“Dior and I,” opening April 24 at The Ritz at the Bourse, is openly gay director Frédéric Tcheng’s third fabulous fashion documentary — after collaborating on “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel.” It is also the first he directed alone.
This new film observes creative director Raf Simons in 2011 as he prepares his first haute-couture show for the House of Dior. Simons creates designs, chooses fabrics and gets to know his staff, whom he manages well. He also has setbacks; an exquisite, if grandiose, idea on how to stage the fashion show; and a severe case of nerves.
Tcheng nimbly edits together the eight intense weeks of Simons and his staff preparing their show. He also seamlessly intercuts archival footage of Christian Dior to give a sense of the fashion house’s history as its future is unfolding.
The filmmaker recently spoke via Skype with PGN about making “Dior and I.”
PGN: This is your third fashion doc. Why do you have such an affinity for this world, and how did you come to make “Dior and I”?
FT: I think it’s just an opportunity, really. I am not particularly fashion-oriented or coming from a fashion background. For me, the most important things are the story and the characters. I don’t go to fashion shows except to film. Olivier Biolobos, the head of communication and public relations at Dior, fell in love with “Diana Vreeland.” I asked him about the future of Dior with John Galiano out. I told Olivier that if it was going to be Raf, I wanted to document his arrival. Raf’s approach was very different, much more modern. His process was also like that of a painter; his references and collaborations with his models were totally refreshing. This film was a negative mirror of “Valentino.” What happens after the master steps down and the newcomer arrives when there is this strong sense of legacy?
PGN: What did you observe about Raf Simons?
FT: He’s reluctant to have any public presence and shies away from cameras and public exposure. He was physically uncomfortable being filmed. I was surprised by the level of emotion that Raf brought toward the end of the film. I was praying for that, but I didn’t expect it, knowing his personality and how modest he is. He didn’t like to flaunt his emotions. He’s very thoughtful, generous and understanding of other people’s creative processes and that certainly applied to me. He later told me he didn’t want to be too close during filming because he didn’t want to influence my decisions in the film. When I was [shooting] Raf coming into the building to meet the seamstresses for the first time, that was when I met him. I had to convince him to give [the film] a try. He gave me a one-week trial period, and once we started engaging face to face, it became a very different story. This came at an opportune time. It would not be possible to do it now.
PGN: What can you say about filming the fashion shows that end the film? The slow-motion runway was inspired. The models seemed to just float!
FT: That happened by chance. I’m very happy with how it turned out. Credit Léo Hinstin, who is the cinematographer, for the runway segment. He has worked with fashion runways before. I said I didn’t want it to look like a typical runway. I wanted a slightly different look and he came up with slow motion and the low angle that made them look sculptural. When I got the footage and played it the first time, I started crying, I was so moved by the lightness of the footage. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better set for the final runway show. That was my MGM moment! [Laughs]
PGN: Raf compares himself to Dior in the film. How are you like Dior? What qualities as a filmmaker do you share with the famous designer?
FT: I indentified with Raf most — maybe it was my personal journey, as it was the biggest scale and responsibility I have done. He had to deal with the legacy of Dior, but I had to deal with my subject and honor them and find my own voice and do something uniquely mine. His creative struggles mirrored mine. Dior was a late bloomer. He worked for other people for a long time — several designers before he started his own line when he was 40. He had several careers, and he came from somewhat of an architectural background. I started as an engineer and got my degree in civil engineering (building). He was reserved, and that’s something I share with him and Raf does too. When I read Dior’s autobiography, he seemed totally genuine in the way he expressed himself. I liked his simplicity. He doesn’t seem self-conscious about how he comes across. I liked the humanity of Christian Dior and how he talked about his collaborators. You get a vivid sense of him and his team from his book. That’s why I decided to use it in the film and, after I met Raf, it became obvious; there were so many parallels that the process had not changed in 50 years. It was a way of juxtaposing the past and the present the way Raf does the same, an archival jacket with pants. The two could cohabit and create something new. The voice of Christian Dior became a big part of it as I was researching and, as I was shooting, it became very clear, as a voice-over. In editing, we started building the film around that.