf Simons as he launches his first haute couture collection for Christian Dior in spring 2012. Multilayered, meticulously woven and a model of its kind, the docu deserves a place on specialized screens as well as TV.
Few houses have such a weight of expectation as Dior: From the moment the designer launched his revolutionary “New Look” in 1947, the public idea of Dior has been locked into a very particular guise. When Simons was appointed artistic director of the haute couture line in 2012, many questioned his credentials — he was called a minimalist, better known for his menswear collections under his own label, and then with Jil Sander. How would this Belgian with only basic French cope with the pressure of the Dior legacy while putting his first collection together in just eight weeks?
Tcheng, who collaborated on Matt Tyrnauer’s “Valentino” and was co-director of “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” was in the atelier when Simons first arrived, capturing the reticent man’s attempt to remain calm while inwardly he seems terrified. Fortunately, Simons brought along his assistant of more than a decade, the affable Pieter Mulier, who charms the seamstresses and tailors — the backbone of the house. The lynchpins there are Florence Chehet and Monique Bailly, the “premieres” in charge, and it’s their personalities, as much as Simons’, that generate the potential for tension, always a plus in any docu.
The other source of tension is between Simons and Dior himself, cleverly conjured via voiceover (Omar Berrada) speaking excerpts from his memoir. The magus of 30 avenue Montaigne was a private man whose inward personality was at odds with the public persona required; for Simons, the similarities are almost uncanny and add extra layers of intimidation while also auguring a good fit. Shots of the atelier at night, peopled only by mannequins draped in simple white fabric mockups, further the sense of history in these workrooms, especially when archival footage of Dior’s collections are projected onto the ghostly figures.
Simons spends the early days going through the Dior archives and thinking how he can incorporate the classic tailoring — confident, discreetly bold yet feminine — with his own influences, especially from the world of contemporary art. Inspired by the paintings of Gerhard Richter and Sterling Ruby, he convinces a fabric manufacturer to create a weave in which the patterns are printed on the thread, not the fabric, allowing for the kind of blurred movement associated with those artists (the results are surprisingly successful).
Tcheng spends a good deal of time in the atelier, where some have worked for 40 years. The expertise and enthusiasm of these craftsmen and women, especially evident as the collection nears completion, foregrounds the vital collaboration between the artistic director and staff. As the deadline nears and pressures mount, Simons hits upon the idea of renting a city mansion for the catwalk show, and covering the walls in blankets of flowers. The effect is breathtaking: a room enrobed with blue delphiniums, another with white orchids, etc.
It would have been easy for such an effect to overshadow the clothes, but Simons pulls off a stunning achievement, managing to pay homage to the Dior look while making the collection up-to-date. Atelier stylist Hongbo Li remarks that one gown is so beautiful he’s going to cry — he’s not he only one.
As carefully crafted as the clothes is Tcheng’s well-considered direction, privileging the creative process over stereotyped glamour or backstabbing (this is no “Ready to Wear”). As such, he repositions haute couture away from something superficial, as “serious” cinephiles might see it, and shows that the art of design, like all art, is more about vision than pricetag. In addition to handsome, crisp lensing and excellent editing, the musical selection is judiciously interpolated and supports the sense of anxious anticipation.