A brand can be a powerful thing. Frederic Tcheng, director of Dior and I, is absolutely obsessed. This documentary about the famous couture house is peppered with shots of the name itself, hanging above the doorway of a shop or pasted onto an advertisement. Sometimes the effect is intimidation, other times adoration, but it is always at least brushing up against fetishization. Never quite slipping into insistence or redundancy, this leitmotif reminds of the power and dignity of the house, legendary since Christian Dior opened its doors in 1947.
This makes for a quite a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Raf Simons, the newest creative director of Dior and the ostensible subject of the film. He started work in April 0f 2012 and that’s where Tcheng begins, leading with the moment when the new boss is introduced to the staff. Dior and I charts Simons’s first collection from start to finish, from design to execution and the eventual big show. Everyone is nervous, most of all the man himself. There’s a lot of anxiety, particularly because Simons was generally seen as an odd choice for Dior due to his reputation as a minimalist and his background in menswear. Everyone is worried and there is no shortage of pained faces.
The designer’s reputation for minimalism extends to his personality, as it turns out. He also works mostly via folders of clippings and written ideas, doing none of his own drawing. This a blessing in disguise, an opportunity for Tcheng to turn the camera on the rest of the house. The real stars here are the ateliers, their staff and the two women who run them. Some of the older hands have worked for Dior for four decades and one gets the impression that they’d function quite effectively without a creative director. The driving tension of the film, therefore, is not Simons against the clock but rather the gradual coexistence and eventual collaboration of Simons and the ateliers.
All of this is, of course, haunted by the ghost of M. Christian Dior himself. Relevant quotes from his memoirs are laid over the proceedings, chosen for their relevance. He also quite literally haunts the ateliers, or at least that’s what the staff says. While Tcheng doesn’t actually capture the ghost of old Christian on camera, there is a particularly ethereal sequence shot at night in which archival documentary images of the designer at work are projected onto the white fabric that fills the room. Dior and I blends cinema into fashion rather than simply filming the making of expensive clothes. Even the music is complicit. Ha-Yang Kim’s score is mostly made up of melodies played on a single instrument, meandering from note to note as if to mimic the lines of an intricate gown.
Even in the bright light of the workday these spaces are quite something. The uniforms of the staff complement the garments all around them. It has the crisp, clean and flowing beauty of a convent. Tcheng’s touch is deft and subtle, making sure not to get too distracted by the beauty of the final product. When the time comes, the dresses get their moment in the sun. The larger point of Dior and I seems to be the illustration of haute couture as a collaborative art form, much like cinema. Simons is the director, the models are the sets and everything else is done by the staff of the ateliers, particularly in the context of the designer’s more decentralized method. It’s not exactly the same, of course. Yet Tcheng’s style, the employment of voice over, projection, musical score and a sense of space evoked through framing and editing, allow his film to find a communion between the two arts.
This review was originally published on April 18, 2014.