It’s difficult to approach a fashion documentary without some level of skepticism about whether its aims are to provide genuine insights into the fashion industry or simply to fluff egos and make sales. The fashion documentary is a form that tends to be anchored by the reputation and appeal of a single personality, with recent documentaries such as The September Issue, Valentino: The Last Emperor and Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s, which screened at last years Sydney Film Festival, coming to mind. Too often fashion documentaries feel more concerned with merely celebrating the individual rather than investigating their life in fashion, and while the title Dior & I deceptively suggests the film is another ode to the faces in the spotlight, it is much more. What is refreshing and engaging is the considered inclusion of the men and women of the atelier as primary characters, as well as the business professionals, which allows the audience to step behind the scenes whilst still paying respect to the world of fashion. In doing so, the director Frederic Tcheng celebrates not only the history and cultural clout of a major fashion brand but also the people involved in it. Dior and I is an enjoyable account of the design process of a haute couture collection, striking a balance between the historical and modern, artistic and commercial, personal and the public faces of Dior and more broadly of the realities of the fashion world as a whole.
What is important to first note is that the film assumes an audience who is in some way familiar with fashion, which in turn is conducive to caring what occurs behind the scenes at this fashion house. That isn’t to say however that someone who is oblivious to fashion cannot enjoy the film. The enjoyment of this film is merely enhanced by interest – just as you wouldn’t be as inclined to watch the cast interviews for a film you haven’t seen, or have little interest in, seeing behind the curtain of Dior can only be as engaging as it is if you enjoy Dior or fashion on some level. The film’s primary focus and driving point is the appointment of Raf Simons as the new creative director of Dior and his first collection for the house. Tcheng however feels less concerned with promoting an oft-heralded revolutionary vision in fashion, than documenting how the current situation reveals echoes in Raf’s aesthetics and personal experiences to that of Christian Dior’s. The director Frederic Tcheng weaves in interludes of found-footage and voice-over narration reading extracts from Dior’s biography — Christian Dior & I (from which the film gets it’s name) — drawing surprising similarities between the two men, particularly in how they experience the divide between the public and private personas. The inclusion of these scenes avoids straying into kitsch, as Tcheng’s choice of insightful extracts from the biography and rare archival footage ensure the film is lifted above a Style Channel biopic.
While it has the excitement and fervour we’d expect in a film structured around the completion of a highly anticipated debut collection, the film also has meditative tone in the serene, lingering shots of the atelier in the early hours of the morning. One particular shot that stands out in the film is of the atelier at 5am bathed in a blue hue, absent of the dramas we’ve previously seen inhabit the space. Tcheng cites Hitchcock’s Rebecca as an influence on the project, and while I found the discussion of the ghost of Dior a bit silly, the ghostly aesthetics and lingering shots outside of the frantic atmosphere of the ateliers provided an interesting counterbalance to the hyper-energetic flurry. These sequences at the atelier are also a blunt reminder of the human labour crucial to fashion – all we are often privy to see are the perfect, stylised products in store windows absent of the sleepless nights and stress that went into every fold of the final product. The inclusion of interviews surrounding the premieres of the atelier, in which both sewers and designers have their say, gives voice to habitually absent contributors to the public image of the design process, and once again places emphasis on the human aspect of fashion. The considered editing sees cuts between scenes of frantic sewing in the atelier to scenes of the design team sitting and comparing swatches, leisurely spelling out an implicit commentary on the labour intensity of the sewers relative to their lack of recognition more broadly. This is encapsulated in the final scenes at the runway show as the sewers hide behind curtains and walk amongst the crowds unnoticed, as press and celebrities hoard and celebrate Raf Simons.
I was surprised to learn that Tcheng was not acquainted with Raf Simons to begin with, or internally involved with Dior in any capacity. There is a scene in the film where Raf explains to a press coordinator why he’s hesistant about talking to the press, “I don’t want them sticking a camera in my face all the time as if they know me.” It’s telling in the irony of this moment of Tcheng’s presence here, a filmmaker who’s been not only allowed to stick his camera in Raf’s face for two months — but also shadow him at what would be an incredibly stressful time — also being able to interview and freely edit together a film about him and his coworkers. The documentary is deeply emotional, and does not refrain from including scenes of frustration or perceived weakness, most notably several uncomfortable statements made by the sewers at Dior about their new creative director, and vice versa. Tcheng, while evidently displaying a great amount of respect for and insight in fashion, in no way idolises these individuals or the industry as a whole, revealing instead what can be the troubling financial and creative realities of the fashion world. Scenes such as an argument between Raf and superiors about having to send their head seamstress to appease a client who spends €350,000 each season, reveal the bureaucratic structures that are often unseen in lieu of the designer’s vision, to which we often assume is paramount or insurmountable.
Tcheng’s Dior & I is stylised and intimate with its subjects, in spite of his relatively short time with his subjects, going against the grain in the fashion documentary genre in revealing the seams and rough cuts and flaws of the world of fashion, rather than merely perpetuating the facades that we’re often presented with. Audiences may go into the film expecting something superficial and light, and it does cater to these impulses and interests in fashion, but builds on them and demonstrates that while the documentation of fashion may suggest and proliferate the idea that it is merely concerned image, does not mean that it necessarily has to be shallow.
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