The enigmatic world of Parisian haute couture has long been a topic of fascination for fashion lovers. The ateliers that create the majestic hand-sewn and embroidered gowns—that often take hundreds of hours to make (with price points escalating into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to match!)—have been all but elusive. The world never knew the names and faces behind the craftspeople—until now.
In 2012, Christian Dior opened its iconic doors to filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng to document the making of the maison’s first couture collection by then new creative director, Raf Simons. Dior and I, which opens on April 10, follows the hotly anticipated eight-week creation of the fall 2012 collection by the Belgian designer—and it doesn’t disappoint. Tcheng, the filmmaker who worked on pivotal fashion films such as theThe Eye Has to Travel andValentino: The Last Emperor, goes into the workrooms of the ateliers and portrays the designer’s creative process and the work processes of the seamstresses and tailors who create the collection. New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman has hailed the film as “the best fashion documentary since R. J. Cutler’s The September Issue and an entirely convincing argument why brands should face their fears and choose transparency.”
I had a fascinating conversation with Tcheng this afternoon. See what he has to say about the film and the couture workforce that has been uncovered in Dior and I:
AMSFTV: You’ve tackled huge fashion icons in prior films The Eye Has to Travel (2011) and Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008). Why did you decide to create Dior and I?
Frédéric Tcheng: My history with fashion started with Valentino and documentary films. He asked me to join the crew. It was training; I was thrown into this world of Valentino. It was a long adventure, shot over two years and edited for a year and a half. That was the basis for everything I knew. Through that film I met some people at Dior, mainly Olivier Bialobos [who heads up global public relations for the brand]. He was interested to opening the door to a film crew for the first time.
AMSFTV: You shot the film in eight weeks. That must have been a great pressure for you.
FT: Creating the film was such a big adventure in itself. It was very intense for me. I started as a PA [production assistant] and two years later, I’m holding the camera sometimes, sometimes editing, sometimes doing sound.
AMSFTV: Did you have a big crew?
FT: Very few, as few as you can possibly be. I kept it to just two people. It was just me and the camera and a soundman.
AMSFTV: What ideas did you have going into Dior?
FT: Being French, Dior was such a legendary house [to me]. There’s no one in France that doesn’t know Dior. It’s really something that’s part of the French legacy in a way. Raf Simons on the other hand, I knew very little about. There was very little known about him. I knew his clothes. The very few interviews that I read about him were incredibly fascinating to me. The thoughtfulness of his process the uniqueness of his influences were fascinating. He did several collections inspired by art and by music. The private-ness [sic], the idea that he wants to preserve himself from the eye of the camera is a part of the film.
AMSFTV: The film goes deeply into Simons’ creative process, but we really get no feel for his personal life. Was that done on purpose?
FT: It was part of both Raf’s vision and my vision. It’s a relationship you have with your subject. It’s always grounded in the workplace. It’s a portrait of movement. I never tried to understand what his love life was or who he was seeing on the weekend when he went back to Antwerp. I never knew if he had a lover. The relationships I wanted to show were with the seamstresses. It was very intense time for him, and the last thing he wanted was a camera in front of him.
AMSFTV: So many fashion designers have very public images, so why not Raf?
FT: The idea that he is special or that he’s a star is something he doesn’t want to engage with. That’s not how he sees the world.
AMSFTV: The premiéres (chief seamstresses of the atelier) Florence Chehet and Monique Bailly, who have been there for four decades each, stole the show. They’re pretty funny at times.
FT: I learned from them, discovering the real work behind couture. I identified them very strongly. Having worked on other documentaries…not as the director, I know what it’s like to work in the shadows and to care about something that you’re making and you’re not going to be the one talking at the end, or the one walking the runway. That’s my personal take on it. They’re working-class people. They’re so humble. It was very beautiful to see the dedication. Florence spends two hours to come to work each way. She lives in the middle of France. We took a hotel in the middle of a field of wheat to film her.
AMSFTV: In fashion circles, Raf was known as a minimalist before his stint at Dior. But in the film, he’s adamant that he’s not a minimalist. What do you make of that?
FT: I knew exactly where he was coming from. People tend to pigeonhole you and I think it’s the nature of having a public image. Maybe that’s part of the reason Raf isn’t into public image…he doesn’t want to become a caricature of himself. People think he’s a minimalist, and I know that he’s not. Christian Dior wrote about one year before he died that his public image was his twin bother who becomes a monster in his life. That’s something very interesting. .
AMSFTV: The house of Dior has seen many head designers—Dior himself, Yves Saint Laurent, Gianfranco Ferre, and John Galliano. What did the atelier say about Raf, many having worked with the aforementioned designers?
FT: Every designer has his own temperament. They said that Raf was very precise. Every stitch was on the sketch, every pocket. It was great for them and they were able to bring it to life in a different way.
AMSFTV: I was fascinated to discover that Dior himself only designed for 10 years before his death in 1957. It’s amazing how he shaped the entire concept of fashion in this relatively short time.
FT: He made such an impact; it’s kind of remarkable. He started [his on house] in his 40s. He was a late bloomer.