I didn’t get to see the Raf Simons haute couture debut for Dior in person. It’s the ONE show that I’ve not seen in his tenure for the house. My initial thoughts that I would say in hindsight was reactive rather than well-judged was that I wanted “more”. Looking back though, that collection was that first brave step that Simons had taken a) into a new world of haute couture, which he that never ventured in before and b) to reconcile the heavy heavy weight of Dior’s past and his own vision. Simons has since successfully ricocheted from past to present to some kind of superfuture in numerous Dior collections that have definitely clicked, clicked, clicked.
But the tale behind that first hatute couture debut collection for Dior now has a voice of its own, told by director Frédéric Tcheng in the documentary Dior and I, due to be released next week in the UK on the 27th March (it’s on release as previews in London at the moment). It’s the documentary that tracks the creation of that haute couture debut, filming eight weeks before the show right up to the show itself.
Tcheng has had experience of following fashion auteurs despite coming from a background of engineering with co-directing and producing credits on Valentino: The Last Emperor and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. Dior and I represents Tcheng’s first solo directed masterpiece and it was a story that he wanted to tell even before Simons had been appointed at Dior. “They had a new creative director coming in and Raf was at the top of many people’s list to get that job,” explained Tcheng. “I’m not a fashion expert but to me Raf Simons is a very a unique designer in the landscape He doesn’t talk very often but when he does you can sense he’s a very thoughtful designer. He doesn’t get inspired by the same things that everyone else gets inspired by. That story of coming to this French house with all its history and tradition, which In many ways, is at odds with Raf’s forward-thinking aesthetic – the past meeting the future by creating something in the present. That’s a ninety minute film for sure.”
Lest you think that this film is going to be 90 minutes of pandering to the brand, you’re wrong. What this film is ultimately about is the process of creation and the human hands and hearts that are invested in this process. Yes, the creative process being filmed, happens to be at Dior, one of two houses in the world that operates haute couture ateliers in this way with a history rooted in a man that created the monumental “New Look”, but Tcheng dials the story back to the people that work for the house and why they matter. “Dior is a very powerful brand and I was very conscious from the beginning that I had to watch out for my own POV. I did that through meetings explaining what I wanted to do. I told them right away, that people aren’t interested in a 90 minute Dior commercial. I wanted to touch on the human issues and that’s what I wanted to have access to have. Fortunately the rights of a director are very protected in France so I made sure I was able to make a very personal film.”
Convincing Simons to co-operate was half the battle. “Initially he said no! I explained my intentions in writing to him that I wanted to film the human side of the ateliers and his relationship with them. That got us through the first hurdle. After the letter, he said we could have one week with him. The rest happened through a lot of discussion as he explained why he didn’t want to be in the film. He didn’t want to be put on a pedestal. Once we established that I was not going to treat him that way, he opened up. He made me talk a lot about myself. At the end of the process, he got a sense of who I was. For him, it’s a two-way thing. ’”
Often filming alone or with one single soundman, Tcheng set about documenting the work process of the collection quietly, from the moment when Simons stepped in to be introduced by Sidney Toledano to the atelier staff integrating with Simons’ new way of working and of course, the actual making of the collection. The petite mains of the atelier become vital components of the film. There’s Monique, head of tailleur, with an amusingly anxious disposition who soothes her nerves with Haribo sweets. There’s Florence, head of flou, who creates drama when she has to leave the collection to fly to New York to attend to a client (justifiably so as she does spunk EUR350,000 a season on Dior haute couture).
I found this significant less because of Simons’ visible frustration but more that Dior haute couture as an entity is clearly profitable and that this atelier works not just as a labour of love but because they’re actively working for clients. Business aside, it’s clear they visibly invest much of themselves in what they create, taking pride in their work. There’s one scene when they’re re-embroidering a dress an eight of the workers are huddled over this two meter piece of fabric. There’s no questioning of why they need to get this right. They just do it because the perfection in every seam of every silhouette matters.
The atelier aspect of the film was incredibly important to Tcheng for several reasons. He had already experienced characters of an atelier through working on the Valentino documentary and knew there would be compelling stories to tell here. “Fashion is an image driven culture which sometimes obliterate a certain amount of reality in order to prop up someone or something. It tends to simplify a lot of things. I was interested in paying homage to the people who work in the shadows. It comes from my experience of working on other people’s films. The creative process is very intense and personal. Even if you’re not the main attraction or the creative director, it’s a team effort. In a film at least you have credits at the end. In fashion, there are no credits. It’s just the one designer coming out at the end of the runway.”
One other significant person in the shadows was Pieter Mulier, Simons’ trusted right hand man, who emerged as something of a Grace Coddington-esque character a la September Issue. His ability to speak French aided the communication between atelier and Simons and so he became something of a charismatic mediator. Florence has a particular soft spot for him. Significantly at the recent ready to wear show, Simons took his bow with Mulier by his side. It felt like an acknowledgement as a result of the film. “I think they’re very complimentary,” said Tcheng on the partnership. “Raf is very focused and sometimes,he comes across as withdrawn because he’s in this extreme concentration space. That allows Pieter to be more external. You have to have both of these roles.”
Another important character in the film was Monsieur Dior himself. Excerpts from his biography, narrated by Omar Berrada are woven into the narrative along with archive footage of Dior. His presence is a ghostly parallel set up to mirror Simons’ beginnings at the house. This reflective thread lingers until the day of show when we’re fully immersed into the present, into what Simons has done. “I was interested in the communication between the past and the present. Raf was interested in the same theme too by nature of working at Dior and being asked to transform the legacy into something modern. When I read Dior’s autobiography, there was something very simple and raw about the way Dior was expressing himself. It seemed like the past was mirroring the present. I saw parallels between Raf and Dior and in the processes of haute couture. When I was filming, I’d pick up the book at night and sometimes I was reading was exactly what had happened that day. You had that cycle of repetition. It’s a beautiful thing but it’s a scary thing for Raf to create something modern. He has to be respectful of the past but also break that pattern and assert his voice. I was interested in creating this atmosphere in the film – something that was haunting.”
The behind the scenes tidbits even for a non-fashion enthusiast are interesting enough because jeopardy in any industry is an interesting thing to watch, especially when the problem is subsequently solved. How a fabric printed with Ruby Sterling’s paintings caused the team a headache because only four engravers were in the country at the time, but were pronounced as “Sublime” when they came back from Bucol. How the bar jacket became black for those opening looks in the show, because Mulier took to the toile of the jacket with a spray can. Those images of those walls of orchids, roses and lilies created by Belgian florist Mark Colle are seared into our brains they weren’t an easy feat to pull off. Not least the cost of them which even Anna Wintour noted when she greeted Simons before the show: “Guess budget wasn’t an issue.”
But the emotion of it all will turn on waterworks for most. There’s a moment when Simons steps outside on the rooftop of the venue right before the show is about to commence. He needed a breather. He’s crying from the weight of expectation. That’s not a moment that many brands wish to convey. It’s the human in the machine that reminds us that inspirational creation can’t be done on auto pilot. Similarly the workers of the ateliers were letting their dresses go out on to the runway as though they were their children growing up in the big wide world. The show day was an emotional one for Tcheng too. “It was the biggest challenge of my career. I had a bigger crew. Everyone was running around and I had to direct everyone. My process paralleled Raf and the atelier’s process. This was a big day for me too and I had to step it up. I was lucky to be at the right moment at the right time. I lost Raf many times on the day. I had to look for Pieter or Olivier (Bialobos – head of communications at Dior) to find him. That’s how I got the moment on the rooftop.”
For the fashion fan, this insight into Simons’ way of working only makes you appreciate his output even more. You can’t fake the way he looks at every silhouette with such serious intent, analysing everything meticulously with his prepared dossiers that contain reference images for every single look. When he’s in the car and he asserts that he’s not a minimalist as everyone initially pronounced, you can more than feel the anguish of a designer that has been pigeon-holed. “I want it to become dynamic because women are dynamic,” said Simons at the beginning of the film. That dynamism has thus far defined his oeuvre at Dior and even though Tcheng showed the ups and downs of a collection that came together in just eight weeks, as the slow-mo camera honed in on the models walking through those floral rooms, the final conclusion was that it was a triumph. It was an achievement not possible without the people around him and a heck of a lot of work. “I wanted to show real human beings,” said Tcheng. “I was allowed to do that by the very nature of Raf, Pieter and the seamstresses – they’re very grounded people. They’re about the work. It felt very important for the film to be about the work.”