Luxury fashion brands are notoriously insular and protective of their images. Yet 37-year-old filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng was able to convince the house of Christian Dior to participate in his revealing documentary, "Dior and I," which opens Friday in L.A.
Tcheng trails designer Raf Simons in summer 2012 as he creates his first haute couture collection as creative director for the storied house, built on the legacy of Dior, a master of invention who held so much sway in the fashion world that he landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1957.
Simons, a Belgian, started in furniture design, then launched his own menswear label in 1995. In April 2012, after being appointed creative director at Dior, he had just two months to complete his first haute couture collection.
Like Simons, Tcheng considers himself a fashion outsider, even though he also worked on "Valentino: The Last Emperor" and "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel," and it's that perspective that he wanted to bring to haute couture.
Tcheng humanizes the world of $30,000, made-to-order dresses by showing that the artistry is as much about the seamstresses in the workrooms as it is the design direction from on high. He connects all the creative dots from past and present that go into Simons' first runway presentation, from the flowers in the garden at Dior's historic villa in Granville to the room of a million blooms that was the runway show set; from the splatter-painted Sterling Ruby work on view at Paris' Pompadou Center to the fabric it inspired. But viewers also see that a fashion collection is about hours painstakingly spent sewing beads and cutting patterns by hand.
"We didn't want the film to be about the celebrity aspect of fashion that you see in the news," says Tcheng, who lives in New York. "We wanted it to be about the people behind the camera, who actually make what's worn."
Here, Tcheng shares the story behind how the film was made.
How did the idea for this film evolve?
We presented the Diana Vreeland film at a private screening in Paris where I met Olivier Bialobos, the head of PR for Dior worldwide. He really liked the film, and we started talking about opening the doors of Dior to document the arrival of the new designer.
How did you convince Simons to participate?
He said no initially. I wrote him a letter because I didn't know him, and explained very simply who I was and what I wanted to do. Then, he said, "Why don't you come for a week for a trial period?" I flew to Paris, met him in person … and I got a few ideas across that changed his mind. He sensed I wasn't interested in propping him up as a star. I was more interested in the ensemble cast of the team at Dior. He's very much about dialogue and collaboration, and I think that's something he responded to.
Was there anything off limits? Were you made to show your footage?
They never asked. They knew what I was filming. I was in the building at Dior, so it wasn't like I wasn't under their eyes. They left me alone during the editing phase. … Then I showed them the film, and it was a big relief. Everyone was really moved; some even cried. The seamstresses, in particular, were very proud.
The seamstresses play as much of a role in the film as Simons. These women and men fascinated me. I wanted to know more — where they live, who they love.
I really lucked out when I met Florence and Monique, who are in charge of the different ateliers. They have such different personalities. One is anxious, and the other upbeat. So they had different relationships with the camera. Florence lives two hours outside of Paris, so her commute is two hours each way. It's really humbling.
Do they wear Dior?
Maybe a piece here and there that they can afford at a sample sale, but by and large, no.
How did you come up with the structure of the film, which has Christian Dior in an imaginary dialogue with Simons?
I read Dior's autobiography ["Dior on Dior"] when I was preparing. It was pretty much the only research I did. I was struck by the candor of his voice. He's very humble and honest and talks about very personal emotions he feels during the collections. It became obvious to use it when I learned that Raf was also reading the autobiography and having an internal dialogue that was so similar that he became uncomfortable and couldn't finish reading it. I knew it cut close to the bone.
There were a lot of similarities between Dior's discomfort with his public persona and Raf's.
Yes, but the real story is how Raf establishes his own voice in the shadow of Dior. So it quickly became a "Rebecca" story of trying to find your place in a house that's haunted.
There's an amazing scene where you capture Raf in the moments before the runway show begins, basically having a breakdown.
That moment was really intense emotionally. I didn't want to exploit his vulnerability, so after three seconds or so, I got up and went as far as I could away from him on the rooftop, to give Raf his moment. It's a matter of human respect.
Simons has been at Dior nearly three years now since you completed the film and has had quite a lot of critical and commercial success. Do you think he's growing into his public persona?
Yes. I had a feeling this was going to be a transformative experience for him, and on a smaller scale, it was for me, too. I'm not in charge of 200 seamstresses, but I'm in charge of my small crew for the first time, and I have to speak to journalists for the first time and step in the spotlight and step up my game. This allowed me to tell my story also.