Like most things I seem to read or watch these days, the documentary Dior and I (2015) had come in and out of my focus over the last few years. A Saturday night with the tv to myself seemed like a good opportunity to finally view it. Written and directed by Frédéric Tcheng, the doco is centred on the designer fashion label Christian Dior. The famous fashion house is preparing for it’s first haute couture collection under the direction of Belgian designer Raf Simons. It covers the six weeks from the day Simons begins to the day of the runway showcase.
The best documentaries not only educate about the things you previously knew nothing about, but they also offer great insight on their subject. My understanding and appreciation of high fashion before watching this documentary could best be described as limited, and I wasn’t sure what I would get out of it. But I found it fascinating! A little bit like other fashion documentaries I’ve watched in recent years, for example, The First Monday In May (2016) about preparations for the MET Costume Gala in New York, and The September Issue (2009) about the development of Vogue’s most important issue of the year (both excellent and well worth viewing), this left we with a deep appreciation for the complexities and genius involved in the creative process.
The documentary begins with slow motion archival footage of Christian Dior himself, accompanied by a voice over reading from his diaries about his reflections on his first haute couture collection for his own fashion house. He speaks to the enormous pressure he is under and his anxieties resulting from this, dwelling on the way in which the process leaves him feeling like the weight of the responsibility in splitting him in two halves and he has to work his way back to a whole, rather than remain his fragmented self. At one stage during the documentary Simons comments that he has been reading Dior’s early writings, but had to put it down because it was becoming “too weird”. We soon see why, as Simons’ own journey reflects that of Dior’s, who becomes a ghostly presence, both figuratively (to Simons at least) and literally (to some of the dress-makers, who comment on the building being haunted) throughout the entire film.
In some ways, Simons’ job is equally as hard as Dior’s. He has to create designs that stay true to Dior’s brand and style, but somehow make them original and unique. He has to be an absolute expert in pastiche and appropriation. Simons is an interesting man – calm, confident, extremely focused, but not overly conceited. He is likeable and generous to those around him, giving huge credit to the dress-makers and those who work behind the scenes to make his creations come to life. Yet, he’s also driven and to him the work must come above everything else. His battle with his bosses at Dior over this exact point convey his honest artistry. He revisits past collections and fabrics to come up with the ideas for his collection, but it is the dress makers who have to take these ideas from sketches and turn them into clothes. There is nothing more absorbing than seeing professionals at the top of their game working their magic and the dress makers are extraordinarily talented people who have skills well beyond simply sewing or hemming. I loved the way director Tcheng spent time with them – revealing them to be such ordinary people with such extraordinary abilities, who have such a monumental task. So too those in charge of bringing Simons’ fabrics to life. At one stage he visits a modern art gallery, choosing a new modern artist’s work as the basis for a fabric which will be at the heart of his collection. In order to create their graffiti-like colours and patterns, the fabric makers are forced to think outside the box and revisit fabric making techniques that haven;t been employed for decades. They mention how difficult and challenging it will be, and Simons only compels them to rise to the occasion. He will accept nothing less than the best to make his vision a reality. Under Tcheng’s careful hand, the tension slowly but gently builds over the course of the six weeks until the climax of the showcase, when the pressure and enormity of the creative endeavour finally hit Simons hard. It is in this moment of vulnerability we can see how powerful creativity can be.
This type of documentary isn’t going to change the world, and in hindsight, the level of importance placed on this world is a bit absurd. When one of the dress-makers is unable to be at the first viewing because she has to travel to New York for a fitting, it’s revealed that the fitting is for a single dress that was commissioned for 350, 000 euro. The catwalk show is a cameo line up of Hollywood and fashion elites, and one imagines that the amount of money spent on the building hire and flowers for the setting of the show is probably worth as much as the collection itself. This world is occupied by the most wealthy and privileged people in history. It doesn’t raise awareness of the big and important issues, and in many ways it is contrived and indulgent. That said, sometimes it is so nice to see the creation of a beautiful piece of work and understand just how much has gone into it.