Recently, fashion documentaries have been very much in vogue. It may seem that another is perhaps unnecessary. But Frédéric Tcheng, who worked on both "Valentino: The Last Emperor," and "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel," has made another terrific fashion doc with "Dior and I."
Here, Tcheng acts less like a fly on the wall at the House of Dior and more like a silkworm creating the threads. So intimate is his camera that the viewer can feel the fabric of the dresses being made with a special technique called imprimé chaîne (printing the thread before weaving) for newly-minted Dior creative director Raf Simons' first haute couture show.
The film chronicles the painstaking eight-week process leading up to the final runway show. Tcheng takes time to introduce the premières (seamstresses who manage the work) at the atelier (workshop). He deftly shows how Raf and his right hand man, Pieter Mulier, not only manage in their new roles but also prove themselves worthy of their jobs and continue the legacy of Dior.
The men meet the staff, describe what they want for the collection, run into problems, and then launch the show. Raf in particular has a palpable case of nerves. The story may be typical, but it remains tense and absorbing because Tcheng captures the excitement and exhaustion so well. Despite all the technological advances to create the designs, "Dior and I" emphasizes the human touch. Several scenes show the seamstresses sewing, cutting, and pinning the dresses in various stages of production.
Raf's designs may be inspired by the artist Sterling Ruby, but the creative director encounters some frustration when he wants to recreate a complex Ruby pattern on fabric. Other setbacks documented include a première servicing a valuable client, thereby causing a presentation delay. Tcheng's film is best in these naturalistic moments: Viewers come to understand both the ambitions and pressures that Simons and his staff all share. (Monique, one of the premières, bemoans doing double duty as the haute couture collection and the clients' demands coincide.) But this is precisely why the film is so engaging — audiences are treated to a fabulous "behind the seams" peek at an exclusive world.
Periodically, Tcheng interrupts the creation episodes with archival footage of Dior discussing his style and mission. These judiciously-selected clips include text from Dior's memoirs voiced by Omar Berrada. These segments are meant to show how the spirit of Dior lives on in the atelier and with the employees, many of whom have been "the fingers building the fashion of tomorrow" for decades. These episodes may be distracting for some viewers, but they serve as necessary breathers, as well as reminders of what the House of Dior represents.
Mostly, however, "Dior and I" focuses on the work. Tcheng shows Simons preparing a private house he wants to use for the runway show and filling it with walls of flowers (an expensive but dynamic concept). Tcheng also shows the casting sessions, and how the employees cope with the demands of changes and refinements up to the last minute — which Simons says is when the first model walks onto the runway.
The observational approach here benefits the film as viewers concentrate on each individual element that goes into the line and the show. Yes, the dresses are dazzling, but there is a greater appreciation for them during the final runway sequence because "Dior and I" involves the audience in the process of the creation of each outfit — from idea to the actual dress. That Simons pulls off his show (not a spoiler for design followers) is an achievement. That this narrative is intense and entertaining to audiences — even those unfamiliar with the fashion world — is Tcheng's considerable accomplishment.
"Dior and I" opens Friday in New York.