There was a time, and not so long ago, when the fashion world was an esoteric place, unravelled by trusted writers whose detailed reports compensated for the lack of pictures allocated to their column inches. Today, technology has opened up the industry to multimedia scrutiny and encouraged a new genre of documentary fashion films. Frédéric Tcheng has been a key driver of this trend and, having co-produced Valentino: The Last Emperor and co-directed Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, has now taken his place in the director’s chair for Dior and I.
The film captures the eight-week lead-up to Raf Simons’ first haute couture collection for Dior. ‘I was interested in seeing the birth of a new direction,’ explains Tcheng. ‘The flip side of the end of an era is a new designer stepping into the shoes of the founder, and that seemed like a very good premise to me.’
The project arose from a conversation with Dior’s director of communications, Olivier Bialobos, at a screening of The Eye Has to Travel a few months before Simons’ appointment was announced. ‘I was intrigued by what was going on at Dior,’ says Tcheng. ‘I told him, "If Raf comes to Dior you have a great story." I was fascinated by Raf’s approach. He talks like an artist and has a process of collaboration that is very interesting.’
The first time he actually met Simons, Tcheng was behind the camera, filming his arrival at Dior, where he meets the haute couture seamstresses for the first time. ‘It was tense, as Simons was initially against the idea [of being filmed],’ Tcheng says. ‘I had sent him a letter explaining my process and what I was interested in – the collaboration with the seamstresses, and how those two worlds would collide and create something new.’
He got the OK to film for a week, and worked with just one cameraman. ‘Once Raf gave access, he gave a lot of access,’ Tcheng says. What was unexpected was the extent of Simons’ unease with the publicity that came with his Dior debut – something Christian Dior had also struggled with. This parallel became central to the narrative, with Tcheng using the founder’s voice to aid in narrating Simons’ journey. ‘I did not expect the level of emotion that Raf brought,’ he adds.
The pressures the film documents are balanced by moments of the ‘sublime’ (Simons’ preferred descriptive), from artist Sterling Ruby’s paintings reworked as gowns, to the remodelling of the show venue into a four-walled take on Jef Koons’ floral Puppy, and the comedy double act of the heads of the haute couture ateliers. ‘There was a social element that was important to me,’ Tcheng says. ‘[The film] had to be grounded in real life – the workplace. I was thinking a lot about the upstairs, downstairs narrative.’ Key scenes are shot in the lift that connects the couture atelier with the design room. ‘I tried to portray everyone’s experience,’ he adds, ‘not just Raf’s, but the multiple points of view of the seamstresses.’ Which brings us to the deliberate ambiguity of the film’s title, Dior and I.