You know all those red carpet gala events where celebrities wear clothes that cost more than the average mortgage, and entertainment reporters ask them “…and who are you wearing!?” Other than those among us who are specifically interested in the world of fashion, it’s the question that signals our natural instincts to switch off and think of some snide remark aimed at the shallow world of glitzy fame. Well, Frederic Tcheng‘s fashion documentary “Dior And I” may just make you think twice the next time you hear that question. As an intimate portrayal of the high-strung fashion climate in one of the biggest fashion houses in the world, “Dior And I” is a story of the people behind the dresses. Most vividly though, it’s the story of a man’s creative freedom pressured by the weight of the gorilla on his shoulders. The man is Raf Simons, the gorilla is Christian Dior, and whether you scoff or marvel at what stars wear, this Tribeca documentary will sew you into its fabric.
Without getting into the controversial details of the affair, fashion house Dior was looking for a new creative director in 2012. They found one in Belgian Raf Simons, who stepped out of the more minimalist and masculine fashion label Jil Sander, and surprised the fashion world by becoming Dior’s new number one guy. No one knew much about Raf, except that he was tremendously humbled by the prospect of working in legendary surroundings and that, even though he was going to be directing haute couture, he wanted people to still call him “Raf” and not “Monsieur Raf.” He didn’t speak French very well, so his right-hand man Pieter was never too far away, and this was the first time he was going to be doing haute couture, having just come from a ready-to-wear mentality. If that wasn’t daunting enough, he had eight weeks to prepare and present his first Christian Dior Haute Couture collection. When the title cards fade in with this info, there’s little indication at just how much pressure that really is. The fact that designers are usually given four to five months of preparation for collections like this, is strategically omitted and only observed in passing. Otherwise the build-up of the stress wouldn’t be nearly as effective. Like the creation of a dress from sketch to catwalk, Tcheng weaves in the tension from the moment Raf does his first meet-and-greet to the emotionally charged finale.
The most compelling technique Tcheng employs in sucking you into a seemingly undramatic story is the peppered voice-over reciting words from Christian Dior’s memoirs. In fact, the “I” in the title isn’t referring to Raf exactly, but Dior himself. There’s Dior, the designer who went on to revolutionize fashion’s status quo, and then there’s the other Dior, a quiet man born in a small French town who didn’t like noise, worldly agitation or sudden changes. This duality of man is poetically evoked through the relaxing voice over, and permeates the picture with an intimidating atmosphere, so much so that when Dior’s employees talk about “Monsieur Dior” the feeling of his lingering spirit in the ateliers and textiles isn’t as far-fetched a notion as it sounds. In one of the most interesting moments, Simons visits Dior’s childhood home and confesses that he began reading the memoirs but couldn’t get past 15 pages. “It was really weird. He was describing things and I thought, ‘that’s exactly how I do it,’ ” Simons said. He felt too intimidated to continue reading before his big show, but the significance behind the implications shines clear as crystal. Raf Simons is the embodiment of Christian Dior’s designer persona 55 years into the future, the sketch of a perfect circle is completed and Simons becomes the symbolic “I” of the title. That’s not to say that his show was a walk in the park.
During the first meet-and-greet, Raf is introduced to the people who will be making or breaking him, including the two most important women behind the scenes. Florence, premiere of the dress workshop and Monique, premiere of the suit workshop. The personalities of these two women – easy-going, pragmatic Flo and stressed-out, worried Mo – provide much of the entertainment during the slightly sluggish midway point. Monique’s language barriers with her Italian head tailor Flavio and her moments of confusion over what’s happening is priceless stuff. Florence’s adorable flirtations with Pieter and her complete understanding of which worker does what best is inspiring to behold. These are the women who are far from the spotlight, yet without whom the spotlight wouldn’t exist, and it’s to Tcheng’s credit that he devotes a good chunk of the 90-minute running time to them, and indeed to many other workers behind the scenes. But the foreignness of working together for the first time with Simons bubbles up naturally to raise some tension. Regular clients who spend 350,000 EUR a season on Dior clothes are given precedent over Raf’s haute couture show, and the pressure to create more designs tugs at the nerves, but it’s all part of the game everyone knows how to play all too well.
Without getting into as much detail as perhaps one would have liked in understanding why Raf Simons was picked for the job, and laying it on a little thick in the final moments, “Dior And I” isn’t a flawless piece of work. But when it comes down to the wire, and Raf starts really feeling it, you’re right there with him, which is ultimately Tcheng’s greatest achievement. Behind the scenes, the world of haute couture is populated by hard-working businesswomen like Mo and Flo, stressed out creative designers, and ghosts of revolutionaries. In front of the scenes, celebrities like Marion Cotillard and Jennifer Lawrence get V.I.P. invites and have to answer “oh, this is Christian Dior from the summer collection” hundreds of times on red carpets. Yet somehow, “Dior And I” succeeds in bringing this exclusive world down to earth, knitting the viewer with its needles and threads and making a highly relatable story, no matter where you come from or how you feel about fashion. [B+]