In a world where one misstep can ruin a career, the rise to power in the fashion world isn’t an easy one. That’s why it’s always a hold-your-breath-moment when a fashion house gets a new creative director. In the case of Dior, whose founder, Christian Dior, made an everlasting impact on his 10 years as Creative Director, the man and the fashion are almost inseparable. In the documentary, Dior and I, film director Frédéric Tcheng follows the eight week journey of Raf Simons, the practical minimalist of design label Jil Sander. His journey has perhaps some more tedious moments, but the runway to fashion glory is sure to entertain most audiences.
The film opens with the shadow of a woman wearing a classic Dior silhouette – narrow waist and a voluminous skirt – walking down the street. Reminiscent of a Godard film, a mysterious narrator (Omar Berrada) tells us the difference between the man, Christian Dior, and the legend, Dior. After his voice fades out, within a few quick shots, we’re suddenly jolted to the present, where Dior’s legacy still reigns. Suddenly we find ourselves standing in a white room, where Simons is handed the challenging honor of being Dior’s new face.
The first act of the film feels like we’ve entered a foreign kingdom, a mysterious but beautiful society that we’ve only looked at, but never touched. In an interview with The Untitled Magazine, the director reciprocated the same feeling. “I’m a filmmaker, first and foremost. People think I spend my day looking at fashion, but that world is as foreign to me as is it to anyone else.” But that didn’t stop him from wanting to follow Simmons journey into it. “The inspiration for the movie was just meeting Raf. Instantly, I wanted to know more about him and see what his journey would be like.” After that fateful meeting,the crew of the film had one week to prepare, and to get to know Simmons.
Tcheng establishes the juxtaposition between Simons and the house of Dior quickly. In an endless sea of white marble, Simons is always adorned in black. He’s the odd man out in many ways- he doesn’t speak much French, has an aesthetic geared towards the future, and is a novice on women’s fashion, much less couture. Cathryn Horyn, fashion critic for The New York Times, explains, “he wasn’t the obvious choice.” Simons wants to bring the outside world into a fashion house where the employees proclaim, “we all still work for Christian Dior.”
The rise to power won’t be easy for Simons. This is where the story could’ve picked up pace. One sequence goes completely tangential when Simons and the Dior’s Director of Communications, Olivier Bialobos, helicopter to Dior’s chateau and talk about his autobiography, Christian Dior and I (the book that the movie derives its title from). While Tcheng seems to have edited the film to break moments of tension, the directorial choice simply slow down the pace of a rapidly approaching fashion show.
Dior and I begins with a strong sense of its identity, but falters halfway through. After a while, the constant cutaways to black and white footage of Dior feel like an all too frequent reminder of something we’ve been aware of since the very beginning. Perhaps the emotional distance Simons maintains throughout the first half of the film resulted in Tcheng incorporating indicators for the audience, but the effort felt more like overcompensation. But perhaps this could also be due to the fact that this is a depiction of a beginning, rather than an end. In his previous film, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (which he co-directed), there was a whole 50 year career to pull apart- here we have eight weeks. When Tcheng was asked about the process of both films, he replied “The process of Diana Vreeland and this film were completely different. She had passed away, so we were piecing and editing together all these different pieces of her life and career. With Dior, the story was unfolding in real time, so we followed the flow of it naturally.” In a time of such anticipation, the only thing to do is observe and understand, a process that Tcheng depicts clearly.
Despite its cinematic faults, the end still feels like a gorgeous triumph. In one of the final scenes, just moments before the show, Simons and Bialobos retreat to the roof, away from the maddening crowds. The cameras and press below are abuzz, celebrities begin to fill the building, and backstage is a beautiful and chaotic marathon. As the reality of the moment, the hours, and the preparation begins to sink in Simons begins to cry. It’s a surprisingly touching scene, one that marks the end of an emotionally long journey for the designer, and most likely the man himself.
In the madness of celebration that comes at the end of the show, the movie comes to a sudden but satisfying close. The prince has ascended the throne, and the kingdom is more magnificent for it.
Tcheng has a strong sense of his subjects. But the idea Tcheng went after and the final product became a little too distant, feeling more like a rough cut rather than a polished exploration of a man at the defining moment of his career.
There is something to be said about his absolute appreciation of his subject, as well as the passion for the second most important people in the film, the seamstresses. “The world of the ateliers and seamstresses was the biggest surprise for me.” said Tcheng, “They’re truly the unsung heroes of the fashion world.” While a more verteran documentarian like Werner Herzog or James Marsh use their subjects as a means to an end, Tcheng celebrates every subject in his film. The appreciation is infectious, and Simons makes for a very likable underdog. It’s hard not to appreciate a male fashion designer who says that his clothes need to correlate with the dynamic women of today.
Nonetheless, as curious as audiences will be to see Simon’s career develop, there’s also a genuine curiosity from this writer to see the next steps in Tcheng’s career. “I always want to do films I’m passionate about. It doesn’t have to be about fashion, I just have to have a strong passion for the story.” The passion for his subjects is apparent in his film, as it was in Diana Vreeland. It’s a filmmaking quality that will only aid in his next release.
Regular filmgoers will enjoy a peek inside the glamorous but elusive world and being able to see Jennifer Lawrence’s Golden Globes dress made from start to finish. Fashionistas will savor seeing the minutiae and craftsmanship that’s put on display for 89 minutes. But for film auteurs, the film is an enjoyable but not awe inspiring display of documentary filmmaking.