‘Dior and I’

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC ken­neth.tu­ran@la­times.com

A doc on new artis­tic direc­tor prep­ping first col­lec­tion.

They don’t call it haute cou­ture for noth­ing.

As the in­volv­ing new doc­u­men­tary “Dior and I” demon­strates, the “high” in high fash­ion in­di­cates the com­plete and to­tal se­ri­ous­ness, the al­most re­li­gious fer­vor, with which the cre­ators of se­ri­ous fash­ion go about their work.

If the un­godly star-driven me­dia frenzy that sur­rounds the spring col­lec­tions of the great Paris houses like Chris­tian Dior is the public face of designer fash­ion, “Dior and I” shows us that what goes on be­hind the scenes is more in­trigu­ing.

“Dior and I” is writ­ten and di­rected by Fred­eric Tcheng, who worked as an edi­tor and cine­matog­ra­pher on “Valentino: The Last Em­peror.” The suc­cess of that doc­u­men­tary (it was short­listed for an Os­car) likely paved the way for the con­sid­er­able ac­cess Tcheng had to Dior’s process.

That ac­cess came at a piv­otal mo­ment for the fash­ion house. The time was spring 2012, and Raf Simons, a Bel­gian designer who came from the min­i­mal­ist menswear firm Jil San­der with lit­tle haute cou­ture ex­pe­ri­ence, had just been in­stalled as the new artis­tic direc­tor at Dior.

In ad­di­tion to be­ing new, Simons had just eight weeks to pull to­gether his first fall col­lec­tion, a process that usu­ally takes five or six months. Hav­ing that kind of in­flex­i­ble dead­line has be­come familiar for doc­u­men­taries (the re­cent “Ballet 422” de­tailed a sim­i­lar process in dance), and it cer­tainly is help­ful in terms of dra­matic fo­cus.

As ex­pected, we spend time with the shy but emo­tional Simons and his in­dis­pens­able right­hand per­son Pi­eter Mulier. Simons is the rare cre­ative direc­tor who doesn’t do his own sketch­ing but, in­stead, re­sponds strongly to vis­ual stim­u­la­tion. In one case, Simons says he not only wants a fab­ric based on the work of artist Ster­ling Ruby, but also wants it done in a la­bor-in­ten­sive way in which the print­ing is done on the in­di­vid­ual threads, not the fab­ric.

“Dior and I” is at its most in­ter­est­ing, how­ever, not when it is deal­ing with the top but when it fo­cuses on the worker bees who make up the ate­liers, the work­shops where the clothes are metic­u­lously hand sewn, a process that takes hun­dreds and hun­dreds of hours.

With their white smocks em­broi­dered with the Dior name, the em­ploy­ees look as if they toil in a top-se­cret lab or a hos­pi­tal ward. The two women in charge of the ate­liers, Monique Bailly and Florence Che­het, known as pre­mieres, are the most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters in the film.

Some of the seam­stresses have toiled at the house for decades, and it is a trib­ute to the work­room’s fam­ily feel­ing that each per­son gets to pick the dress she or he will be work­ing on.

This kind of con­ti­nu­ity with the past is em­pha­sized by direc­tor Tcheng’s de­ci­sion to have an ac­tor read ex­cerpts from a mem­oir writ­ten by Chris­tian Dior over news­reel footage of the found­ing designer.

Since “Dior and I” was made with the house’s co­op­er­a­tion, the film is not ex­actly a slash­ing piece of in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism, but it does give us glimpses of the re­al­ity of this kind of busi­ness. For in­stance, we wit­ness a clash in­volv­ing one of the pre­mieres; Simons in­sists he needs her, but she is out of the coun­try do­ing a per­sonal fit­ting for one of the wealthy clients who spend hun­dreds of thou­sands a year on dresses.

Money also be­comes an is­sue when Simons de­cides he wants to rent a Paris man­sion for his show and cover all the walls with fresh flow­ers. The ex­pense is so large that Bernard Ar­nault, head of the com­pany that owns Dior, has to per­son­ally ap­prove it, caus­ing Vogue Edi­tor Anna Win­tour to nee­dle Simons: “I see you didn’t have any bud­get is­sues,” she says when she sees it.

The mo­ments when the dresses are fin­ished and be­ing worn by mod­els turn out to be a bit­ter­sweet ex­pe­ri­ence for the peo­ple in the ate­liers, whose work is no longer needed.

“The adventure is over,” one of them says with res­ig­na­tion, but an­other woman, peek­ing through the cur­tain, mur­murs, “Cou­ture is beau­ti­ful.” A true be­liever to the end.


THE WORKER BEES are per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing part of “Dior and I.”

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