Fashion documentaries are very much in vogue, with the likes of “The September Issue” and “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf” striking a chord with arthouse audiences craving a peek into the couture world that most aren’t privy to. Frédéric Tcheng has built his name working on such projects; he co-directed 2011’s “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” which profiles the influential fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, after co-producing, co-editing and co-shooting 2008’s popular “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” But while those two films are very much about the industry they depict, they probe deeper than most fashion documentaries to emphasize the human touch that goes into the making of the garments. “Dior and I,” the first project he directed on his own, is no exception.
The documentary, which opens in select theaters Friday, April 10 following a successful festival run that launched at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, chronicles the painstaking eight-week process that led up to Christian Dior creative director Raf Simons’ first haute couture show for the luxury brand. “The story may be typical, but it remains tense and absorbing because Tcheng captures the excitement and exhaustion so well,” wrote Gary M. Kramer in Indiewire’s glowing review out of Tribeca.
Below, the filmmaker opens up about why he doesn’t care for the term “fashion documentary,” and why he was terrified to take this ambitious project on. Next up for Tcheng is a narrative feature he’s currently in the process of writing — one that also deals with the creative process.
It’s not like I set out to make films about fashion, it just sort of happened. I just choose the stories and the subjects that come to me, and sometimes you just can’t refuse when it’s someone like that. You just fall in love with it and it’s like okay, that’s the story I want to tell.
As Andy Warhol put it, “I’m deeply superficial,” and I think you can apply the same thing to fashion. If you look at it carefully, you know fashion is not just an image, it’s sort of speaks to the way we live our life or the way society protects itself. You can read so many things in fashion, it’s almost like a medium.
I’m not particularly fascinated with fashion or the image that it projects, I always respond to the human story. I think that’s who I am and that’s also how I’ve learned to make films. Films need to be about a human journey, it’s a first-person account of an experience.
I don’t like “fashion documentary” at all, as a term. But that’s my personal hangup. I feel like it’s restrictive, it doesn’t describe who I am. Even the term “documentary” for me is restrictive. For me, I make films, whether it’s a documentary or a narrative film. For me it’s the same process.
“Fashion documentary” comes with a lot of prejudice and preconceptions in people’s minds. It’s actually kind of striking how, especially in the film world, fashion is not taken seriously. It always hurts me a little when people just sort of dismiss fashion as something superficial or something image driven.
There’s something to be said for not being content with having a certain kind of kinship with the medium that you’ve chosen. I think it’s sort of productive in the end.
I was pretty much a nervous wreck during the eight weeks of the filming. You have to understand from my point of view: it was the biggest challenge that I had to face — the ups and downs of my career. I was directing by myself for the first time, and it was similar to what I had done before but on a larger scale, and the responsibilities were much bigger. And that’s something that I’ve realized only in hindsight, but in a sense I was put in a situation that was not unlike Raf’s situation of having to step up my game for this new experience. I mean, the level of exposure was much bigger — I never had to do interviews before this film and it helped me relate to his experience and tell his story from a personal point of view.
It took me years to actually build up the confidence to be able to direct by myself. So I’m kind of a late bloomer in a way, which now I realize also is very similar to Christian Dior. He started his fashion house at 40, after working for other people for like 20 years. There’s something to be said for working in the shadows.