Raf Simons observes an original dress from the Christian Dior archives in ‘Dior and I.’
In the last few years a slew of fashion documentaries have pulled back the curtain and revealed the inner workings of this typically closed off industry, and director Frédéric Tcheng has been involved with two of them: Valentino, The Last Emperor, as co-editor and co-producer, and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, as editor and co-director. Both these documentaries have become favorites of the fashion-obsessed, but that doesn’t mean their subject matter is exclusive to those “in the know.” Tcheng’s films focus on the universal humanity of his subjects, with a certain kind of humor and tenderness. You can see it in his latest film, Dior and I, out tomorrow, which documents the first eight weeks of new designer Raf Simons after he was appointed as Dior’s creative director, following John Galliano’s ousting, and culminates in the house’s haute couture show. The camera follows Simons, his assistant, and most importantly, the people that work in the atelier. But it’s not just about the rarefied world of high fashion. It’s also about that very ordinary feeling: the stress of starting a new job. We sat down with Tcheng to discuss the process, why the film almost didn’t happen, and how his shoes helped break the ice with the typically shy Simons.
YAHOO STYLE: This documentary captures such a specific moment in fashion history, how did it come about?
FREDERIC TCHENG: I met Olivier Bialobos the head of communications at Dior at a screening of Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, the previous documentary I worked on. He approached me at the end, and we exchanged contacts. I was really interested in the story that was going to unfold at Dior, with the arrival of a new designer, and I guess Olivier was impressed with my work. We talked all through the winter in 2012, and then Raf was announced. I was really pumped up about Raf, specifically, more than anyone else I think.
YS: Raf is notoriously camera-shy, was it difficult to get him interested in the idea of a documentary?
FT: When Raf was announced, I basically jumped on a plane to Paris. He was very reluctant to be on camera, and initially he didn’t want to be involved. I sent him a little letter explaining who I was and what I wanted to do with this film, so he invited me for a little trial period of one week, to see how it felt and get to know each other.
Everything was happening so quickly. The first time I met Raf was through the lens of the camera. He arrived at the Dior headquarters and I was there to film it, but I hadn’t met him. At the time I was very frustrated by this kind of “no warm-up” thing, because in documentaries it’s important to get the subject comfortable, get to know each other, and then you start rolling. In a sense it set the tone for the movie because I was meeting him at the same time as the seamstresses were meeting him, so it helped me identify with them and get their point of view on screen, which was very important to me.
YS: You capture such personal moments in the film, Raf getting angry, Raf crying, and it’s a little shocking because you don’t expect to see someone suddenly become so… human, in a way. Were you worried at some point that Raf was not going to want those scenes in the film?
FT: There was a time when he voiced concern about those scenes, but it was after the film had aired, so you know, that’s how thoughtful he is. After the film showed at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, he called me and started telling me how he felt throughout the whole process, and he said “I thought a lot about asking you to remove certain scenes, like where I’m upset, and then I consulted Pieter and thought about it, and realized that those moments happened, and the film was not manipulating reality in any way,” so he came to accept those scenes.
Pieter Mulier, far right, has been Raf Simon’s assistant for the last decade. Here he is in a scene from ‘Dior and I’ adjusting the length of a dress.
YS: Pieter, Raf’s assistant, sort of emerges as the star of the film in a way, he’s so charming and the seamstresses love him. Do you think he help put Raf at ease to let you stay and about the project in general?
FT: I met both of them at the same time. But, if I remember correctly, Pieter is the first one that I talked to. You know after that scene in the headquarters where Raf meets the seamstresses, once everybody had left, Pieter came up to me and asked me if my shoes were Raf Simons (laughs).
YS: Were they?
FT: They were not! (laughs) They were Doc Martens, but I guess I had chosen my shoes well that day, but it broke the ice. Raf came over after and asked me “are you the filmmaker?,” then he started quizzing me about my favorite films. We talked about Todd Haynes, Raf is a big fan of Safe, that movie with Julianne Moore, which is one of my all time favorite films as well.
YS: Tell me a little bit about the filming process, were you always shooting? Did you have a camera at the atelier at all times and another at the studio?
FT: I was constantly filming, which drove my team a little crazy because I was relentless. I really wanted to capture as much as possible because I was under a lot of pressure. I only had 8 weeks to gather material to make a feature film because that’s what I wanted to make, I’ve always made feature films, and I know it takes a lot of filming to get to a good story.
Director Frédéric Tcheng.
YS: What was a typical day like?
FT: We would try to be in the atelier in the morning and spend time with the seamstresses. The first few days we would just go from one table to the next and introduce ourselves and start conversations with all of them. It was important for me to learn everybody’s name and to be able to break the ice as quickly as possible so that we could get to something less superficial. In the late morning we would go down to the studio and figure out what the plan was for the day. We would talk to Pieter, who would tell us the schedule for the day. We would basically set our clocks according to what Raf was doing and that’s how we functioned.
YS: How did the idea of mixing Christian Dior’s autobiography with what was happening in the present come about?
FT: That was something I wanted to do, you know, and I didn’t know if it was going to work. But I had so fallen in love with Christian Dior’s autobiography, just the way he described the process of a collection, and his emotion through the collection, it was very powerful for me. I had experienced couture working on the Valentino documentary, but Dior was giving us such a candid account on what it was like on a day-to-day basis, I thought it would be a great way for to be walked through the collection.
I was also working on a personal project at the time about my family history. I’m partly Chinese – my grandfather moved from china in the ‘30s to France – and I had done a lot of research about my family history. I was interested in seeing how the past echoed in the present. I never made that film, but I guess I brought those themes with me to make Dior and I.
Raf Simon’s first couture presentation for Christian Dior.
YS: You’ve worked in three fashion documentaries now, what attracts you to fashion?
FT: I don’t know! Maybe it’s the other way around, why is fashion attracted to me? (Laughs) It wasn’t planned. I stumbled upon amazing stories, and great characters, and at some point you just can’t refuse. You fall in love with Diana Vreeland and then you want to make that film. You fall in love with Raf arriving at Dior and you don’t see any other option but to make the movie.
In this exclusive clip from ‘Dior and I,’ Raf Simons brings his fabric ideas to the atelier.
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