I wasn’t even there when [Raf Simons] watched it and he didn’t want me to be there. I don’t blame him for it. I think it’s very confronting.
From the moment Dior opened its doors and lauched the revolutionary “New Look” in 1947, the fashion house forever etched itself into a very particular guise. Naturally, when Raf Simons was appointed artistic director of Dior’s haute couture line in 2012, many questioned his credentials. Crucially, he faced scrutiny from those who saw him as a mere minimalist, better known for his menswear collections under his own label, and later with his celebrated tenure at Jil Sander. Filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng, who previously worked on Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008) and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011), chronicles the painstaking eight weeks leading up to Simons’ debut collection at Dior in the dazzling fly-on-the-wall documentary, Dior and I.
Striving to modernize Dior’s haute couture brand while also staying true to the hallmarks of the Christian Dior style, the notoriously reticent Simons appears measured and collegiate… until time begins to run out. It’s an endeavor wrought with pressure and one that Tcheng depicts with a sharp sense of what’s important, wasting little time on the private and opaque Belgian designer’s personal life in order to convey a larger sense of the atelier’s constant push-pull tensions between inventiveness and practicality, the past and the present. It’s a world that often looks self-indulgent and conceited, not to mention psychotic and fueled by egos, carrying with it the potential for fiery dust-ups for everyone involved. It’s also, as Simons puts it, “so gigantic and sublime.”
Dior and I opens April 10 in NYC at Film Forum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
When you’re granted this kind of unprecedented access into an iconic brand, at an important time of transition for Dior especially, I’d imagine there are some stipulations.
There were a lot of discussions about what I wanted to do, what interested me, and what didn’t interest me. I think the timing was right because Olivier [Bialobos] was interested in documenting the “arrival” of Dior, so it’s not like I had a lot of convincing to do. But Dior being a hierarchy, I met with several other people and, again, the discussions always revolved around what kind of film I was interested in making. Being the film person that I am, I was always interested in making a 90-minute feature, not a promotional video or a short film. That obviously requires a lot of access because you need a lot of material. Raf [Simons] was a complete wildcard. As you mentioned before, he’s gone on the record about not wanting the spotlight. He’s a very grounded person. I don’t really know what made him change his mind, but I did explain to him that the film wouldn’t be a portrait of him. It was going to be about the teamwork and the collaboration, and I think that connected with his view of the fashion world. In human terms, it’s all a matter of connection. In the film, Raf talks about how he doesn’t want to be filmed for interviews or photographed by people he doesn’t know. Once he knows who’s behind the camera, it’s a very different story.
Is it true that you hadn’t met Raf face-to-face until you actually started filming?
Did it take some time for Raf to warm up to you?
He was very curious when we first met. Pieter [Mulier] actually came up to me first and Raf followed quickly behind. We talked about the film, what films I liked, and who my favorite directors were. He asked me a lot of questions. You can sense that he has a beautiful personality and he’s very engaging on a personal level. He’s not distanced and his desire for privacy doesn’t mean that he’s not engaged with other people, but on the contrary. He likes to know who he’s having a dialogue with, as I do, which is natural anyway. We tend to forget that in the age of social media where you talk to anybody and everybody.
I was getting to know him better, for sure, and he was opening up. But there was always a distance that remained because that’s the nature of a subject documentary relationship. There’s a certain tension and it’s almost like a seduction. You don’t want to get too close. Also, Raf wanted to give me creative room, which I really appreciated. After the film was released, he told me, “I didn’t want to get too close because I didn’t want to influence your judgement.” I think that’s very thoughtful, but he’s like that. Sometimes you don’t want to intrude because it can be exploitative. There’s a certain point when you need to step back. I felt that very strongly when I was up on the roof with him right before the collection debuted and he showed his vulnerability. I filmed it for about three, four seconds and stepped back as far as I could to film from afar. Those decisions come to you sort of naturally and instinctively based on who you are as a person.
And you know your instincts were correct and the moment you captured was authentic because Raf doesn’t even remember you being on that rooftop with him.
Right, exactly. But I don’t understand why he doesn’t remember because I talked to him on the roof. [Laughs] I think I even said something right before he cried. I don’t know if that had anything to do with him having his moment, but I think there were so many thoughts flying through his head that he can’t remember.
One of the difficult things about making a documentary seems to be that the uncertainties most often outweigh the certainties. Was that the case with Dior and I?
I knew what kind of story I wanted to tell in broad strokes. I knew it was going to be about the encounter between the Dior ateliers and Raf, with Christian Dior’s own story resonating. But I hadn’t met any of the characters prior to filming, so the story is a little bit like a house you build. There’s no one inside the house and you don’t have a film yet. The process of filming is discovering your characters and trying to peel the layers of who these people are. That was really fascinating and emotionally very intense, just being there every day with only eight weeks to get deep with them. It’s also a process of self-discovery because this was my first solo film. You learn a lot about yourself just by doing things. It was one of the most intense periods of my life.
What was Raf’s reaction to seeing the finished film?
He was very moved. He was completely taken by surprise by how much emotion there was. He told me that he thought it was authentic and representative of the two months he lived. It was a great relief for me because the last thing you want is your subject to feel like they don’t recognize themselves in the film. I wasn’t even there when he watched it and he didn’t want me to be there. He watched it alone in his living room. I don’t blame him for it. I think it’s very confronting.
If you look at the three films you’re credited with, they’re inextricably tied to the world of fashion. That wasn’t a conscious choice on your part, was it?
These opportunities presented themselves and I couldn’t turn them down. I just fell in love with the different subjects and it was never planned. I’m always reluctant to say “fashion film” or “fashion filmmaker” and I cringe whenever someone says that. There’s so much more to explore. Especially with Dior and I, I wanted to talk about something other than fashion. I wanted to talk about the human experience and bring the film closer to something everyone can relate to.
It’s clear that fashion is ultimately a backdrop to the human stories you’re trying to convey. How did you go about getting your other subjects in the ateliers on board?
I think I won them over by coming every day, relentlessly, at eight in the morning. [Laughs] They were used to having people coming to shoot for maybe half an hour when they do B-roll, and B-roll was the last thing I wanted to do. I was actually more interested in hearing them talk about the work and getting to know them as human beings. They must’ve sensed that. Also, we were quite methodical with our crew in the first few days. We spent time going from table to table, talking to everyone and learning everyone’s names. That broke the ice a little bit.
Can you recall anything of particular interest that was left on the editing room floor?
There was one scene that I tried to put in the film, but there wasn’t enough time. Florence [Chehet], the head seamstress, lives two hours away from Paris. Every morning, she takes two trains and the subway to get to work. I was kind of fascinated by this. She lives in the middle of a wheatfield. She has a house with a big garden. I asked Florence, “Can we come visit you? Can we do the journey with you?” and she’s said, “Okay, but I leave at five-thirty in the morning.” That means we would’ve had to leave Paris at three-thirty in the morning. The nearest hotel from Florence was half an hour away, so we slept in the region and accompanied her on her commute the next morning. It was a beautiful scene. You can see the sun rising over the wheatfield as she’s driving her car to the train station. This will probably end up on the DVD extras.
One of the mysteries of Dior and I amongst the fashion pack has been the film sidestepping any mention of John Galliano’s storied departure. Why?
I just thought that story’s been told and belonged to a different news cycle. I’m not interested in the news and I’m not a journalist. I like to make films about people that I actually meet. I’ve never met John Galliano. I have nothing to add. I have no insight. It was a statement in a way because I was trying to make the anti-fashion, fashion film. Not anti-fashion in the sense that I dislike fashion, but I dislike the celebrity, image-driven culture of fashion. I wouldn’t say I dislike the Instagram culture of fashion, but I just don’t pay any attention to it. To me, Galliano’s story belongs to that culture as far as I can tell. If I had been Galliano’s friend and had access to his human experience, I would’ve made that film. But I didn’t. I was in front of seamstresses and Raf Simons.
As the film reveals, there are deep parallels between Raf and Christian Dior. There’s a moment where Raf has to stop reading Dior’s memoir because the eerie similarities between them becomes “too weird.” Are these found moments?
Raf had talked to me about it in private when I wasn’t shooting. I knew it was the key to understanding what he was going through. The last thing you can ask is for Raf to reenact something. He’s not an actor. You can only patiently hope that it’s going to come out at some point, in some way. That moment came magically when Raf visited Christian Dior’s home. That was certainly an amazing and appropriate setting for it. Raf was whispering to one of his best friends, Olivier Rizzo, and when the words came out, I knew it was an important moment.
Do you maybe consider this film an unofficial sequel to Valentino: The Last Emperor? Dior and I follows a designer’s rebirth whereas the latter concerns a designer’s final collection.
That’s definitely part of the story, but the two films deal with such different subjects. It’s a different fashion house, first of all. My role on the films were so different, also. I’m the only director on this one. Dior and I takes place in my home country, in my native language, so this was my homecoming. I left France 13 years ago. There were so many firsts, so it was more about that.
What prompted the move 13 years ago? Was that for school?
Yeah, it was for film school here in New York. I felt like I needed to leave France in order to find myself. The film industry was very intimidating to me. I grew up in a provincial city with no connections whatsoever in film. My parents are civil engineers, scientific people. I went to engineering school. I knew I loved movies, but it seemed completely inaccessible. It was better not to even dream about it. When I got to Paris in my early 20s, I started to think that it’s now or never. I really wanted to give it a shot and I got into a school in New York. I started from scratch again.
That was Columbia.
What was your thesis film about?
It was about an Italian designer who’s about to retire. [Laughs]
Wait, Valentino was your thesis film?
Well, I couldn’t make a thesis film because I was already working on Matt Tyrnauer’s film. I was also going through creative block, not really able to write a screenplay. It felt really intimidating to create a whole world. At the same time, I was having a great time working on a documentary. It was liberating and I was expressing myself in very different ways. So I told my advisers about Valentino, way before it was released, and they let me graduate with an early 30-minute cut of the film. We weren’t even finished shooting it, but they let me pass.
Are you definitely going narrative with your next feature?
Yeah, but it’s too early. I haven’t finishing writing it. Who knows? I might change my mind.