“I want to respect the joy of chance,” intones Dior and I’s only narrator – Christian Dior himself – over images of the many hands that build form out of shapeless bolts in the all-white garden of the Dior atelier at 30 Avenue Montaigne. And so writer and director Frederic Tcheng (Valentino: The Last Emperor, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel) lets the joy of chance wend its way over the days and nights leading to the debut of the first collection of Raf Simons, the newly appointed head of the Dior house.
Dior and I is ostensibly a “will he or won’t he triumph” documentary about Simons and the greatest professional challenge of his career. What Tcheng has really created is a beautiful tribute to the labor and craftsmanship that goes into a dying art, and the people who spend their lives in ateliers, honing their craft and passing their institutional knowledge down to the next generation of artisans.
At least, that’s how the viewer should think of it. As any avid fashion documentary viewer will tell you, these brief, fantastical glimpses into a privileged world that’s built on the trappings of excess require a certain suspension of disbelief. Though, in the case of Dior and I, we’re set up to root for a designer (Simons) who repeatedly refuses to hire models of color in his runway shows, and whose frantic accession to the helm of the House of Dior, the very subject of the film, is tied to the single greatest PR-disaster of the Fashion World in the last decade. After former lead designer John Galliano is arrested for an anti-Semitic rant (subsequent footage of a second rant is equally damning), parent company LVMH yanked Galliano from his tenure, and the search for his successor became their focus.
Luxury companies would have us believe that the selection of design house leads are brave, bold choices. For example, this week’s much ballyhooed announcement of DKNY’s selection of Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne for their co-created streetwear label, Public School, as the mega-brand’s new creative faces. It’s unbelievable, however, that LVMH, the same parent company of Christian Dior and Donna Karen International would ever select anyone for such a public-facing role without running the kind of financial risk scenarios that would make any actuary’s head spin (does this brilliant homeless pirate secretly despise Jews, and also have a drinking problem?) We can rest assured that Raf, already a success at Jil Sander, will do well by Monsieur Dior.
Still, some of the most enjoyable moments of the film are when the friction of the financial side of a multi-billion-dollar business butts up against the artistry of couture. In a rare moment of actual drama, one of the two premieres (heads of the two ateliers: gowns and suits, respectively) has gone missing, whisked away to New York by Dior’s executives to conduct a custom fitting for an unhappy client.
A native of ready-to-wear (before Jil Sander, Simons ran his own eponymous label), Simons bristles at the fact that one of his pillars in this time of crisis can be usurped by the house’s executives. LVMH has handed him the keys to the kingdom: decades of history and prestige, a seemingly unlimited budget, dozens of patient seamstresses, two seasoned premiers to lead them, and just like that, one can be snatched away by the bosses to serve a high-paying client. “I’m not going to turn down someone who spends 350,000 euros a year,” explains an exasperated executive from her desk, far from the workshop floor.
Later, I found myself craning my neck, as if I would be able to overhear the conversation between LVHM Chairman, CEO Bernard Arnault (13th richest man in the world), and another executive about the projected cost of Raf’s runway vision: a private palace coated floor to ceiling in millions of fresh flowers as a tribute to the Jeff Koons piece “Flower Puppy,” an endeavor that takes a crew of 50 people a full 48 hours to execute. “I guess you didn’t have any budget issues,” murmurs Anna Wintour as Simmons leads her into the mansion before the show. Even Anna is impressed. The issues are there, but they aren’t for us to worry about.
Simons takes cues from another modern artist, friend Sterling Ruby, having fabrics printed with his abstract, jewel-tone paintings. But still, he looks to the past. Throughout Dior and I, this Belgian interloper is searching for the guiding hand of Christian Dior, whether he’s gazing at a crooked portrait hanging in the showroom before correcting its angles, or taking a helicopter to his coastal childhood home, now a museum. The camera rarely interferes with the action, and we never hear the questions that elicit subject’s responses: we only hear from M. Dior, speaking of his “Siamese twin,” or the idea of the designer he hopes to be. It seems Simons is chasing the same twin around corners and down hallways as his anxiety comes to a hilt, and we hear in Dior’s own words how worried he was on the eve of his own first collection’s debut.
Contrasting past and present – whether it’s Christian versus Raf, matte muslin shapes versus their glimmering gown counterparts – Tcheng creates tension when little actually exists.The venerable house of Dior will keep on trucking, as will the skilled artisans tucked away, laboring into the night over picotage. Dior may be one of the last two remaining “true” couture houses in the world, but the story of art versus business is a timeless tale. Patrons support the artists who create magic that delights the masses. It’s a nice look at the process that precedes a final product that seems at once impossible and effortless: a couture runway show. As one seamstress explains of the gowns, “It’s flat. Then it all comes together.” The same can be said of Dior and I.
You can follow Catherine on Twitter at @ciaocatherine.