Dior And I – TriBeCa Film Festival review

At times transparent at others opaque, the dresses of Haute Couture give beguiling hints of the flesh below, and the new documentary Dior and I gives a similarly elliptical look at the newly minted Creative Director of Christian Dior — Raf Simons. Premiering in New York on April 17th and directed by Frederic Tcheng, whose credits include the fashion documentaries Valentino: The Last Emperor and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, the film sketches the daunting task faced by Raf (eschewing the traditional title “Monsieur Raf”) as he assumes the reins of the House of Dior. His mission is simple: move from the prêt-a-porter world of Jil Sander where he made his debut, turn around the high-end line of an aging giant of the fashion world, and do it in eight weeks.

Shot in Paris over the late Spring and Summer of 2012, the film weaves a double narrative, book-ending the creation of the Dior line with its newest captain, fifty-five years later. Tcheng artfully juxtaposes footage of Christian Dior’s earliest efforts to escape boxy, post-war fashion with the famously minimalist Simons’s headlong rush toward the deadline as he stretches to redefine both himself and the Dior brand, adrift following the very public dismissal of his notorious predecessor, the never named John Galliano.

Dior is one of only two of the great houses which maintains an on site atelier responsible for all dress manufacture. Its staff ranges from youthful interns to seamstresses who have been on staff for over four decades. It is this institutional memory that Raf depends on to make things work, but it is not a seamless fit at first. The 41-year old Belgian designer is calm and precise but he rankles a bit at times, notably when forced to confront the needs of Dior clientele who may demand fittings with the head seamstress at a moment’s notice and an ocean away.

He is a man who defies archetypes as well, choosing not to sketch, but rather to provide thick files of ideas to his designers and then reviewing their concepts, which number in the triple digits. Drawing on the works of artists such as Gerhard Richter and Sterling Ruby, he describes the look he’s after as “gothic Rothko” and “Romeo Gigli on acid”, Simons refuses to be talked out of the near impossible task of transposing these looks from canvas to fabric, demanding (sweetly) that they exhaust every possible option before conceding defeat.

The film succeeds most when exploring the relationships these exceptionally skilled craftspeople maintain with each other during long hours of painstaking and often repetitive work. One seamstress was asked to recall her original desire to work for Dior when she was a young girl. When questioned by a nun, she could not answer why, except to suppose (now entering her thirty-ninth year in the atelier) that perhaps she had met him in another life. Indeed, the ghost of Dior still seems to haunt these cramped quarters at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris’s eighth arrondissement. Tcheng drops in the words of Christian Dior himself, narrating it seems two times – his own experiences and his contemporary successor’s.

As Fashion Week grown near, the pressure continues to mount, as Simons pursues an unusual look for this inaugural show – Jeff Koons’s Flower Puppy. He hopes to dress each room of a graceful Parisian mansion with fourteen foot walls of over one million flowers. Even the Christian Dior CEO and Chairman Sidney Toledano is asked to weigh in on the decision of whether or not it is too costly. But when considering an uber-A-list front row of Anna Wintour, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlize Theron, Marion Cotillard, Harvey Weinstein, Grace Coddington, Donatella Versace and Marc Jacobs is there any expense that is too outrageous?

You’ll have to try on the film and see.

In French, with English Subtitles.

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