THE recent flurry of fashion films – biopics or documentaries that enthral viewers and make key players empathetic characters rather than tempting targets for satirists — has been good for the industry.
However, Dior and I director Frédéric Tcheng is not so sure. The Frenchman feels the “celebrification” of designers distorts our view of the team effort that is haute couture.
Tcheng knows of which he speaks, having collaborated on Valentino: The Last Emperor and co-directed on Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. He sought to make this project very “down to earth,” connecting with behind-the-scenes players for a more authentic picture.
“A dress is not just the creation of a designer but a team of people that can be overshadowed by the cult of the celebrity built up around the designer,” he explains.
The first Dior couture collection by Raf Simons, presented in July 2012 and created in just eight weeks, seemed a cinematic moment. “Raf was taking on a challenge of a scale much bigger than he ever had before in a brand new environment.”
And Tcheng’s team was there to film the creative director’s introduction to key staff. We watch him memorise the faces of Catherine Riviere, Director of Haute Couture; Monique Bailly, head of the atelier tailleur, and Florence Chehet, head of the atelier flou.
All three women are formidable characters. In private interviews, Monique is openly sceptical of Raf’s readiness for the labour intensity of haute couture having only experienced ready-to-wear.
If couture is the “soul of the maison,” as Madame Riviere says, then Monique is the nerve system. Intercut with comments from fashion critic Cathy Horyn, who while reminding us that Raf was an unexpected appointment, says: “People thought ‘Oh, he is a minimalist’, she explains.
“The people who really know Raf are the people who covered menswear. The people who watched his shows in ’96, ’97, ’98 saw the beginning of the revival of the skinny black suit. “You can call that minimalism but it was also the beginning of something very modern.”
“Dior moderne”, Raf tells LVMH Moet Hennessy boss Bernard Arnault, “is what we are aiming for.”
Tcheng describes Simons as “a very reserved person. He’s still wary of the image culture that has grown around designers and does not want to engage with it.”
Filming began only after much negotiation between Tcheng, Simons and Dior Communications Director Olivier Villalobos. We see only flashes of the warm man Tcheng describes to me, though Raf is always very gracious.
“People mistake his shyness or reservation for coldness. Really, it’s just another kind of focus.” The designer is plainly unreserved in his passion for contemporary art. “Raf gets really excited about it,” says Tcheng. The flower-filled catwalk show-space was inspired by Jeff Koons’ Puppy (1992).
Art also allowed Raf to put a clear personal stamp on the clothes. Paintings by Sterling Ruby, a celebrated LA artist and long-time friend, were printed directly onto coats and dresses. I think Raf prefers to work with friends whenever possible, personal relationships are very important to him.”
Raf’s reliance on Pieter Mulier is another example of this. Audiences are sure to fall in love with Mulier, a sweet-faced Belgian who charms everyone at Dior from the beginning. Raf introduces him to Dior staff as “my right hand.”
Pieter does much to ease Raf’s interactions with his new colleagues, including translating their conversations (the designer’s French is not fluent). Monique suspects it is Pieter who sends her flowers after a stressful day in the studio, even though Raf’s name is on the card. “
When Raf needed to be very focused Pieter is the one that keeps everything upbeat,” says Tcheng. “They’re a real creative partnership.” This view was reinforced at the end of Dior’s recent Paris Fashion Week show, where the pair stepped out onto the catwalk together to take a bow.
Pieter also explains Raf’s process. The designer organises files of visual research and gives them to everyone in his team as inspiration for their sketches. He chooses his favourites and then, it is all about dialogue. Everyone’s input is considered and “it makes for a much richer collection.”
The sketches are sent to the atelier heads and the seamstresses who interpret them with cotton toiles. The tensest moment in the film is their first presentation of the toiles to the creative director.
Everyone is extremely stressed, chain smoking or consuming copious amounts of Coke Zero and Haribo jellies. Disaster strikes when it emerges that many of the dresses are not ready and that Florence has been called to New York to tend to a client.
Raf is angry that such a vital staffer has been sent out but Madame Riviere explains to the camera that if someone orders €350,000 worth of couture, she won’t hesitate to send her best staff when there is a problem.
The making of a new collection coincides with the sale of the last and this is still a business. As interesting as it is to watch Raf bat details back and forth with his team, these are familiar scenes in fashion documentaries.
Unique to Dior and I are detailed images of the graft that goes into making these designs — all sketched and measured dreams — a reality.
The seamstresses and interns toiling on three hours sleep shortly before the show, long after the design team have opened the champagne to celebrate a job well done. Raw hands applying sequins to chiffon, going right to the wall of the show-time deadline.
In a 2011 interview with L’Express, Monique said that a coat alone can take 200 hours of work, not counting the embroidery. On camera she says pointedly, the atelier never changes, the implication being that directors will always come and go. Disgraced director John Galliano doesn’t come up.
“There wasn’t any mention of Mr Galliano while we were filming and it didn’t feel organic to discuss something just because it was in the news,” says Tcheng.
Passages from Christian Dior’s memoirs are voiced over relevant scenes of the design process but the book is not what inspired Tcheng’s focus on the atelier workers.
“I was thinking about social realism in the French tradition. In The Rules of the Game, [director] Jean Renoir shows you everyone from the master of the house to the maid. I wanted to show this cross-section of French society, everyone in the same house working on the same project.”
“Masters” like Dior chief executive Sidney Toledano appear only briefly but Tcheng has certainly documented a piece of social history. Individual seamstresses describe their career paths as they interpret Raf’s designs. Some are recent recruits; others have been at the house over 40 years.
hey all speak of their work and their superiors with great reverence and affection. The garments themselves, one veteran sewer describes as, “like our babies.”
The dresses are so beautiful it often brings them to tears and they are always sad to let them go.
When Raf steps outside for a cry immediately before the film’s finale— his first couture show— you realise how hard he must have worked to restrain these emotions throughout the process.hen there is an urge to cheer with the staff when he walks the catwalk and receives the public applause — a triumphant turn for the media whom he had earlier told the Dior team would give him great discomfort.
You start watching Dior and I safe in the knowledge the ending will be happy — but you finish knowing how much of that is down to the men and women in the wings.
Dior and I is at selected cinemas.
Belgian designer Raf Simons was made Creative Director of Christian Dior Couture in April 2012.
His appointment ended a transition period during which the haute couture, women’s; ready-to-wear; jewellery and footwear collections were overseen by Bill Gaytten, a close colleague of former CD John Galliano.
Simons was a controversial choice for two reasons. He had never worked on an haute couture line before and his previous design aesthetic was very minimalist, the complete opposite of Dior’s signature decadence and structured femininity.
He had just eight weeks to prove his doubters wrong by preparing a couture offering and catwalk show that were true to Dior’s style and uniquely his own.
This collection included a print collaboration with German-born LA artist Sterling Ruby, whose work the New York Times describes as “gangster Rothko.”
Christian Dior Couture is 68 year’s old. Christian Dior the man, worked there for just 10 years but the clothes he created were so revolutionary in the post-war era that their key elements or “codes” have been reused and updated by every creative director since with great commercial success.
Dior is considered one of only two remaining haute couture houses in the world. The main haute couture graft is carried out by two studios or ateliers. The atelier flou handles the dresses while the atelier tailleur works on tailoring and the most voluminous, architectural pieces.
Workers in both studios are typically employed far longer than any of the creative directors they work under. They report to the president of their individual atelier, who in turn reports to the Director of Haute Couture, a separate role from Creative Director.